In January of 2020, I stood under the bright lights of a vaulted ceiling and stared at myself in the mirror. A tattooed hair stylist ran a brush through my long hair, starting at the scalp and dragging it carefully all the way down to the small of my back.
“Don’t worry. A haircut like this can be a fresh start. Changes are coming,” she said as her steady hands ran metal scissors through my hair. In a matter of seconds, she cut off nine inches and handed them to me. Seemingly useless and disgusting, when off of my head. Soft and silky, flopping in my hand.
“Changes are coming,” she’d told me as she snip- snip-snipped. Words that stuck with me a week later when my boyfriend broke up with me out of the blue, and again a month later when the virus began shutting everything down.
A few months into lockdown, my friend sent me a picture of a man cutting hair under a cement bridge in Brooklyn. In the photo, a woman perches on a chair and looks into a wood framed mirror hanging from a metal fence. The man pulls a comb through her brown hair, both of them wearing masks.
The photo captured the unexpected tenderness of someone touching your hair, of a stranger looking in the mirror with you as you examine yourself. It reminded me of the bright salon and the tattooed stylist. How careful she was, handling me as if I was fragile. Maybe she could sense haircuts make me nervous. I’ve lived in the same city for ten years and never gone back to the same place twice. Instead, I use Groupons and Yelp to try out new salons, looking for one I don’t walk out of and suddenly feel the urge to cry.
It’s silly, I know. As someone with blonde, easy hair who never learned how to do a French braid or use a round brush, someone who doesn’t color or style, it seems irrational haircuts would matter to me at all. But the excitement, the unease, the distress surrounding a trim or a chop returns again and again each time I go.
I used to try and hide this strange relationship to haircuts, writing my reaction to them off as too emotional. Worrying about your hair is superficial, I told myself. Hair is a frivolous thing; it doesn’t really matter. But when the pandemic hit, it became clear to me that I’m far from being the only one with a complicated, maybe even subconscious, relationship to hair.
Proof came in the form of hundreds of articles and videos teaching people how to cut their own. In the way some people grew it out for the first time just to see how long it would go. I remember hearing about the phone number for a stylist being passed around secretly, almost shamefully. She’d come to your house and do the whole shi-bang-a-bang in your backyard as COVID-safe as possible.
It turns out some people will risk anything for a haircut. They will meet under a bridge, they will text unknown numbers, they will venture out into a pandemic. It turns out that I may have a strange relationship, obsession—whatever you want to call it—with hair, but so does almost everyone else.
The first story of hair that always pops into my mind is the myth of Medusa, the Greek goddess whose once beautiful locks are replaced with venomous snakes, turning her into a monster. Her hair is the embodiment of evil. Anyone who looks at her is frozen, turned to stone. Why her hair, though? Ever since the first century B.C. there was something magical about it. A story woven into our strands: femininity turned powerful becomes dangerous.
The power of hair—and the supposed threat of it—surfaced again in a different way in the 1700’s when the black women of Louisiana wore their hair in elaborate, beautiful styles. Writer and op-ed columnist Jameelah Nasheed describes for VICE that, “By incorporating feathers and jewels into their hairstyles, [the women] showcased the full magic and glory of their gravity-defying strands, and appeared wealthier than they actually were.”
Some of the styles began attracting the attention of white men which became a “problem” to Don Esteban Miró, the Spanish Governor at the time, who enacted the Tignon Laws requiring the women to cover their hair to signal they “belonged to the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not.” The prejudice against black hair hasn’t ceased. It wasn’t until 2019 that California became the first state to sign the CROWN Act to protect against discrimination based on hair style and texture.
Over a century after the Tignon Laws were put in place, a different story of hair began to unfold in upstate New York. In the 1880’s, the Sutherland Sisters, or “the seven most pleasing wonders of the world” as they were introduced when they joined the Barnum and Bailey circus, took society by storm for something unexpected.
The sisters sang and played instruments, but what attracted fans from across the country had nothing to do with their music. It was the part of the performance when the sisters turned away from the audience and simultaneously removed the pins from their heads letting their hair waterfall down. This was during the Victorian era when hair—especially that of upper class, mostly white women—was supposed to be pinned back and confined only to be let down in the bedroom. (It’s no wonder then that the saying ‘let one’s hair down’ connotes ideas of letting loose, freeing oneself, acting a bit wild.)
So when the Sutherland Sisters stepped on stage and unpinned their hair letting a combined 37 feet flow from their scalps to the floor and into the orchestra pit, the crowds of the Barnum and Bailey Circus gasped. They hypnotized an entire nation with strands moving as if they had a life of their own.
