Hallie Krause ’26 and Emma Pat ’26
Two Autobiographical Essays Connect Hair, Identity, and Empowerment
How Much a Haircut Can Do
Hair is everything when you’re a teenage girl. It’s the frame of your face, the defining feature of style, a way of claiming femininity like a badge of honor if you so choose. I shaved my head on a whim when I was sixteen. It was not meant to be an act of defiance, or intense feminism, or any other possible meaning one could ascribe to a young girl suddenly getting a buzz cut. I had no real idea why exactly I decided to chop off all my hair, but the inkling in the back of my mind was that it had something to do with my strained relationship to my own femininity.
“You’ve just got very … unique features,” my friend told me during seventh grade science class, in October, if I recall correctly. My stomach completely sank to the floor, a thud only I could hear. Her sudden pause signified, to me, that she was searching for the perfect word to express that my face was not a very good one, without directly saying it. I stared at my desk in disbelief and thought about her comment for weeks. At first I only glanced at myself in the mirror, but soon enough I found myself analyzing every single centimeter of my face, searching for an indication of why exactly she’d said that to me. Was it my nose? My eyes? What was it? As my school years continued, I heard the word “unique” more and more, and an occasional “interesting,” and “striking” as descriptors too.
“You kind of do look like a boy,” another student told me during my sophomore year of high school. My ears perked up at the emphasis on “do,” signaling to me that my resemblance to a boy had been discussed beforehand, when I had not been present, and that this person was looking to see if the statement was correct. I saw his eyes scan my face a few times, focusing in on my deepset eyes and slightly masculine nose. It was as if I were an object to be inspected, a form of a person to be studied for the implication of femininity, and none being found. Fear shot through me at the notion of looking like a boy, of being androgynous, of being undesirable in some way. For the first time, I truly hated my face. A bad habit began to form that day, one where I would look at the other girls around me and pit myself up against them in an imaginary competition of womanhood. I would focus on every inch of their faces and look at the corresponding inch on my own, coming to the conclusion that I still was not as pretty as them. I was still the boyish girl and they were all representing the femininity I would never, ever reach.
“You would look really good with a buzz cut,” my friend Lucy told me one day during the summer before junior year. I looked at her skeptically, wondering if she was praying for my downfall or just being strange. It was never something I’d given thought to, as I used my hair as a way to frame my face, or really to hide it. To have my face in full view, no obstruction, no way of concealing it behind any shadows, terrified me. It was not a case of “feeling ugly” or any of the insecurities that every young person faces; it had to do with the distance I felt from femininity. I was so caught up in catering to the agreed upon ways of being a woman and being feminine that I was afraid to stray further from it then I already did naturally. Wider shoulders, small breasts, fairly rectangular body, an androgynous face—I already had space from femininity, why would I push that?
I didn’t think about it too much. Just did it. Feeling the breeze on my head without the weight of hair was more pleasant than I’d expected, wind blowing through a field of freshly mowed grass. Light cast on my face differently that day. The curtains of hair hadn’t just been drawn, they’d been torn away, letting the sun in. I saw the balance of masculine and feminine that I had ignored up until then, and I realized, alone in my room, a small amount of hair on my head, that I didn’t mind it one bit. It wasn’t a moment of large discovery or extreme happiness, it was a moment of content neutrality. A calmness snuck into the crevices of my mind, where I’d criticized myself for so very long. I looked at myself and saw a face, just a face, nothing more. It was not just about my face, as I feel that would be egotistical or narcissistic, it was about seeing myself as a person who has a face rather than a woman who needs to be more feminine, as I had always seen myself previously. It was just a face and it was mine.
It started with my appearance, and subconsciously grew into something else entirely by senior year of high school. The first time I wore loose fitting clothing was the first time I felt a different sort of comfort. The way the cloth billowed around my limbs and hid any sign of the little curve I have intrigued me. I felt a warmth wrestle into my skin. It was not about looking like a boy for me, it was about looking completely neutral. I had searched for so long for an extreme feminine look that I had not realized I did not even like it all the time.
