Jaso Bolay
March 22, 2015 8:12 am

The first time I ever had my hair cut short was in the beginning of fifth grade. I had been living in America for two years by then. After living through two of Liberia, my home country’s, civil wars as a child, by the age of 8, my hair’s health (amongst other things) had vanished. Instead of being thick, curly and dark brown like it was supposed to be, my hair, due to malnourishment, had taken on a red hue. It had simply stopped growing. As a child growing up in a country that knew nothing but war, my nation’s people had—by all means—sunk their actions into ideals.

I remember many evenings spent sitting on the front step of my grandfather’s porch as my step-grandmother relaxed my hair. For those of you who are unaware, a relaxer is what’s used to straighten a woman of color’s hair. It is very much similar to a perm as far as the process goes—the only difference being that a perm is used to curl hair and a relaxer is meant to straighten out curls.

Fast-forward several years to my arrival in America and my mother who, after trying every single hair remedy, could not get my hair’s texture to surpass being a stringy mess. It was so abused that nothing she did would remedy it.

After two years, my mother sat me down in the bathroom and explained to me what she was about to do. Shaving my hair low and starting all over again was the only chance my hair had at growing healthily. Naturally, as a 10-year-old girl all I could think was, “I’m going to look like a boy.”

The notion in and of itself terrified me to no end. Living in a predominantly Caucasian town and going to an elementary school that had about four black students, I was terrified of sticking out. I felt as though my parents were simply adding to the stacks that were already against me.

One, I was now categorized as “black,” an entirely new concept to me seeing as I had been raised in a country that only had one “race”. Everyone looked like me. And most everyone sounded like me. Two, on top of being “black,” I was African. I had a very thick accent. Although I spoke English, I didn’t speak it like everyone else. Liberia’s variation of English is broken. To an American, a Liberia’s English sentences are incomplete and incoherent and having a soft and low voice didn’t help. My first few months, or rather year, was spent in between the pages of a book. I felt like it was the only world that didn’t judge me for being different. On my first day of school, I’ll never forget asking the girl next to me how to spell the word, “catch”. Try as I might to say it the “American” way, she could not understand me. I remember going home later that day and crying simply because I felt like couldn’t communicate with anyone no matter how hard I tried.

And now, to top it off, my hair was gone. As an insecure child who disliked myself intensely, this change of appearance pushed me into a deeper pit. As my dad shaved off my hair, I sobbed. I couldn’t believe that they had taken my hair away from me. From my adolescent standpoint, my hair had everything to do with my femininity.

My first day back to school, I hid a hat in my backpack and tried to get away with wearing it during class. When my fifth grade teacher told me what I already knew, that that was not allowed, I began to cry.

Fast forward eight years later: I went to my little brother’s barber, sat in his chair with a slew of men staring at me, slipped off my turquoise beanie and told him to buzz me.

He questioned me twice, wanting to make sure that it was what I had wanted, and once I assured him it was, he shaved my hair off. I left the chair with every single guy’s eyes on me filled with shock and disbelief. I felt liberated.

As a young woman who was just about to start her college career, I felt like it was necessary. I had spent such a long time being afraid of what everyone thought of me in middle school, high school and everywhere in between that I didn’t know how to be completely naked with myself. I felt like it was time for me to begin anew.

I realized at 18 that the only way to overcome the trance that I had set myself into was to take drastic measures and for whatever reason, the most freeing thing that I could think of doing was to shave hair.

Life after my big cut didn’t come easily for me, immediately. There were times when looking in the mirror just wasn’t an option for me. There were nights where I’d stand in front of my bathroom mirror and stare at myself until the contours of my face would begin to blur and become misshapen. But there were also days when I could actually see myself. And nights when I didn’t focus on my external appearance as much. And slowly, I began appreciating myself.

Most recently, someone asked me why I cut my hair and why I continue to keep it short. It’s been two years since the big chop. Being the kind of person who never divulges all of my reasons to people, I quickly told him, “Because I felt like it.”

Later on that night, I continued to pelt myself with that question. There are a million and one reasons why I decided to shave my hair and why I continue to keep it short but the most important reason was this: I had hit a point in my life where I needed to be okay with seeing myself. Just me.

Society idealizes long hair, especially the hair of women. It’s not only pop culture. It’s culture in general. Society equates the a woman’s femininity with her hair and her appearance. Women with short hair aren’t valued in the same way, and for the longest time, I bought into it.

I would drive an hour to a hair shop and spend more than $100 on fake hair in the mall and then I’d drive to a salon and spend about six hours and about $200 more to get my natural hair braided into someone else’s hair simply so that my hair could look long and straight and “beautiful.” And this ritual wasn’t just mine. It’s one that the majority of African American women follow.

I felt as though my hair in its more natural state wasn’t presentable. I wasn’t okay with just seeing me, Jaso. I wanted to see everyone but me—I wanted to see the women who I idolized in magazines, on television and in ads. I wanted to be everyone else. To me, everyone else was beautiful.

And after years of pushing myself into many different sub-levels of self-destruction, I had come to this point in which all I wanted was to see my face and not have the need to try to rewrite it. I felt the main way I could do so was to strip myself of one of the main things that I grew up fighting with: my hair.

I wanted to know that if I were to grow my hair out again, I wouldn’t become so dependent or attached. I can’t say that I am 100% with my appearance. I still have those days in which I hide beneath baseball hats. I still hide from mirrors every now and then. But cutting my hair has taught me to be patient with myself.

I have this theory that for me personally, self-love will always be a distant love. I’ve always been a yo-yo. My moods, my likes and dislikes, my passions (with the exception of a few things) have never stayed on one level. I go from barely eating anything to doing nothing but eating in the matter of days.

My goal in shaving my hair was to stop forcing love on myself and to baby-step my way into self-appreciation because not everyone is going to appreciate you no matter how much they love you. Not everyone is going appreciate the fact that you often times wake up at five a.m. on the keypad of your laptop. Or that you can quote Mindy Lahiri or Lorelai Gilmore like a tape recorder. Not everyone’s going to appreciate you like you’re capable of doing.

I’ve learned from my battle with my hair that appreciating oneself is key to being happy. I decided a while ago that just because society projected this idealized image of what women should look like, it doesn’t mean that that’s what I should look like.

As a kid and late into my teens, my mother would always give me this piece of advice in regards to fashion: Just because it’s “in-style,” it doesn’t mean that it’s meant for you.

Just because every teen fiction book has a solid page in which the female protagonist twirls her long, honey-hued hair around her index finger as her blushing crush watches, it doesn’t mean that every girl who has a crush needs to have long strands of hair to twirl around her finger.

Society doesn’t dictate who I am simply because of the way I look and the length of my hair does not measure my femininity.

In the words of the songstress India.Aire, “I am not my hair. I am the soul that lives with in.” I’ve learned to appreciate myself for the natural human being that I am.

That’s why I continue to cut my hair. And the reason why I will continue to. While I’ve grown so much since shaving my hair, I have so much more growing to do.

Image by the amazing photographer Veola Parris

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