On a recent phone call with my aunt, I mentioned that I’d started cutting my hair again. They were just trims, but I told her I was considering a more substantial cut. “Not short,” she replied. “Your mom was so upset last time.”
I grew up in a college town near Sacramento that my parents selected for the high-quality public education. My siblings and I were among the few black students. My mother, who ensured that we were well-rested, fed and happy, poured hours into our appearance. Every morning before school, she’d sit me on the floor between her legs to undo the previous day’s braids. After brushing my hair with a wide-tooth comb and sectioning it into pieces, she would apply hair food from Sally’s Beauty Supply and transform my slept-on hair into fresh, sleek braids that tumbled over my shoulders — a source of pride for her.
We often learn what is beautiful from our mothers. Mine taught me what our Eritrean culture taught her: that long hair is preferred — a lesson I carried with me for years. It was reinforced by the Eurocentric standards of beauty featured in the magazines I was reading and television I was watching. The same so easily upheld by the white girls in my classes: Most of them had Rapunzel hair that was easy to run a brush through and I wanted to keep up. At times, trying to reconcile my Eritrean-American upbringing within the grander American narrative was difficult, but it made things simpler that long hair was preferential in both.
I decided I was too mature to let my mother give me pigtails around the start of junior high. Instead, I would gather my unbrushed curls into an unsophisticated bun and straighten the baby hairs that framed my face. I later moved on from just my baby hairs to my whole head, using a flat iron to fry my curls straight because it made my hair appear even longer than it was.
By the end of my sophomore year of college, my hair was damaged and uneven thanks to all the heat. Most people didn’t notice — but my mother did. Every trip home, she’d remark with incredible sadness in Tigrinya that I had ruined my hair — the hair she’d worked incredibly hard to nourish and maintain throughout my childhood. Unsettled by my mother’s disapproval (and the broken-off hairs that littered my bathroom sink), I made it my mission to grow my hair out even longer.
Warmed honey. Aloe. Oils. Less heat. More wrapping. A silk pillowcase — I did it all. My efforts eventually paid off when the disappointed stares from my mother were replaced with compliments. “Your hair is so long,” she’d say. “Brawah!” — Good job! I thought this would bring happiness and relief. Instead, it brought into sharp focus just how much of my identity was wrapped up in the length of my hair and my mother’s approval. Although I’d spent my whole life making aesthetic choices that were influenced by an external gaze, I couldn’t see that until I finally achieved what I thought I wanted.
Which is why, in September, I made an appointment to get my hair cut for the first time in six years. I felt guilty making the call, and sitting in the salon chair made me anxious, but I felt calm when the stylist started to cut. And despite the fact that he only cut off an inch, I felt lighter with each scissor snip. Walking out of the salon, I felt the fear I’d associated with cuts and the inflated value I assigned to long hair begin to recede.
In the months since, slowly but surely, I’ve cut off a few more inches. My hair feels healthier, my ponytail is lighter, and I like the bluntness of my ends. There’s an old trope that women seek empowerment through chopping their hair; and it’s true to an extent — there’s something freeing about exercising agency altering the way you look. What I’ve learned, though, is that it’s about more than that. Yes, hair-related decisions can be deeply personal. There’s a unique vulnerability attached to them because the outcome will be on display. But for me, these trims are not about my hair itself, or even about my presentation. They’re about what the decision represents: I can actively put distance between what I was taught and what I think. And while getting trims hasn’t changed my life, it has helped me realize that keeping my hair long in pursuit of someone else’s standard of beauty is a burden I no longer wish to carry.
Today, I no longer feel guilty telling my mother when I make appointments at the salon. In fact, I look forward to my next cut. And perhaps most importantly, my hair finally feels like my own.
Photos via Patricia Yacob.