In elementary school, a pretty gnarly bout of lice spread through the area and I, with my dense, naturally curly hair, was one of the “lucky” ones who caught it. I don’t actually remember much about the incident except my mom panicked and cut my hair so short, I’d forever be scarred by the pictures that followed. I’m pretty sure I’ve burned every bit of proof in my stash, but there may still be a few somewhere in the world (I will find and destroy them).
Even at such a young age, I became immediately insecure, afraid of what the other kids at school would say about me. There are people who have lost their hair for far worse reasons, I told myself. But let’s face it, kids can be mean sometimes and my hair resembled a dishcloth run through a garbage disposal. It was bad. Luckily for me, this was before the pee-my-pants incident in first grade so my slate was still fairly clean. But it wasn’t just about what others said about my hair — it was the way I felt about myself. I swore then that I would grow my hair to my feet so I could feel pretty again.
In the beginning, I’d scour ads in the back of magazines for quick fixes, and beg for things like horse shampoo that promised great lengths in a short amount of time. Once my hair started sprouting in weird directions, I made my case for hair extensions during summer break so I could get past the awkward length phase with a little of my soul intact. None of those things worked, and as my hair grew, it came in thicker and more rambunctious than ever. All hair and little else, I started to intertwine my identity with my hair. It was never as smooth or as long as the hair of my friends. It never looked like any of the actresses I liked. Never straight enough for me to run my fingers through. It was just never enough of anything and way too much, all at the same time. I started to wonder who I was, losing both confidence and self-esteem — all because of my hair.
Through the years, I experimented with things like color and perms (WHY?!), even having one hairdresser put me down for not having shinier, more manageable hair. I bought and tried every product under the sun, and even attempted a relaxer on my frizzy, Puerto Rican curls (FYI, this was a huge mistake that should only be handled by a pro). My cousin, a hairdresser at the time, tried a chemical straightener on me multiple times (I stopped counting) because it wouldn’t take. My hair was in charge of my life and how I felt about myself.
After high school, when I had had enough of all the bad cuts and color experiments, I started growing my hair out because it seemed to weigh down the curls. This saved me a ton of time trying to straighten it out, and I started to kind of like my hair. It made me unique. I had finally gotten to a good place with my mane, or so I thought. Then, after a freak coloring accident, all that length I’d worked so hard to achieve, burnt off. I was left with a choice: leave it and trim up the fried parts, or cut it all of. So, with flashbacks of elementary school going through my mind, I took a leap of faith and cut it. This was no small feat, as hair had really become my standard for how much self love I could obtain.
It took some time to adjust to a shorter look again but as time passed and the hair began to grow, I found myself doing something I hadn’t ever thought I’d do: I kept cutting it, going shorter and shorter each time. To my surprise, I didn’t hate it. In fact, I kind of liked it. Maybe it was because I was finally in control, or maybe it’s because this lifelong battle with my hair had come to a truce.
Having shorter hair has made me feel more alive — more free. I could finally spend less time on something so trivial in the grand scheme and still feel okay about myself. Much like the way a jean size or number on a scale might sway self-esteem, my hair had decided how I felt for so long, I’d forgotten how to feel for myself. All those times I cancelled plans because it was too humid and my hair would go crazy, or when I felt like a monster for wanting it to do things it simply refused, it’s all wasted time and energy I can never get back.
The last four times I’ve gone to the salon, I’ve asked to go shorter. There’s a definitive power in saying those words. My hair does not define me and looking back, it really never has. But in taking control back, I’m able to re-focus and work on how I feel about myself from the inside out — not the other way around. And that’s the thing. For so long I thought the way I looked on the outside determined how I’d feel on the inside. To a degree, I suppose that’s right. But if I can learn to truly accept myself and who I am, the last thing that matters is what kind of hair day I’m having.
Now, I am confident. I am free from my own hair judgments. And most of all, I am worthy of feeling good about myself.
With or without long hair.