A few historians claim the Sutherland Sisters were the first “It” girls, the first celebrities the media couldn’t get enough of. They used their ridiculously long hair to climb from poverty in upstate New York to grand stages all around the country. They launched hair care products selling at 50 cents to a dollar each, an exorbitant price back then. An ad for their tonic posted in the Philadelphia Times in 1886 claims “a woman’s crowning glory is her hair” in bold letters. They sold the promise of softness, of growth, and, most importantly, the unspoken promise of being seen.
If a woman’s hair can be deemed powerful like Medusa and the beautiful black women of Louisiana, if it’s her “crowning glory”, a story told since the 1800s with the Sutherland Sisters, then maybe it’s not a frivolous thing: hair.
Maybe it’s okay to let haircuts be a big deal. Maybe it makes sense why someone would venture out in a pandemic to get one under a bridge. It’s one way we control how the world sees us. And it’s not frivolous to want to be seen. It’s not frivolous to seek any sort of power or control in a world spiraling out of it.
I have a vivid memory of seeing a friend for the first time after lockdown at a small bakery. She sat at a table outside in the newly sunny spring after a long, cold quarantine winter as I stood in line to grab us coffee and some pastries. From inside, I couldn’t see her face. Just her hair: curly and full of life, tossed around by the wind. Her hand pushed it out of her face maybe once, twice, but then she seemed to stop fighting it.
This friend had just had her hair cut for the first time in over a year. I knew this because it had that new freshness to it and because she wore it well, confidently. I told her it looked good, and she said it felt good. Refreshing.
“It’s weird,” she took a nibble of scone. “Because we know the whole world is going through a massive change, yet somehow everyday feels the same.”
On my bike ride home I thought about this: how feeling stuck is unpleasant, but change is also scary. So, what’s a person to do?
In my bathroom mirror I noticed my hair for the first time in a while. It was below my shoulders again, and the small strands in the front trimmed to give it some sort of “body” had grown dangly, blending in with everything else.
It was then that I realized I’d been looking in the same mirror day after day, working, living, eating, sleeping in the same space over and over and over again. Did I feel stuck? More than I wanted to, yes. The only thing that was changing about me seemed to be the length of my hair, slowly growing out, reminding me how much time had passed.
I thought about my curly-haired friend and how she’d said getting a cut felt good. How trimming hair is more than just a literal physical change but can mark some sort of emotional or mental shift as well. A chop, some layers, highlights. Getting a haircut might be the easiest way to change ourselves without permanently altering who we are.
So it’s settled, I thought. I need a haircut. At least part of me wanted one. It would feel good, refreshing. It would allow me to at least see some sort of change, feel some sort of control. I’d been thinking about it a lot, clearly. Reading, researching.
But I wondered if I should wait. COVID-19 was still spreading. They’re expensive. I didn’t even know what kind of cut I wanted.
My internal monologue continued for months as the strands grew. When my mind landed on indecision again and again I tried to remind myself the drama around haircuts is not unfounded. In fact, haircuts and drama actually go quite well together. They’re often used as a device to signal a major change in a character. In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne cut and dyed her hair at a gas station while on the run. Mulan used a sword to chop her long locks the evening before she joined the military. Natalie Portman’s character shaved her head in V for Vendetta.
Even outside of movies, hair and haircuts indicate change. Miley Cyrus traded her long Hannah Montana locks for a pixie cut and swung from a giant wrecking ball. Keke Palmer switched from a shaved short cut to long burgundy braids. Britney Spears shaved her head in an iconic meltdown in 2007.
The problem is this narrative plays out around us all of the time, not just in the movies or with celebrities, but when girls post pictures after a haircut with captions like “short hair, don’t care”. (As if chopping off ten inches was not a heavily thought-out decision.)
A friend of mine posted an Instagram story of herself with a blonde-white bob, a stark change from her natural dark brown long hair. She then uploaded another picture of her 30th birthday. A coincidence?
We never spoke about it but I can’t help wondering if the haircut, the dye, all of it was somehow a conscious or subconscious way to feel powerful over the powerless feeling of aging in quarantine. That anyone even posts a photo of themselves after cutting their hair reveals it all: when we’re done we’re supposed to feel beautiful, different, somehow transformed.
But thinking this way can complicate haircuts. Do they really change us? Or are we just taught to think they do? The truth is, we’re changing all the time, but a haircut at least gives us an excuse to point to our heads and say “See!”
Between strands of hair are stories and history, and underneath them are the people shaped by it all. I’m both amazed and repelled by this idea that some small, delicate aspect of our bodies can define so much of our identity.
