My Hair is Long, But Long is Relative
Updated: May 1, 2019
By Tessa Hill |
From my father, I inherited the lack of a jawline. My brother did as well, though it seems to me that he gets away with it. He is also a statured, freckled, white boy. I am also, in fact, not.
In the mirror, I am recognizable from the front. I seem to look how the front-facing camera shows me or like the face I’ve adopted as the only possible appearance: almost pretty in almost lighting and I can most definitely find features I admire honestly. The doe eyes stand out, and they seem to be a favourite thing of my mother’s. Irises of a brown almost black and simple decorative curls; they are noticeable and often feel beautiful. My freckles are not everywhere like my brother’s are, but they peek out under sun and I become a little more three-dimensional. Yet, alive and shape-shifting, I am unable to define it all. I look to the left, back-lit slouched, and I am shown the lacking in my profile— the undefined and excess.
I often lean by the mirror and trace the softness of the slight ridge between my neck and jaw. I test angles. With calloused fingertips I try to create new dips, new curves, like if I run the path over and over I will come out more intentional. Through the tracing I settle on the other hills and caverns that decorate my face and I try again with the same force with which I sculpt my jaw: my cheekbones stick out as mounds that I never knew what to call because they did not look familiar; shadows love the purple that lingers in the under eye, remnants of tumultuous sleep; I memorize the structure of my nose and watch its witchiness in the reflection. My features sink under harsh beams. And sometimes, when I stand and wait patiently for my turn to rush out the doors of the subway car, I catch myself sunken and I wonder if this was the only possibility of my face. By 4th grade, I became relentless in policing my profile and hair was a useful tool. Mine is thick, soft, the brown that varies in sunlight, and I was greatly protective of it. But, maybe, only for the fact that it provided me some control. It seemed to keep me beautiful for the outside world. Saturdays at the hairdresser, I always sat for an extra thirty minutes in order to thin out all the excess so I could hold my head up high and light. Intentionally, its length never hit above my chin. There had to be enough to tuck and toss and comb down and over the sides of my face, over the lacking, and over my profile. And there was barely a thought of tying it up either. My mother had nudged me around and tried varying hairstyles beyond just the ponytail, but nothing ever worked: strands would slip from braids of any kind; my look didn’t quite take to pigtails; the low ponytail always concluded with the hairband lost on the classroom floor. I instantly regretted anything higher than the failed styles. Except once.
For some reason—simplistic and minute most likely—my elementary school career seemed to reach a peak in fifth grade. It was a time marked by Aeropostale branded looks and a secured social standing at a new school, where suddenly I felt I had embodied the “new girl mystique” obsessed so greatly over in my queue of YA novels. These were people who suddenly knew nothing about me except for what I decided to show them: these were the girls who listened intently as I rambled and these were the boys who liked me for playing soccer (whom I was supposed to spend my free time wondering about). This is when I truly discovered the power of performance, and I claimed it well. It was laid out so nicely for me to take.
I rediscovered my body at the will of puberty and a new type of attention unasked. With my mom, I bought cheap faux-leather ankle boots from the mall and listened to the power in the clicks of my strut against the school tile. I learned what it meant to walk outside at recess and look for people to look at me. By picking up a Betty and Veronica Comic book at a regular family shopping trip, I learned the word aloof and decided it was an intriguing thing that I must get my hands on.
One October day, we prepared ourselves in the basement girl’s washroom before heading out to recess. Four of us shared a narrow mirror that lived isolated on one side of the hollow room, standing staggered to share the looking space, fixing the little bits of ourselves. There was no deprecation quite like the kind we would grow into, only the playfulness of testing the little changes we could attempt in the moment. After twisting a strand of my hair around my index finger, around and around and around, I looked to my friend Zenab and silently articulated the little things about her. It was her slick, long hair that I admired so much, which she kept tied up high everyday I would know her. I was fascinated. Then, suddenly, I was the bustling centre of a new experiment. Minutes later on the sun-bleached pavement, I skipped out the doors with my hair in a cinch, streaming down the back of my neck. The bounce of it along with my strides, the sway from side to side—it was euphoric. It seemed to me that everyone noticed.
I tried to get there again after that. But I could never get it quite high enough. Or I could never get it quite tight enough. Or there wasn’t anyone around for it to be worth enough. To curb my dissatisfaction with everything I felt was becoming, I got bangs in 10th grade. It seemed obvious that it was the right thing to do. Now, evolving out of the pubescent look, I was a proper art girl in her proper place looking properly cute and it all meant I was heading in the proper direction. This was when the curated world claimed its place and I decided I could find not-quite-love on the internet.
The possibility was real because I swore I had seen it before: boy meets girl through her perfect mirror selfie; boy decides girl is cute enough to be worth his time; boy follows and likes and waits; and of course the stars collide, after story replies and implying comments, when girl and boy decide to meet up and try it out. I had tracked this with mathematical accuracy and I was quite sure it could be my future if I played my cards right. Bangs were just my latest edition to the charm of my Instagram profile.
I waited. And waited. I tried a few different strategies. Multiple attempts to get the right pout of the lips and the cock of the head. Retyping captions once, twice, three times to get the right implication of free but not desperate. I got quite good at all of it; almost professionally desirable. Though, I was most definitely a niche who had to twist her neck for the array of art boys— none of whom had many desirable qualities beyond the roll of their hats or the hang of their overalls. But no matter. Pretending they were life-changing seemed a simple task.
