“Ma'am, I think you dropped something.”
The voice of one of my high school enemies punched through the air that was thick with laughter. I had just sat down in my sophomore year math class, my first class of the day. I had walked into the school a few minutes prior sporting a new haircut. At the time I felt really good about it; a rare thing I could feel even a little good about during a time of my life filled with relentless body- and self- hatred.
People were laughing. Loudly. At me. The class of 25 students, led by this bully, picked on me that day. Everyone was looking at me, everyone was judging me, and all I wanted to do was be small and shrink down to a size smaller than my textbook.
All it took were those words, that moment of intentional misgendering and being told at such a fragile time in my life, “You look like a woman”, to push me down a path where I never wanted that level of hurt to happen again. It built itself on a foundation of no self-confidence, naturally, but in that moment a completely hurt part of myself decided I never wanted anyone to judge me based on my haircut. I didn't want to be seen. I wanted to blend in, and I wanted to hide.
After that class I flew to the bathroom, embarrassed for anyone to see my now-clearly-hideous hair, and made a beeline for the sink. I grabbed as much water as I could and doused my head with it. I used my fingers to pull all of my hair back, all of it, in a somewhat-slicked back style that had no style at all. The rest of the day was hard.
The next day I got a giant can of styling mousse and gel and slicked my hair back. My hair was crispy on top. But, it was unquestionably masculine. I kept that hairstyle for a number of years. It was not me, no, but it was a helmet: something to protect me, something to keep me safe in a place where I did not feel safe in the least.
For many years before that time in high school, I had a head full of light brown hair, parted on one side. There was a way I wanted the part to ride up from my forehead just so that it required a bit of work each morning. I dealt with a cowlick. The goal was for my hair to look effortless and bring me very little attention.
As I'm wont to do, however, I would make small changes and see if anyone noticed. One morning before school I parted my hair on the opposite side as usual; it took getting used to, but did work. Over time I moved the part to the middle, and kept everything a little shorter. When I got to college I opted for a Clooney-influenced Caesar cut, the last haircut before the style I've had now for many years. I felt slightly better experimenting with my hair and changing my appearance – but not too much.
I've had a complicated relationship with my hair. I've placed a lot of importance on it, probably more importance than others have, because it became a signifier of identity for me relatively early in my life. With my current cut I decided to opt-out of hair altogether. The pain I had received, the misgendering, the strange looks and stares... all of that was too much for me.
My buzzcut was a spontaneous decision. While I long talked about shaving my head when I went bald, that moment at the barber shop many years ago was one of clarity. Can I just not deal with this anymore? Why not just shave your head now? Just go for it. My Clooney cut was no more. I had no hair on my head and a goatee on my face. And outside of growing a full beard, I've kept that same cut for around 15 years.
I cut my own hair nowadays, just because I can. But I won't lie to you: there's a regret within a part of me that shows up every time I get out the clippers. It's a regret that I can not grow my hair out long easily (I've got some impressive balding happening, and a receding hairline). It's a regret that I can't dye my hair. It's a regret that there is still an identity and statement that goes with even my current haircut, and that I have very little control over it.