“You seem very grounded in your sense of self,” my friend told me at the beginning of my senior year of high school, “Like your sense of self is really strong.” I nodded a thank you, and then sat quietly. Was I to question my friend further? Did I need to? A sense of self was something every teenager lacked but I had noticed a change in the past year since I’d done the big chop. It wasn’t so much that my personality had changed drastically, or that I was acting differently, it was more that I stayed the same when talking to people whereas before I would change myself to fit the situation, as everyone does. I looked at the ways I was expected to act as a woman, the way I used to hold myself back for male approval and validation, the way I knew I was supposed to be quiet, and I stopped, because I changed the way I viewed my own femininity. It’s not something that caters to men, it’s something I can be comfortable and strong in. Looking at myself and my femininity differently allowed comfort to set in.
Though it was always quiet and still, there had been an internal struggle with femininity and masculinity my entire life. I never felt a tug towards either of them, but I was frequently told to go towards the feminine, and I frequently felt out of place in it. I simply searched for a sort of peace between the two. It’s not something that is incredibly dire or urgent for me, it’s a sort of blanket over me that makes me feel safe. I would often ponder what exactly made someone feminine, or what made someone masculine, and if there was a balance I could achieve.
What started with a buzz cut, and then, the clothes, turned into a complete change of mindset, where my body was never on my mind anymore. I didn’t care that I lacked curves or that my face tended to be on the fence of boy or girl in terms of looks. My appearance became just my appearance, and I stopped letting it dictate me. I am a person, that’s it. The sense of self formed without even making itself known, it was there one day and I accepted it.
My hair is long now. It’s back to framing my face. I haven’t given much thought to what exactly I’m going to do with it, as I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll probably cut it today, or maybe buzz it all off in the spring. Who’s to say? It’s not a big deal for me anymore. If someone tells me I look like a boy, I say “Yeah, I see that.” If someone begins analyzing my facial features unprompted I say, “No that’s okay, I already understand my face is androgynous and I like it.”
Thinking of it now, the best way to explain this two year revelation that started with a little haircut is that I have stopped trying to show people what they want to see. I have stopped living through a lens I can’t stand to be seen through. My view of myself is that I am a person with nothing attached to her, a person who just dresses a certain way based on how she feels that day, a person who grounds herself by allowing people’s comments and opinions to flow along beside her but not stick and seep into her. Fighting against oneself is exhausting and tiresome and annoying and hurtful and useless. Inviting myself in was the hardest, most painful thing I could do, but the peace that it has brought is unmatched.
It’s funny how much a haircut can do.
By Emma Pat
I wish to be amongst the waves, moving with the water– but I am a rock, watching from the shore. I don’t change much about myself often. I order the same drinks over and over, I stick to color palettes that are tried and true. So what may seem inconsequential to anyone else would be a huge adjustment in my life. I am a rock, observing from the seaside, but not participating. Rocks largely stay the same, but even the most immovable stone will inevitably erode.
A risk takes many forms. Alongside my personality which is already resistant to change, I’ve struggled with social anxiety even before it had a name to me. So a lot of my fears stemmed from social consequences. I’m always worried that something small will forever ostracize me from others. It also manifested in a strange, surface-level understanding of friendship. I had convinced myself that friendship was conditional, that any small mistake could just make someone stop liking me; as if it’s some sort of switch to be turned off. It was second nature for me to treat simple things as a massive inconvenience for others. Taking too long to count change, or walking in front of my class to throw things out spiraled into “Did I do that weirdly?” “Oh god they all probably hate me now.” I cannot pretend to be fully free from those sorts of thoughts, it’s an uphill battle, but I learned to have some semblance of control. Now I mostly talk myself out of it with sheer logic and experience. When I worked in customer service, I didn’t care what or how people asked things of me as long as they weren’t rude. And by association, most customer service employees probably don’t care if I ask them something as long as I’m respectful. But at the time, it all made me afraid to stand out in any way, shape or form. I dressed very plainly, not by choice, but out of fear. If I blended in, no one would notice me. If no one noticed me, they couldn’t make fun of me. I desperately wanted to be liked, but at my own expense.
