Cutting My Hair, Severing My Ties to Beauty Standards, and Recreating My Notion of Self-Love
I’ve always prided myself in unwavering self-confidence, a tightly woven, unbreakable love for the vessel that holds my spirit close. I’ve reveled in my ability to bounce back from the darkest depths of my life. A resilient young woman who never lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. I never thought there was anything that could take that away from me. I thought I was doing everything right.
But those were just expressions of my ego, not my soul. These were images and ideals I created for myself in order to feel accomplished and safe, to feel like I’d pushed much farther than I actually had.
Cutting my hair and being forced to embody someone that didn’t feel like me shattered the image I created for myself. Everything I claimed to be had fallen away, and there I stood, staring blankly into an empty mirror.
How do you measure the love for your own soul? How do you get comfortable in this body that is so foreign, that just barely scrapes the surface of what and who I truly am?
I’ve been dyeing my hair since (about) eighth grade. I was always experimenting and that filled me with excitement. I didn’t see it as expressing myself, perhaps I was, but what I was really trying to do was copy someone I thought was my version of pretty. I wanted to be them, and I thought that if I changed my hair, I could change myself.
It started with pink streaks (I apologize in advance for the cringiness you will soon read). Then electric blue hair like Katy Perry. Then orange hair and bangs like Bella Thorne. Then black hair with blue ends like Kylie Jenner.
Once I stopped obsessing over celebrities, I branched out to whatever I thought would look better than what I already had. Auburn. Red. Magenta. Black. Golden Blonde. Bleach Blonde. Ombre. Highlights. Balayage. Dark Brown. Black. Bobs, bangs, layers, extensions. I may have looked ridiculous, but I loved it. I loved feeling like a different person, like I was wearing a disguise. Doing my hair began to feel like therapy. My hair held my pain, and if I cut it off, it’d go away. If I changed the color, I was no longer the me that hurt.
With my many great dye jobs also came some really sucky ones too. I’ve endured blotchy bleach jobs, accidental green hair, frayed ends, uneven cuts, you name it. The more I changed my hair, the more of a compulsive perfectionist I became. The mirror was my worst enemy, fostering my obsession and hypercriticism. If my hair was, in the slightest bit, messed up, I’d fall apart.
After years of being a hair chameleon, I realized there was one thing I hadn’t tried- being myself or at least looking like her. I got tired of messing with it and let it grow.
About a year after that, my hair had fully grown in, and I began experimenting again…just with hair glazes (temporary hair color that lasts about 2-4 weeks) though. I liked the way it made my hair shinier and a touch darker. Then, after a few washes, it’d be back to normal.
Where It All Went Wrong
One day, I picked up a glaze from a local beauty store and didn’t see it had an auburn tint in it. I lobbed it on my head, then quickly realized my hair was turning orange. I scrubbed my head ferociously, but the damage was already done.
This was unacceptable. I had worked so, so hard to grow my hair out. It was so beautiful, and I wanted it back. I called around looking for a hair appointment on very short notice. Maybe they could reverse it?
They said they couldn’t. There was no way to take that red out, so the only way to go was darker. It seemed there wasn’t anything else to do, so I let them dye it. Maybe it’ll just be a little darker than my natural color.
Nope. It turned out dark brown like cherry coke. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was fine for the moment.
The more I stared at it, the more I didn’t like it. I had messed up a good thing. You can’t really come back from a really dark color either, and the thought of my hair growing into some kind of opposite ombre drove me nuts, so I scheduled another appointment at a different salon to go blonde.
They balayaged it, but it still wasn’t good enough- it was blotchy! In the same weekend, I scheduled another appointment at a different salon for a double-process (which basically means going full blonde in one shot).
It was what I asked for, but I was left with super dark roots.
A few days later, I had it glazed to smooth the harsh lines.
The glaze faded within a month’s time. I didn’t want to deal with the maintenance and unevenness. Enough money had been spent. Now, all I wanted was to be full blonde- root to tip.
The Hair Horror Story
By the end of the month, I had another appointment set. I asked the hairdresser to make it all even- to make me as blonde as I could possibly go. I had bleached my hair many times before, so I wasn’t concerned about the damage or how fast I had transitioned between all these colors. I trusted her. After all, she had gorgeous, long, platinum blonde hair. She covered my hair in bleach, then covered my head with a plastic cap and placed me under a hot steamer.
While I sat there, her assistant began pouring boiling hot water into the steamer and accidentally spilled some on my neck. It hurt, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I couldn’t see it. They gasped and asked if I was okay. “Yes, I’m fine“, I said.
