For years, I needed my mom’s help to twist my long, thick hair, which fell nearly halfway down my back, into a braid or even a ponytail. I hated that morning ritual because it made me feel helpless. I hated the long hours it took to wash and dry my hair.
I wanted to feel free and independent—I wanted a haircut.
But I couldn’t make myself do it. A haircut was a big decision. My hair was more than just a bunch of dead cells. It was a symbol of control.
I held back for about a year because I was afraid of what my parents would say. The last time I had it cut was when I was 10 and first came to America. For my parents and relatives, long hair is considered an essential part of being a woman. Especially for “good Indian girls.” Most of my female relatives have long hair and change is not welcome. Recently, when an aunt got a bob (hair cut up to the neck), my mom said, “She doesn’t look good at all.”
Most of my friends didn’t want me to go short, either. I’m not sure why. Maybe they were like me, afraid of change. Somewhere inside, I believed that really beautiful women have long hair. I remembered someone saying that college guys liked women with long hair. (And college is the place where you meet your husband.)
But my friend Hee Won assured me that it didn’t matter what people would say. She and I used to gawk at women with short hair everywhere, trying to decide what style would look best on me. Finally, last May, I decided to do it.
Getting the Cut
I chose the last day of my exams, which was the next month, because I didn’t want too many friends seeing me with short hair before I had a chance to live with it. Hee Won agreed to go with me because I would probably have chickened out if she didn’t.
We walked around my Richmond Hill neighborhood, trying to find a good but cheap salon. I almost hoped we wouldn’t succeed. My stomach was queasy. (Do 16-year-olds get ulcers?) But we did, and it said $10 for cut, any length.
When we went inside, Hee Won and I looked through a magazine for a style. I found a model with a really cropped cut and pointed her out to the hair-cutter.
I sat down in a chair and looked around, fidgeting. Hee Won sat down on a couch. I told her to come sit on the chair next to me. The stylist put a white sheet around me. I took a deep breath, trying to relax. He released my hair from the ponytail I had stuffed it into. He sprayed water on it. I babbled nervously to Hee Won. Then he started cutting.
The worst part was the crunchy sound when he first chopped off about six inches of my hair. I thought that maybe I should tell him not to go any further.
I could see my hair all around me on the floor. (At any moment, my lunch might have joined it.) I guess my nervousness showed because the haircutter smiled and said, “You won’t be needing that anymore.” Easy for him to say. He and Hee Won were casually singing along to Gloria Estefan on the radio, while I was scared to death.
For the next part, he told me to take my glasses off. I’m half-blind so I couldn’t even see my reflection clearly in the mirror, let alone what he was doing. But I took my glasses off anyway. By now, I had decided I should go all the way. Besides, how short could it be?
The next time I put my glasses back on, it was already over. Too late to change my mind.
“Oh, sh-t,” I thought, looking into the mirror.
I didn’t know it would be this short. It was so short that some of my hair was sticking up. The stylist told me that was because my hair had to get used to being that short. Forget the hair, what about my parents? Panic time. Hee Won told me it looked great. I nodded distractedly and paid up my $10. The whole affair had taken about 20 minutes.
I walked outside and immediately felt that everyone was staring at me. It’s because you look great, I told myself. Yeah, right. It looked horrible, I wasn’t meant to have short hair, it would never grow back, my parents would kill me…
“I’m going to the Village,” Hee Won said.
I stopped second-guessing myself and decided to go along with her. But first we stopped at a store to buy a Knicks hat. It was partly to cover my new haircut (my paranoia hadn’t gone away yet), and partly because I had always wanted one, but hats and my long hair wouldn’t cooperate. Now, the hat fit perfectly.
Cutting my hair was my way of rebelling against my parents. What I didn’t realize was that it was only half the struggle. Now I had to go home and face them.
My Parents React
My dad was on the phone as I came into the living room. “What happened?” he said.
“I got a haircut,” I said lightly, trying not to sound nervous. He was silent so I went to my room. I listened to the radio and paced. I stared at myself in the mirror, trying to get used to the new me.
When my mom walked in, I was reading a book. She stared for a moment. “I don’t like it one bit,” she said. “It screws up your whole face.” I didn’t know what to say, so I pretended to ignore her. I wasn’t hoping for an “It looks great. I’m glad you did it,” but I wasn’t expecting anything that cruel. I told my friends that since she didn’t like it, I probably looked great. I was lying about how I felt, of course.
I consoled myself, thinking that at least my dad didn’t say anything. Then I overheard him talking about my “awful haircut.” Later that night, my mom told me that he yelled at her for “letting” me cut my hair.
Facing Friends and Family
My friends’ reactions were more diverse, ranging from “I couldn’t recognize you from the back!” to “You should be in Vogue modeling that haircut.” A close friend, who is Indian and had hair almost down to her waist, wasn’t too thrilled, but she said she was ” getting used to it.”
Another friend said, “You look butch.” Huh? “You know,” she explained, “in a lesbian relationship, it’s the partner who plays the male role.” Oh? I didn’t know cutting your hair meant changing your sexual preference.
Five days after my haircut, I went to New Orleans to visit my relatives. Given my parents’ reaction, I was very nervous about what they would say.
My aunt freaked. “I can’t believe you cut your hair,” she said, turning to my uncle. “She had such pretty hair.” I still did. “I can’t believe you cut your hair. You had such pretty hair…” Okay, I got your point already.
This was how my uncle introduced me to a guest at his house: “This is my nephew… uh…I mean,niece,” he said. Ha-ha.
It got better. “She had long hair before,” he explained. “I guess she hates to be beautiful.” What the hell was that supposed to mean? That I was ugly now?
I became convinced that the haircut was a huge mistake. I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter what my relatives thought. But I was really hurt by their insensitive comments.
We drove up to Atlanta to visit more family. The first thing Uncle Number Two said was, “You’ve changed.” Fair enough. Then Uncle Number One (of New Orleans) said, “She fell asleep at the hair salon and this is what happened.” That’s not what happened, I protested, but they were too busy laughing.
Back in New York, I told anyone who would listen what my relatives had said. My friends consoled me by saying that they were just jerks.
It took me about two weeks to get used to the cut and a month to realize that short hair was right for me. As a kid, I had short hair because it was my mom’s idea, and I let it grow out because she wanted me to. This time, I’ll keep it short because I like the way I look.
Needing my mom’s help to style my hair made me feel young and vulnerable. But now I can style it myself (if you can call running a comb through it a couple of times “styling”). It is fun to run my hands through my hair and not worry about getting it tangled. It feels great to wash and dry my hair in less than 15 minutes.
I’m also the kind of person who feels more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than in dresses, so my new no-fuss hairstyle fits my lifestyle.
Since I’ve gotten my hair cut, I’ve learned a few things about beauty, too. I know that being beautiful has nothing to do with the length of my hair and that a short cut has nothing to do with being gay or straight.
Friends tell me I look older with short hair. Better yet, I feel older and more secure about myself. In spite of my parents’ reservations and my relatives’ stereotypes, I’m glad I cut my hair.
This article first appeared in the September/October 1994 issue of New Youth Connections.
- Race & Ethnicity