When I was 15 I read a poem at school called ‘Homo Suburbiensis’ by Bruce Dawe. I remember the vivid descriptions of the sprawling pumpkin vines encroaching the man’s garden, the “hoarse rasping tendrils” dominating his space. This image, for reasons unbeknownst to my 15-year-old self, became etched into my memory; the words of the poem lingering behind me like a nagging child. My fascination with the correlation between nature and the human body has always been present, it seems – even if I was yet to have the tools to articulate what that meant.
Like any young girl whose conception of self is wrought by a system that tries to convince you that you’re a blossoming flower – decorative and fragile and acquiescent to cultivation – I viewed my body much like this garden. Just as the pumpkin vine was poised and rampant and climbing up the palings, I felt my own wilderness consume me. And despite my best efforts to tame my mane, to domesticate it through modern beauty rituals, I was forced to cede defeat. My hair domesticated me.
At 21 I cut my hair the shortest it had been since I was a small child. I remember the feeling of sauntering into the salon, relishing the familiar but soon-to-be-gone sensation of my long hair caressing my back, smiling at the person behind the counter, drinking my lemon water and feigning complete confidence in my decision to make the chop. Yes, I had thought this through, I convinced myself. But I couldn’t erase the niggling voices that circulated my mind after decades of societal expectation: Will this make me ugly?
I was living the girlish trope of getting a haircut post big breakup. Left picking up the pieces of my identity that I’d somehow lost along the way, I felt an unspeakable desire to enact the cliché. Maybe it was to feel a sense of connectivity to something larger, or to remind myself that I wasn’t the only person to endure a blow to the heart, but the act of getting this haircut instilled in me an important realisation for those feeling weakened or dispirited: I will survive.
And so, I sat tremulous and doubtful in the chair as the hairdresser held the scissors to my collarbone with a look in her eyes, challenging me, saying, “Are you ready?”
I watched as the strands collapsed onto the white tiled floor. Like dejected tendrils, the bits of my hair curled around my feet with each chop, their insistence to continue clinging to my body suggesting their dependency was perhaps as strong as mine. I took a picture of what was left of me and marked that moment as holding particular meaning. Maybe you could call it shedding femininity or cutting ties with a dated, adolescent self. But truthfully, it became more of a self-permission. It was a small but powerful act that allowed me to traverse into new ways of thinking, not just about myself, but also in a much more outward sense.
I am reminded of a Tavi Gevinson quote: “Unfortunately I have struggled to find a version of my femininity that is not synonymous with the kind of self-consciousness that can slowly desaturate a person, perhaps because it’s been defined my men, or by my own assumptions of what men must want.”
My hair had been a feature, an asset, a visual cue that I could flash to the world and express a specific notion of the feminine ideal that I naïvely aspired to. I thought that’s what boys wanted from me.
In the famous painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo entitled Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, the artist sits in a position both defiant and defeated, scissors in one hand, the offcuts of her jet black hair scattered around her feet. This was the first painting Frida made after divorcing fellow Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, and it is laden with the symbolic idea of cutting ties.
She cuts her hair, one of the key trademarks of her image, at the same time as she severs the link between her single identity, and this nebulous idea of the shared identity that inevitably occurs in a relationship. Which really begs the question: in that comingling of identities that occurs, perhaps fatefully, in so many relationships, who is really the benefactor of such a unity?
At the top of the painting Frida scrawls, “If you loved me, it was because of my hair. But now that I am without hair, you do not love me anymore.” Frida’s hair is emblematic of all of the superficialities that can dictate someone’s appreciation for you, and suggests the way in which most individuals permit at least some level of indoctrination of self based on other’s definitions.
I look at this painting by Frida every so often and let the vibrant depictions of her vulnerabilities bolster my own. Indeed, it seems that it’s these vulnerabilities that I find not only most beautiful, but also most empowering.
Now, at 22, a little over a year after I had the initial chop, I feel as though I’ve undergone yet another transformation. The post-breakup hair blitz had shrunk my hair from Jessa-from-Girls-length tresses to a style that rested comfortably between the curvature of my collarbones and shoulder. And yet, as the months passed by, I began to feel the familiar sense of agitation. Both my hair and inner restlessness grew. I didn’t quite notice it at first. In fact, the signs are almost imperceptible to the human eye. But over time I felt it creep over new regions of my skin – unwelcome, unruly, untamed. I’d become addicted to the control, and growth in the wrong direction had now become a violation.
“I want it around my jawline,” I told my mum over mulled wine in the glow of the waning winter sunlight. She looked at the images I’d pulled up on my phone and pursed her lips slightly. “You’ll probably get a lot less attention from boys,” she said.
They say that the secret to Samson’s supernatural strength was found in his hair. His kryptonite was someone cutting his hair, and, amusingly, untrustworthy women, both of which he endured upon meeting Delilah. The link between hair and who we are has long been documented in our stories, and permeates our culture in a sneaky, almost unnoticeable way. While the Samson fable is made of fiction and myth, therein lies a certain kind of truth. In fact, the notion that we align our strength with our hair is much more than a fabrication of storytelling.
We cry after a bad hairdressing experience, buy endless and costly products to curl, straighten, remove and retain the stuff on our heads. Our hair is in many ways the vehicle through which we can express our mood, our lack of care, religion, culture, or our want to conform or reject current fashions. Back in 2007 when Britney Spears famously appeared with a freshly shaven head, a decry that quite boldly suggested she no longer wanted to be touched, she was using her hair (or lack thereof) to make a statement. She wanted to be left alone.
My white female hair has left me with my own personal associations, but the significance imbued on hair quite beautifully exists on a spectrum that crosses cultures, ages, races and time. In a great YouTube video, Amandla Stenberg succinctly runs through the history and meaning of hair for women of African descent, and suggests the added pressures women of colour must face when their natural state is pitted against society’s strictly white beauty ideals.
When I recently decided to take the plunge and cut my hair the shortest it has ever been, I admit the thoughts going through my mind weren’t necessarily a well-considered analysis of phenomenology or history and how they intersect with feminism. No, when I sat in the chair in front of the large mirrors watching the hairdresser hold the sharp scissors to my neck with the concentration of a cake decorator piping icing on a cake, I was overwhelmed by how bloody lucky I was.
To get to play with your image, to undergo transformation and remould identity is something reserved for the privileged few. It became an exercise of female control, of my specific power in a world that largely wants it stripped from me. While I thought it would make me less feminine, it actually did something much more interesting: it redefined my idea of femininity.
Now, when I run my fingers through my hair, the sensation empowers me. It reminds me that I can be brave, that we are all malleable, unfixed, and that our bodies are meant to undergo constant metamorphosis to keep up with our minds. And maybe this knowledge is just the same kind of protective blanket I obtained from the sheath-like long hair I had in my teens, or maybe it shows that I’m finally creating my own standards and rules for how to live life.