I sat there for about half an hour maybe, then she rinsed me out. As I sat up in the wash chair, she told me she didn’t think we should blow it out today. “Let’s leave it in a hair mask.” Weird, but okay, she knew best.
Then she showed me the brush. My heart sank. There were clumps of white hair in it. She brought me in front of the mirror, boasting about how light we had gotten my hair. My once shoulder-length hair was now dangling just beyond my chin in strands. The thickest part was just below my ear. The back was in shambles. Whenever I tried to brush it, more clumps would come out. I was speechless.
I covered my head on my way into the house. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I ran into my room and immediately went to the mirror to check myself. I pulled away my shirt and unveiled a second-degree burn on my neck. Yellow pieces of tangled hair stuck out from my head in all different directions. Some were matted patches of gummy fur. I looked like Cynthia Pickles (Amanda’s doll from Rugrats).
I turned away and started to cry. What do I do? How do I go back? I pulled at each end, feeling the dry, stretchy hair rub against my fingertips. I examined and assessed the damage- it was ruined beyond belief. I then drowned my hair in coconut oil and laid in bed, shaking. There wasn’t a sound or cry that could express the pain I was feeling.
The next day, I sat in front of the mirror and had one of those movie moments where the main character takes a pair of scissors and just chops their hair off. I held back, but when I look back, I see that it would’ve been a great opportunity to shave it all off.
I eventually made an appointment at a new hair salon to clean up the cut and fix the color a bit. I felt super embarrassed walking in looking all silly and disheveled. I sat down and explained what happened to my hairdresser. I told him I wasn’t looking for anything crazy. I just wanted to look alright. He toned my hair and tried not to make me look too much like a middle-aged white lady.
I left with a platinum-blonde pixie cut.
It definitely wasn’t a terrible look. It was actually really cute, but at the time, I was already demoralized, so I absolutely hated it. It was shocking to me how bright and unmissable this blonde was.
Everywhere I went, I felt like people were staring at me. I could no longer blend in. I felt like a hermit crab out of her shell. Like a big neon sign in a world of gray.
Stage One: Losing Myself
I know it’s just hair, but my hair had been a greater extension of myself. Like my hands, it felt and touched and held. I was sewn into the idea that my looks were a big deal and defined me, then was unexpectedly thrown from that.
The moment my hair was cut, I felt my femininity be swept away with the tide. And there went my personality too. In a society where long hair equates to being beautiful and girly and sexy, I was now boyish. I should change to fit that persona until I can grow back into being a girl again. What should I wear? How should I act?
It was undeniable that people looked at me differently now. I got looks in passing in my small town and comments about how “interesting” it looked- like I was doing something no woman would dare to do. And on the other end, I was no longer romantically appealing. Some thought it was cool, others were horrified at the drastic change, and some thought it looked more like a Karen haircut. I was ashamed. I remember I was working one day (in a big t-shirt, shorts, and no makeup on), and I was waiting on a table of two young girls. While I was walking away, I heard one of them ask the other if I was a girl. That hurt, but I understood.
For the first month or two, I felt like I needed to warn everyone before I saw them. I’m no longer the old Lia, so don’t expect that. I actually didn’t know who I was. But I knew I wanted to avoid the shocked face they’d have. It was just another reminder, but even with a forewarning, there was still a curiosity about it in them. I explained over and over what happened. I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was an accident.
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me. It left me with such confusion about this body that was no longer mine. Something had been taken from me. A part had died, and I was suddenly far, far away from everything.
I’d spend hours in front of the mirror analyzing myself until I started taking photos of each of my profiles to further scan over the parts of my face that I disapproved of. It made me even more insecure about going out because if I could see it, that meant the world could too.
I stopped giving myself compliments. I began relying on boosts from others to affirm and reassure me of my beauty. And only in those moments did I feel good. I had stopped loving myself- but did I ever even love myself in the first place if it was only skin deep? Why did I suddenly feel uneasy about the person I was going to bed with now? How was she different from the person she was before?
Short hair exposes your features. I couldn’t hide myself anymore. I had to look. Not only could I no longer conceal my physical features and feel protected by my mane, but I was also exposed to what was going on inside. In a way, my hair had muffled my ability to hear- I didn’t know what was going on in my heart. And there was something that needed to be tended to. It was ugly, rotting and spreading terminally, and it was time to clean up.
Stage Two: Cleaning Up and Rebuilding
I purposefully subjected myself to loneliness. And because of this, I found myself clinging to social media. What I was looking for was similarity and closeness, but I was only to be lost in the sea of comparison, swimming in insecurity. Everywhere I looked were these perfect women, and I didn’t look like them.