Some time into this chase, I set my eyes on a particularly pointless one. He dressed like a skate magazine threw up on him and loved to talk about how much weed he smoked. I think he might have mentioned a love of jazz as well, but that’s as much depth as I got.
So, I was glued to my phone screen. It was so easy to become my archetype. Eventually, it was a pouted, wide-eyed appeal (twisting clean hair and leaning softly) that sparked him. But, it was tiring to keep it up. I didn’t want to be told to listen to Brockhampton anymore.
The mirror was steamed up, but I wiped a clean circle to slick my soaked hair back, pulling and twisting it behind my head, just to see what I would look like. Look left, right, up, straight on to test my face in the most bare fashion. Last fall, I became obsessed with the idea of shaving my head and I could not let it go. I would spend stretched minutes staring at myself in any reflection, testing the look relentlessly, and for some reason I could not seem to understand what I truly looked like.
I scrolled back through old photos and found my face always changing, so suddenly I was without identity. The weight of the hair on my neck was me, the blushed eyelids were me, but these were all choices. These were all the little things that stuck me in this awkward state and they all had similar ulterior motive. Hair became an excess rather than a protection. In these sudden confrontations, I did not feel quite like the person I had made myself to be. I did not trust this other woman who stared back at me.
My bangs were greasy and I hated them. My gallery filled with searched and downloaded photos of almost-fictional girls with buzzcuts. My instagram became a shrine to the act. I asked them if I should go through with it or not. The desire became so loud. It was a full body state of disgust and rejection: I wanted all of it, weighing me down, gone. I would break to cry into pillows or find peace in the flow of ink that formed crooked renditions. I drew faces that were not mine, with simple features and nothing more. The lacking was everywhere and on my mind.
The conflicts were, and always are, about love. So far, I have learned this as the simple dynamic of my existence: the questions of love or lack thereof. It was at this point that I saw who I was—hair and all—to hold the supposed significance of my womanhood and worth. With it I was yours and always trying: I was that struggling teen, that desperate girl; I was connected to a sort of femininity that didn’t feel true and that I wasn’t quite ready for. But without it, I could be the barest version of myself. Everything left would be the material that I had no choice but to own and to own with purpose.
I established a theory and decided on a test of this self-worth: if I stripped myself to nothing, the most natural and honest version of this physical form, then the love that I would receive would be the most true. All love would be for a realer version of me— one I couldn’t help to conform and control any longer. It was apparent what I had to do. I felt rumbling and ravenous in every part of me. The shape of my head was not what I had expected. I had dreamed of bald spots and bumps; instead I ran my fingertips across the newborn surface and felt it whole. I did not feel less in the way one might think you would. I didn’t obsess over the ambiguity of my face. I spent hours tracing the grain.
A woman with a buzzcut is a shout in the face of the world. I was aggressively and obviously an unusual figure. There were more eyes on me than ever before. In each look was a question or an analysis— everyone wanted to know the why of the act. But, the intentions of those who actually asked were so far from hostile or judgemental; the varying questions from varying faces held only warmth and wonder. For once, I was ready to tell anyone.
A month or so after my first, I shaved my head for the third time with the pair of clippers that were newly mine and headed out to a party. It was the birthday of my brother’s friend who we’d both known since elementary school, who had invited me to be sweet, and who had put my brother in the most awkward position. This mix of family and fun was unheard of. I arrived late, opening the door to a house full of people who knew nothing about me but this— this new person I had decided to be. He was the only one who knew anything, and he almost knew too much. Or nothing at all.
I found my brother tipsy in the kitchen. He insisted he wasn’t. I laughed at him consciously while scrambling to find a drink to hold. The room was layered with people, covered with chip crumbs, overflowing with the ambience of dialogue concerning people I would never know. The only thing to drink was gin and diet coke and it bit in the worst of ways. I chugged and clung to the safety of my brother until the world opened up. Then, in sudden anarchy, I slipped away into the basement. Here, there were more people under less lighting and enough room to sit on the sidelines. I found a chair and stayed, watching all inhibition sink into the floor. In-out, in-out, sitting back, the drink in my veins and the bliss of being nothing for a minute.
There was a boy to my left with a baseball hat, dark hair sprouting from its edges, drinking something from a reusable water bottle. He too was enjoying the outside view, relishing what was left in his mystery drink. I chuckled. We locked eyes.
Before long, the world dissolved around us. We sat, leaning and shifting, professing the strangeness of this state, the entanglements of our lives, the compulsion to ask each other more and more questions. Our eyes glittered and there was nothing to my body but my words. I was enamoured with this nature. I was revolutionary.
Tracing circles on my thigh, he asked me about my hair. I smiled. I told him:
Shaving my head was a fuck you to the world, though truly it was a fuck this for myself. I was ready to start from nothing and build myself up again. I was ready to strip myself of all womanhood that I did not feel I owned. I was ready to be a physical and momentary kind of nothing in order to become something more than I thought I was.
I ran my fingers down the back of my neck, where the hair diffuses and fades, just to make sure I was still there. And I was. Now I am letting it grow again. I track it, still, in different mirrors in different rooms of different houses, but the attention has changed. I play with the strands that grow down and over my ears. The excess in my face remains, but in this renewed reflection I am so much more. I am curious not of your gaze, but of mine: the paths I can follow along these lines and freckles; the stories I can find in the depth of my own irises. I am whole in a way I did not notice before. I do not think as much of the lacking I wish was not there.
You can see and read more from Tessa Hill on her website: www.tessajhill.com