It Was Never “Just Hair”
On internalized patriarchal beauty standards, painful childhood memories, and a life-long quest for self-love.
The day before my appointment, as I was going to bed, I felt a familiar ting of anxiety. I thought about canceling, but I knew my hair needed a serious trim.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt that same sensation, a tightening in the chest that I could recognize from a mile away- it was my anxiety-ridden brain screaming:
DON’T DO IT.
Even if I couldn’t really understand it yet, I could sense that something big was about to happen. I noticed the resistance (several months of meditation and mindfulness therapy will do that to you) and decided that I needed to push despite the fear.
See, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with hairdressers. The main reason is that I, like all the women on the Moroccan side of my family, have A LOT of dense and curly hair.
No need to say that growing up, most salons had no idea how to cut or style it. But they would always applaud the volume of my hair and tell me how lucky I was.
Lucky? I felt no such thing when I inevitably ended up leaving the place crying, swearing to myself to never let a pair of scissors come near my head ever again.
But I was a kid and no one really cared if I liked my haircut or not.
To them, it didn’t matter that I was the ugliest girl in 6th grade with my mess of lifeless curls — in addition to braces, glasses, no boobs, and being the tallest among girls and boys.
It didn’t matter that I dreamt every night that I would wake up the next day with straight, blond hair just like my best friend Camille, just like all the girls I was seeing in beauty magazines and on television.
So when I was old enough to choose and pay for a hairdresser on my own, I decided to look for someone who would know how to take care of my curls.
That angel with scissor hands was called Alexis and for the past 6 years, he’d been the only person allowed to touch my hair. I sometimes waited months until I was able to travel back home just to get an appointment with him, and over the years we developed a beautiful relationship of trust and fondness. He made me feel gorgeous, special, seen.
Thanks to him, I learned to forgive and even fall in love with my beautiful main.
Except that this time, going back to see Alexis was not an option, and I was forced to do more research to find a suitable replacement. I had chosen this place because they were supposed to be experts in curly hair, as shown on their Instagram and the dozens of before/after shots picturing trendy girls of all hair colors and differently sized but nonetheless loud and proud curls.
If not in Alexis’ hands, this had to be the place where I would leave happy and beautiful.
I walked into the salon and waited my turn, browsing articles on my phone to distract myself. Every now and then, I checked my long hair in the mirror, anticipating that it would soon be gone, already feeling a sense of loss.
I couldn’t help but look around and notice everyone’s curls: that one had them flaming red and short, another black with stylish black… Finally, the hairdresser sat me and asked what we were going to do: I hesitantly explained to her the situation.
We agreed to cut the ends (they really needed it) and bring back some volume to the top. That’s what I always went for with Alexis, so despite the normal fear that came with any hairdresser appointment, I was pretty confident.
But that didn’t last. The hairdresser and I were casually making conversation with another client, and before I realized it, she had cut through most of my hair.
It was too late to go back, so I difficulty articulated: “Just so you know, I’m dying a little inside seeing how little hair I got left”, half-smiling, eyes filled with tears. She didn’t notice and brushed it off:
“No, you’re good!”
There it was: that feeling from my childhood, the exact same thing that would overwhelm me when I came upon my reflection in the mirror.
I exited the salon without showing how I felt inside, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad. But one look in the closest window set me straight: I didn’t even recognize myself. My beautiful, sexy, curly, long hair had disappeared.
I was staring at someone else.
I wasn’t just crying, I was uncontrollably sobbing, gasping for air, and shaking in the middle of the street. I ran home, mouthing “What have I done, what have I done” in horror.
I need to pause for a second here because as I’m writing those words I can hear you think: “What the heck is she talking about? It was just hair”. And in a way, you’re right: that’s exactly why, in addition to the pain I was feeling, I added an extra layer of judgment for being such a shallow and narcissistic person.
But without a surprise, that didn’t make me feel better. So I decided to dig deeper and started questioning what I was feeling exactly (another trick I learned in therapy).
What was this meltdown telling me? Slowly, it became clearer: I had gotten rid of the one thing that encapsulated my feminity, beauty, and strength all at once.
Growing up in a world where beauty magazines and advertisers are paid by international corporations to make you feel ugly so that you’ll buy their products, I, like so many other girls, had developed a twisted and extreme form of self-hatred.
My face didn’t cut it, and my body was not a reliable measure because of its changing nature. But my hair, my long, sexy, curly hair that I finally knew how to style and had gotten so many praises about… That was what made me pretty, what I needed to hold onto the most. Even after years of therapy (yes, again) and deconstructing the patriarchal society we live in, I couldn’t free myself from that mindset.
Because no, it’s not just hair. It was never just hair. It was the cracking down of a fragile ego in a fucked up world that emphasizes women’s appearance to the point that we end up seeing ourselves as mere reflections of people’s projections onto us.
And that’s what I was grieving, as I stood in the middle of the street, unapologetically melting down. I was grieving the way my former self had always relied on others’ validation to feel pretty. I was grieving the need to be pretty to feel valuable.
I was grieving a life of self-loathing and internalized objectification and as I grieved and shed all this, I caught a glimpse of what could be: finally working on my appearance-related traumas, eventually freeing myself from the pressure of having to conform to a single way of looking — thin, with long hair and clear skin, shaved, toned, quiet, invisible.
With my new hair, a beautiful bundle of short and voluminous curls, I would take the space I deserve and never be afraid of being seen. I would start living, and not just to be seen.