By Lynn Moynahan
My grandmother’s hair was thick, brown, and beautiful. She had to cut it as a child while in foster care in the 1930s; her foster parents made her get rid of her hefty, silky pigtails. She was fortunate enough to be able to keep them and show them to me when I was a teenager. I inherited the thickness and medium brown color, but I endeavored to grow it out as long as I could tolerate it. It was what many had come to know as my defining feature; it was my sense of pride and an ongoing accomplishment, but also my safety blanket.
My hair was magical and empowering. I got attention and had something to show off and it gave me a sense of confidence that there was something exceptional about me. My immediate family, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. The shower drain clogged up and choked the vacuum cleaner bristles which my mother religiously had to cleanout. More than once my brother yelled, “Get your hair off my fucking clothes!” When asked what she hated most about my hair, my sister replied, “how you thought you were so great because of it.” She isn’t wrong. Looking back, I feel the same way.
There wasn’t much I could do with thigh-length hair and the only way to keep it undamaged from most daily wear was to brush then braid it. I hadn’t had a major cut to my long hair for several years; it had become a source of attention and awe. I was neither an extraordinary student nor a stellar athlete. It took discipline to keep my hair untangled, shiny, and ends unbroken while I flaunted it as often as possible. My grandparents enjoyed brushing my hair, as they never had any daughters, just a measly four sons. My grandmother recorded me braiding my hair once. “I want you to be able to see this someday and remember how much hard work you put into it,” she said. I still haven’t seen this video almost a decade-and-a-half later.
My long hair lost its magic when I entered college in 2004. Cathy, who loved helping the other girls from my floor do their hair for nights out, refused to do anything with mine. “It’s too long,” she said. I continued to brush my hair, having draped it over my left shoulder and brushed the ends against my thigh. I watched in envy of the others getting hairspray on their soft curls and bobby pins shoved into their ballerina buns, keeping the stray hairs out of their eyes. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, there still isn’t much I can do about my hair now, even at a considerably shorter length; it’s too soft and silky, making bobby pins, curling iron curls, headbands, and even some hair ties slip right out.
My first summer break from college proved to be a time of reflection. I wasn’t quite the person I had been when I started and what made me different wasn’t interesting to people. My best friend since sixth grade, Melissa, let me unload my worry-laden heart on her. “You don’t have to be the person you were in high school,” she said. “College is supposed to do this to you.” I had an epiphanous thought and decided it was time to let go of my former self and cut my long hair.
We walked to the ATM and I withdrew some cash; it was enough for a haircut and some new shampoo and hair accessories. Tracy had been trimming my hair for several years and was saddened to know I was cutting it. She was the last one to braid it at such a length, securing it at the top and bottom so it stayed intact after the scissors removed it. I ended up with an 11-inch brown braid which I mailed to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for people who have lost their hair from chemotherapy treatments or medical condition that results in hair loss.
My hair, which had for many years given me a sense of pride and a touch of discipline, was now going to serve another purpose. A person whose childhood was stolen and wrought with illness could now have the confidence to walk around without displaying the effects of chemo and have to wonder if they’re being stared at or pitied.
Losing my sense of security made me feel incredibly vulnerable. But it was exhilarating. I was free from the physical and emotional weight I had been carrying on my head for years. I had finished with my past self. I was turning into a new person: the adult version of me. I finally looked more like a grown-up, though it would take years to actually feel like one. I now had the freedom to explore my identity and the woman I wanted to become. Becoming vulnerable made me see I had much more to learn about myself.