A year ago, I executed my reinvention, blissfully unaware, even in the midst of what felt like an epiphany, of what the act would mean when completed. I’d dragged the same wide-toothed comb through my hair with no regard for so many years, and then there it was, littering the floor with new beginnings in a matter of minutes. The pinnacle of my self-loathing gone in wait of something new.
The image of the mounds of hair on the checkered tile will always stick with me. My hands were clasped beneath my chin, fingers intertwined, body tense with the fear that maybe I was turning myself into a monstrosity. I can’t say the looks of my barber shop companions didn’t make me nervous. However, I’d already booked the appointment and dragged my best friend across town, so there was no going back, side eye or not.
The buzz of the clippers rang in my ears like television static when the barber asked me why I’d made such a drastic decision.
“I-I guess I just don’t want it to be the only thing people see anymore. I think of how much I hated it growing up and it breaks my heart. I’ll grow it back eventually. It sounds stupid, but I want to grow it back with love.”
The buzz halted as she looked in my eyes and understood; she’d done the same thing. We passed the rest of the time in silence, aware of the act of spirituality we were committing, this death so caught up in tragedy and beauty and the spectrum of things that lies in between. When she spun the chair around, I saw someone I’d never seen before, neck stretched and head high, almost regal with the glow of something better than what was before.
For as long as I could remember, my hair felt like the physical manifestation of my racial conflict. More often than not, my white suburb in the heart of the Midwest made me feel like a zoo animal. I experienced those same milestones every black girl does—wash day in the sink, yelping as my mom ran the comb through my kinks—but all the love and tenderness attached to them evaporated when I hit the pavement of the playground. They squeezed my perfectly parted puffballs and ran their fingers through my beads in a way that said, silently and unknowingly, you are something other. I shrank away from sitting at the front of the class and slouched in movie theater seats for fear I’d block someone’s view until I got tired of playing this game of Eurocentricity and Western beauty. I had no choice but to start over completely, my soul required the catharsis of a complete release.
A few months after the big chop I graduated high school, and after what felt like a much too fast summer, I found myself in the worn hands of the Big Easy. Navigating independence has been full of belly laughs and surprise and sadness, all under the umbrella of growth. Cutting my hair was a seismic turning point, but shedding my internalized conflict wasn’t— isn’t— nearly as expedited. While that day undeniably opened my heart to new possibilities, it may have been built on false expectations. I thought cutting my hair meant the completion of a linear process to racial formation, that I knew who I was and my place in all the communities I orbit. I was scared when I moved and didn’t immediately feel comfortable locking eyes with the people who looked like me on the street, when I kept thinking that maybe boys would never like me again because now, I was radically different than traditional conceptions of womanhood.
All these complexities have made living in New Orleans a never-ending test in character. This university offers me the same white-washed and precarious surroundings I was used to at home, but the city thrums with the promise of something more— more challenging, more introspective, more demanding. In reflection, my hair is not the mark of finality and acceptance, but a sign of accountability. After long days of questioning the measure of something as unquantifiable as my blackness or femininity, a look in the mirror reminds me that one day, if only for the 15 minutes it took for my hair to fall to the floor, I was strong enough to make the choice to exist for myself.