I was seven years old. I can’t remember whose birthday party it was, but we were celebrating at The Rink – the coolest place to have your birthday party in the mid-eighties in suburban New Jersey. The music was loud, the lights were low and the roller skaters were in perpetual motion around the enormous parquet oval.
Lady in Red was a huge hit back then, and it was guaranteed to come on at least once during any visit to The Rink. The couples would take over the oval and hold hands while they skated. Even at seven, I could feel the pull of that kind of song. What must it be like to have someone look at you that way? To “never forget the way you look tonight?” It sounded magical, and I longed for it.
But at seven years old, it was just pizza and soda for me. A little too much soda (a rare treat), so I headed off to the bathroom. There was a group of girls about my age inside, and they looked at me askance when I walked in. I ignored them, as I did most groups of girls, even my own classmates. I did what I had to do and came out to wash my hands.
At this point, the group of girls had been joined by a mom. She stood in front of the girls and said to me pointedly: “Little boy, you don’t belong in here. This is the girls’ bathroom.”
I felt like someone had yanked my heart out of my chest from behind me. I had a super-short hair cut, an affinity for comfortable clothing (especially when roller skating) and a dislike of neon pink and ruffles. I don’t know how I found my voice, but I somehow managed to squeak out: “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl,” before I fled the bathroom.
That night I went home and immediately asked my mother if I could get my ears pierced. She reminded me that in our family pierced ears were a rite of passage that happens at thirteen years old, and I had to wait. I cried myself to sleep.
For the next several years, I grew and grew my hair. It was so long and thick that one perm I got (I said it was the ’80s, give me a break) took 180 rollers. My long hair became so important to me. It marked me to the outside world for who I was inside: a girl.
It wasn’t until after my freshman year in college that I decided to look for that poor little seven year old who didn’t belong in the girls’ bathroom. I had covered her up with lots of long hair and forgotten about her, but she was still there. I took a good hard look inside and I talked to her.
I told her that we didn’t need long hair to be who we were. True, we had other things now to “symbolize” our personal gender identity, and not just the earrings, but we didn’t need any of it. Our femininity was glowing inside of us, unmistakable, and we didn’t need to use trappings to get our point across. She looked back at me from under all that hair and told me to prove it.
The first cut wasn’t so bad. Mostly, it just looked like I had bangs, but then the stylist made another cut and my inch-long hair stood straight up off my head. Suddenly, it seemed like my little brother was staring back at me in the mirror instead of myself. All my long hair lay in a huge pile around me on the floor and I had nowhere to hide.
I’ll admit it, I was scared. It’s all well and good for Sinead O’Conner, she’s beautiful, but I definitely couldn’t pull off this look. What the hell had I just done?
So the test began, and it was a big deal. People I had known all my life didn’t recognize me at first. People I had never met before made assumptions about me because of my short hair. In some ways, I was back to being that seven-year-old girl in the bathroom. But this time, I didn’t care if someone told me I don’t belong. I was past letting other people make that decision for me.
Now here I am, years later with long hair once again. I have a different reason to go under the buzzer this time. A good friend has been diagnosed with lymphoma. She just finished her first round of chemotherapy and the side effects are already kicking in. On top of her pain and suffering, she will lose all her hair.
I can’t take away any of her burden. I can’t ease any of her pain. I can go with her on this small part of her journey and hold her hand so that we both remember that the trappings are not important. Our femininity is glowing inside of us, unmistakable. And I am willing to prove it.
(Image via WB)