I lived a large portion of my life as that rock, a passenger, an observer. I lived life by this motto: Just do what you always do. It was safe, easy, simple, to blend in even if it meant suppressing my identity. I’d like to think I’m different now, I can adapt to the flow of the ocean, rather than just watching from a distance. The ocean once seemed like crashing waves of water, dark, deep, capable of swallowing me up. Now I look out and see the roughness of the waves, but also the gentle tide that laps at the beach. I hadn’t realized how awful it had felt to force myself into a mold until I allowed myself to shape my own identity. From an outside perspective, I was an average, content “girl.” But within, it got harder and harder to suppress my identity.
The catalyst to my evolution seems simple enough—a haircut. Hair is impermanent. It’ll grow back, and there are no real consequences to changing it. But to me, hair was a safety net. I always knew there was an underlying meaning to people only noticing I had “nice hair” (it’s code for, “You’re not much of a looker”) . Keeping it long meant I could grasp onto the little validation I got for my physical appearance, which I will never think very highly of. I’m well aware that I’m not ugly. But when people look past you to talk to your friends, or only notice the same outfit you wore on other people, you know you’re not very pretty. So, I coped by pretending. It was a part of the presumed nonchalance I had built, that I simply didn’t care about my appearance, rather than being afraid to attempt to look good in case I was ridiculed. This notion dug into my clothes, my hair, and a lack of makeup. You can fool yourself into thinking a mask is permanent if you wear it long enough. That was until I finally chose to cut it short. Not shoulder length. Not a bob cut. Short. It barely grazed my neck. It was terrifying. When I showed the man who’d cut my hair since I was a child my reference photo, I expected judgment. A strange look. Silent criticism. He proved me wrong. He simply nodded and cut my hair according to the photo. I was surprised to say the least. But for the first time in my life, I looked in the mirror and saw myself. It was a massive risk to me. It was a huge melting pot of the anxieties that had permeated my entire life. “What if it looks awful?” “What if I don’t like it and then have to wait months for it to grow back?” But I loved it. That in of itself was a little terrifying. All I had known was a presumed safety, which had become a prison without me realizing.
I’m of the firm belief that hair has no gender. Long or short hair doesn’t define your gender— you do. But long hair had just reinforced the idea that I was a “girl.”
Having a more androgynous haircut took something out that I had pushed down—that I wasn’t a girl. I was non-binary. In the dictionary, nonbinary is described as a gender identity outside of the binary, not solely male or female. I’m not a girl, but I’m also not a guy, I thought. I felt free from a cage that no one but me had locked myself into all seventeen years. It was a risk that simultaneously ripped me open and built me up from the ground all at once. I put myself out on a line for once, and it led to a myriad of other changes.
I came out to my friends (it was much less dramatic than I expected). I actually ended up coming out twice, first as bisexual and then a bit later as nonbinary. (My friends poorly pretended to be surprised.) It’s scary to tell people you love things like that, even if you might know deep down that they’d accept you anyway. But allowing myself to hear and remember that they supported me was endlessly helpful. I’m someone who desperately needs people to put everything in words; if not, I spiral into a cycle of overthinking.
I finally allowed myself to buy the kind of clothes I really wanted, and I wore them. I wore lavender shirts with dramatic sleeves. I put on a sweater vest even for a short trip. I walked around school wearing a crop top for the first time. I didn’t care if anyone thought my purple and orange Hawaiian shirt was strange. I liked it.
Looking back, it sounds clear cut and clean, but throwing yourself in the water means you’re in for some thrashing and struggling before you relax and let things flow. I doubted myself every step of the way, but the end result was worth it. I always wondered if I was simply pretending— but the freedom I finally felt could not have been pretend; even if I worried it was. I came out of it more than I had ever felt.
When you lock yourself away, you don’t realize how trapped you were, until you’re finally free. I still have some of those anxieties, but now I don’t suppress my laugh when something’s funny. When I have something to say, I say it. I try to hold the reins of my life rather than allow some unseen force to drive me. I still read between the lines, but I use it to go with the flow, rather than just say what others want to hear. I learned to simply let things go. It was difficult, as I tend to hold on too tight to things that were never going to stay anyway. I’m still a rock, but I’m sedimentary. Some of the layers are good, some are less so, but they are the product of my life experiences nonetheless. A rock is meant to change, but it also grounds its surroundings- not one or the other. The once ever permanent rock was now content to change with the waves, rather than stand on the quiet shore.