Changing your hair can signal a rebirth. It can mean you’re ready to cast something off, and it manifests physically, as well as emotionally.
We’re always undergoing these quiet little transformations that we don’t really notice, but sometimes change sneaks up on you and takes you for all you’ve got. Sometimes you come home after drinking too much espresso and cut off all your hair and you’ve gotta ask, what’s really going on?
A good friend of mine had naturally curly hair. It was red and loud and unruly and my god did she hate it. She spent years crisping her hair with straightening treatments and irons. She once strode into work with a hideous burn mark stretching from temple to earlobe – a branding she earned from a clothes iron after brainlessly deciding that she’d save time by ironing her blouse and hair simultaneously.
Always a lover of her lustrous curls, I asked her why she kept straightening her hair despite the fact that it was so time consuming and she didn’t particularly like the results. She said it was for her boyfriend at the time, who preferred sleek, straight hair. Leaving aside the parade of red flags that admission raised, I was stunned that she went along with it at all, simply because it made her so miserable. Her hair seemed to echo her mood: one of perpetual melancholy.
What remained of her hair was a far cry from the vibrant mess of curls she used to have. Her hair was dry, damaged, listless. It looked like what you’d pull out of a drain that’s been neglected for 15 years and she knew it. She’d make jokes about the rat-king perched atop her head but never did anything about it; just continued straightening it, it seems, in an attempt to iron it out of existence.
One day, after an apocalyptic fight with her boyfriend, she abruptly cut half of it off and stopped straightening it. “I’m a reactive hair-cutter, Arca,” she told me. “I was tired of trying to bring this dead thing back to life. I can’t believe it took me so long to realise.” I wasn’t sure if she was referencing her relationship or her hair, but that proves my point.
Sometimes, all the keratin treatments in the world are unable to revive what is perfectly dead. Sometimes the only thing to do is get rid of it and start over. True for hair, and true for life too.
A few days after her hair change, she broke up with her boyfriend and quit her job. These days her corybantic curls reach her jaw, sometimes they get into her face, but she’s developed a stunning way of flipping them back so casually that it gives her this permanently flirty countenance. A welcome change from the gloomy rictus she’d been wearing for years.
It’s unreasonable to maintain your hair in a certain way to please others. I suppose this is true of every aesthetic decision a woman must make about herself. However, it seems to me that women are allowed to be proud of their hair while escaping accusations of vanity. Maybe that’s why so many are afraid to change theirs – it’s an insurance policy for their social currency.
When we were children, my 10-year-old sister, famed within our extended family for her magnificent curtain of thick, black, thigh-length, shampoo-commercial-worthy hair, took a pair of scissors and used it to hunt for and skewer the heart of inertia by defiantly cutting off large chunks of her hair. She decided she would no longer be defined by it. She had the power to change the definition of her self – and that small action, when coalesced into a series of actions, assumes the shape of self-determination.
For me, it took longer.
I used to have waist-length, wavy hair. My friends loved it and my mother loved it – it was blasphemous to speak of ever cutting it; folk went into mourning whenever I got so much as a trim.
I disliked my hair and its demanding maintenance. I was bewildered at people’s attachment to it. I mean it was on my head, yet others felt they had some ownership of it. Keeping my hair a certain way meant that I made no meaningful decision about my appearance that would lead to any personal growth. I simply let it be. I mostly piled it into an eternally messy bun; an indefinitely preserved monument to stagnation.
I began to express a desire to cut all my hair off, and this appalled my friends and family. The more scandalised they were, the more emboldened I became.
I started lobbing the phrase “zero shave” at them like a grenade and would watch as they dived out of the way in a panic. They said things like, “But your hair is so nice!” and “Why would you do that to yourself?” These objections only served as extra impetus.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I couldn’t immediately cut my hair, despite being quite free to do so. I realised then that perhaps my freedom wasn’t the right kind of freedom; something greater was stopping me from doing it.
On eventually, dumbly, realising that I was effectively straitjacketed by social mores, it was startling to realise I was more of a mystery to myself than I imagined. Surely I wasn’t the sort of person to let others dictate how I presented myself to the world, I thought. This basic realisation stuck with me and was co-conspirator with a nasty break-up that led me to make a change at last. I finally shaved my head.
I unceremoniously wandered into a salon and requested they shear my head of all my prior agonies and doubts. I wanted a clean slate. I explained this carefully to the receptionist, who looked at me as if I’d sprouted another head, or was perhaps drunk. She kept asking me “Are you sure?”, as though I were electing to dunk my head into a vat of acid. Finally, she allowed me beyond the salon’s vestibule and into a chair. A narrow-shouldered man walked over and peered at me over his comically small glasses.
“A full shave then?” he asked, unsmiling. I’m sure he was trying to appear nonchalant to avoid freaking me out. He then performed something of a missile launch countdown in an attempt to talk me out of a zero shave: “How about a number four instead? What about a three … two … one?”
Eventually he agreed to a zero. He brought out a snarling razor that seemed to suck all of the other sounds of the salon into its vibrating teeth. I suddenly realised what I was about to do to myself and it made me light-headed.
It was necessary to do it. To so drastically alter my appearance gave me the fresh start I needed. It felt like putting down bags I didn’t even notice I was carrying. As I watched my estranged hair get swept up and tossed into the bin, I felt catharsis.
I’m a big believer that changing your hair is changing your reality. A quote attributed to Coco Chanel expresses the same sentiment: “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”
Maybe you broke up with someone, maybe you lost a job. Maybe you’re moving to a new city. Maybe you’re a bird of passage and you want to go home but nowhere feels like it.
Or maybe it’s just about shaking it all up. Maybe your life has hit a wall you can’t climb over and you’re wondering how many times you can do the same thing, travel the same way, before you realise you’re not actually going anywhere and nothing ever changes. Waiting for some intervention. Someone to hand you a map. A better way around the things that threaten to bury you. Around the doubt you feel. Around the irresolution. Depending on the day, the view, the way the wind is blowing through your fucking hair.
Changing our hair is the closest thing we’ve got to renewing ourselves.
While we can never completely shed our skins, emerging pink and raw and new into the world, we can modify our bodies in ways that tell new stories about ourselves, in ways that allow us to feel the newness we need.
This article is taken from the 'Born Again' issue. Available to purchase here.