That is what I chose to see- a variety of facades on the Internet. People put out what they want us to see. I realized how threatening that was to my mental health- what I had done to myself by engaging in all these different activities. Instead of helping myself through this and being my own friend, I was self-sabotaging. I could try a little harder. There was no more time to waste away. There was no changing the circumstance, only a way to move forward with it. This was an opportunity to learn about myself and to love myself again, to care- for real this time.
I started unfollowing anything that made me feel bad about the way I looked. That was a standard of beauty that didn’t need to apply to me, and I could leave it behind. I replaced these people with accounts that empowered and inspired me.
I freed myself from my self-built cage. And that’s how my self-esteem started building back up. I learned how to own it. I didn’t have to self-isolate. And if it weren’t for a really awesome, nurturing community of women in my life that made me feel so beautiful and whole- I would’ve completely lost it. I grew more comfortable with myself. And after a few months, I decided to shave the back up.
I left on various trips over the course of that summer. It helped to take me out of my head because I was engaging with the scenery and staying quiet as the observer. My typical surroundings had made me feel like that was all there was. Once I was out of that, I was shown a world that was, well, not so small after all. There were so many different people out there. Everyone looked different, and it rocked.
During one of those trips (in Europe), I had noticed that there were so many women who had short hair. And they seldom wore any makeup. Their beauty was carried in their strength and their smiles- that wholesome loveliness that not even editing can replicate. These were the things I admired in the women around me. That is what I wanted.
When I got home, I trained myself to spend less time in front of the mirror and on my phone. There was much more important work to be done- inner work. I covered the mirrors with sheets throughout my room. I swapped it for being outside and hanging out with me, getting to know myself and all the things I loved about me. These qualities weren’t new, but I hadn’t taken the time to see and appreciate them. I was finally breaking the surface. And I was never wrong about being strong. I am strong, and that’s beautiful. The pieces of me that left, returned to assemble the girl in the mirror. I wrote love notes to her.
Stage Three: Returning to Myself and Owning It
For the first time, I felt kind of…cool, more badass than ever. I had always felt kind of cowardly and at the same time, stand-offish in my zone, like I had something to prove. But I’d grown to understand my soul. And while I was, and am, still growing into my physical self, I felt us reconnect. I felt powerful in owning me.
The idea of beauty I was carrying wasn’t my own. Confidence, intelligence, and strength are sexy. When I realized these things, it’s almost like something locked back into place. I saw how the adoption of this ideal for myself was not only detrimental to my own reality, but also the present and future reality of women in general. I had not only done myself a disservice, but also the women around me- the women that I love and want to protect. I saw how society picked women apart, how we are supposed to abide by some sort of rulebook; how to dress, how to do your hair, how to act, how to speak. I saw how unfair it is and has been.
Cutting your hair doesn’t mean you’re having a breakdown (though it may result in one). It may mean you’re changing, shedding, or turning a new leaf. It could be a symbol of rebellion. But perhaps it is just what you wanted to do or ended up with- simple as that. No question about it. And maybe the reason I ended up feeling badass was because I felt like it was something against the grain according to society. It was how I ended up mastering myself in a society that gives you chips for being all the same.
When I was insecure about the way I looked, I was so focused on what people thought of me, how I’d be perceived in the eyes of others. It wouldn’t matter how accepting I was of myself because I was still subject to public opinion. But now I realize that regardless of how I put myself together, what’s most important to me as an individual is that I feel like ME. I don’t want to pretend anymore.
Your navigation through your own story is probably different. That’s the cool thing about being an individual- you pave your own way and figure it out somehow. The ultimate choice in whether you decide to let these things bother and affect you is yours. I didn’t have control of the initial situation, but I did have control over where I’d take it from there. I held that power. You hold that power. Looks are not the be-all-end-all (hair really is just hair!). They are simply the way we express ourselves. And truthfully, those whose glow is most prominent are those who have tended to what is on the inside.
I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned my lesson. The biggest part of that was to appreciate what I’ve been given. My hair grew and grew and grew. I praised every centimeter, and suddenly, I’m here. I’ll probably chop it off again sometime. This time on my own terms.
I used to wonder when I’d be done picking up the pieces, when renaming and reclaiming would come to a halt. But then I realized, creation takes a lifetime. It may not even be complete by the end. There are many steps. I might have to go back and redo a few. It won’t be perfect, and I definitely won’t be. But that’s okay. Abstract art isn’t supposed to be perfect. It takes different shapes, moves in twists and turns, explores in all different colors, and is perceived differently according to the individual. And after all, you can’t erase paint. You can only keep adding to your canvas.