Yet, it’s rooted in us to think this way. Centuries ago, hair was associated with the person it belonged to so much so that some people used to view it as a substitute for them when they were gone. Before landlines, cellphones, email, and the myriad of ways we can reach each other now, humans used to exchange parts of themselves as a way to hold onto one another. Most often in the form of hair inside of a locket. A few strands of another human being you could carry around close to your heart.
Some say hair art and hair jewelry can be traced back to the 12th century. In Independence, Missouri, the largest collection of over 2,000 pieces of ancient hair art was stored in a small museum called Leila’s Hair Museum until it permanently closed during the pandemic. Leila had picture frames with expansive floral designs, broaches, and watches, all of it curled, twisted, and crafted from human hair.
Hair wreaths were also created and used as memorials or objects of mourning. In some middle class, mostly white families, when a member passed away, their hair was collected in a ‘hair receiver’ and turned into circular designs with flowers and supportive wire. They were stored and added to over and over again, serving as a family heirloom, a family tree. As historian Geoffrey Batchen put it, “hair, intimate and yet easily removed, [was] a convenient and pliable stand-in for the body of the missing, memorialized subject.”
In high school, my best friend used to take the strands of hair that caught on her hands as she shampooed and make designs on the tiled wall in my shower. Mostly hearts or squiggles, sometimes an ’S’ for her name. I hated it. And because I hated it, being the committed best friend that she was, she kept doing it each and every sleepover. The same hair which looked beautiful on her head, light brown and wonderfully curly, made me gag when strewn across the tile.
Hair is duplicitous like that: beautiful and grotesque. It can be associated with power and control like the Sutherland Sisters, with change like my friend mentioned at the coffee shop, both aspects important to feeling alive. But then to see hair dangling from the shower wall or sprinkled around the floor after a trim is to see a form of death.
Hairdressers tell you to look in the mirror and study your new reflection, but I can't help and look down at the clips and pieces and strands on the floor waiting to be swept into a massive clump and tossed into the garbage.
Even the biology of one strand represents this gigantic dichotomy. The hair follicle, a small cavity holding and protecting the root of a hair is alive; it sucks up nutrients and distributes them. But the hair springing from it is dead or dying. A stack of cells saying goodbye to the world.
Perhaps I put too much weight on it, hair. Perhaps, I’m demanding too much from dead skin cells. But there’s a way in which the stories we assign to the strands, and whether we accept or reject them, shapes who we are. And in this process of continually reshaping ourselves, creating new characters in our own movie, we are reborn again and again and again.
In hindsight, it’s not shocking that hair salons were included in phase two of New York’s reopening after lockdown. Before restaurants, before nail salons, and museums. Because as we live through something invisible attacking the bodies of people we love, it’s impossible not to pay more attention to what it means to be inside of a body ourselves. I find more than ever I’ve been thinking about what it means to be healthy. What it means to take care of myself. Seemingly small things like a haircut become suddenly important. It’s an insistence on seeking change, on seeking life, even when surrounded by death.
It’s spring of 2021. Almost a year and a half since I stood in the middle of that salon above Washington Square Park where the tattooed stylist tried to soothe my nerves with words she had no idea would lodge themselves in my brain. “Changes are coming,” she’d said, and then probably forgot all about me within days as she tried to figure out how to survive in a world where her business, like many others, was suddenly on pause indefinitely.
But clearly I haven’t forgotten about her. She was trying to help me, trying to give me a cut that would make me feel beautiful. With my hands trapped under the cape, I trusted a stranger to shape me and my appearance, to shape who I would become in this city. The truth is I think one reason I’ve always felt tension with haircuts is this: when they ask what I want, I never know what to say. It feels as if they’re asking me who I want to become and most of the time the only answer I have is, well, I’m not really sure.
Women worrying about their hair used to be a stereotype I didn’t want to be a part of because it makes us seem weak or superficial. It’s just hair, right? But that’s the point. Because it’s so simple, it’s become an easy canvas to layer meaning onto over centuries.
One week, just another week like any other, days blending in with the rest, I wanted to feel different. I wanted to feel hopeful. I wanted to feel change.
So I stood in the bathroom, toes on the cold tile floor, and took a breath before picking up a pair of scissors. My hand rested in the plastic shape, slipping into the grooves designed for the thumb and forefinger.
Snip, snip, snip.
Little flecks of hair fell into the sink and stuck there. Dead skin cells that carry so much meaning. I went cross-eyed trying to make the trim even, trying to make it right. Slicing pieces of myself in order to release slivers of who I want to be.
Snip, snip, snip. Goodbye hair, hello hair. We’re both living and dying at the same time.