I have had a tumultuous relationship with my hair since birth. It took almost two years for it to grow in when I was a baby, according to my mother. When my hair finally did fill in, it was so thick and wavy, my sister often taunted me with the nick name “mop head.” (I am still not totally over it!) Not long after the mop filled in, my mother cut my hair in an identical style to the version she gave my brother, who was almost three years older and obviously a boy. That summer at camp my bunkmate asked me, “Are you a he or a she?” For the rest of the week I cried into my pillow every night and begged my dad to take me home. When I was in third grade, I decided to give myself a haircut the night before school picture day. The result was jagged bangs that were no more than a half-inch long. The shameful reminder was on exhibit in our living room for at least a year. In middle school, I decided a perm was the best way to tame the mane, but it only resulted in unrulier girth that I complemented with even bigger bangs. (Hey, it was the ’80s!) At the end of high school and into college, I fancied myself a bohemian hippie type and therefore rarely washed or even brushed my hair. At this point, I had resigned myself to weary ambivalence about it.
By my mid-20s, when romantic relationships and a career became my priority, I discovered straight irons, John Frieda Frizz-Ease, and the salon blowout. Around 30, I started to embrace all the changes my hair had gone through from hormonal spikes during and after my two pregnancies. This produced manageable waves that only required minimal maintenance on special occasions or very humid days. I now had the confidence to grow my hair out into long moldable locks that I could tease and torture however I liked. This was empowering. I had a new identity under my cape of hair that now reached the middle of my back. It made me feel feminine yet protected with a secret strength, like Superman. It became a defining trait: Amy with the long dark hair.
As I turned the corner into my 40th year of life, my world became unrecognizable to me. I was suddenly recovering from major back surgery, in the process of a sobering divorce and starting a new and challenging job. I had fallen clumsily backwards into a pool of overwhelming life changes and felt unable to even dog paddle my way through most of them. To keep my head above water, I redefined my roles in my family, in my work and in my mind. Toward the end of the year, I was exhausted, but I had learned to tread water in the choppy deep I had plunged into. I had mastered uncomfortable lessons in vanity, indignity and perseverance, among other things. My hair, that was at times my security blanket, now seemed to have no power or purpose, just weight.
I decided that for my birthday I was going to treat myself. I needed a revitalization and I was longing for a mint head scrub to relax and rejuvenate me. I called my salon and set the appointment. Many times in the past, I had made appointments and then cancelled them because I had to take one of my kids to soccer practice or the other to the orthodontist. This time, I was determined to keep this commitment and promised myself that I was a priority, if only this once. When I sat down in the chair my stylist asked, “What are we going to do today?” I replied, “Cut it off. Cut it all off!” Without hesitation, she braided my hair, which was by this time down to my waist, and began cutting as if trying to slice through a thick rope securing a ship to a dock. She held up the severed twist like it was a trophy and waved it over my head. Upon looking at it, I felt like I had just amputated a perfectly good limb. I swallowed tears of regret and smiled at her hopefully.
She began shaping up the remaining strands and, as I saw the featherlike tresses floating down to the floor, I felt more freedom with every snip. When she spun me around for a look in the mirror, the result was a razor-sharp chin-length cut that made me look instantly my real age and at the same time young again. I collected my braided scion from the stylist’s table and headed home. I was hardly able to drive without weaving because I kept catching glimpses of my reflection in the rear view mirror and thought a stranger had suddenly climbed into my car.
When I got home, I studied the swath from all angles, looking it over as if it held some wisdom or insight from the many years it took to grow it. It did not. I still had everything intact inside of me that gave me strength and identity and those things were still growing. What I held in my hands was just hair; dead cells that I had cut away. I gently packaged the cord of hair in an envelope and sent it to an organization that makes wigs for children that have lost their hair from cancer treatments. I mailed it the next morning with my blessings that it would find a young girl looking for the confidence, strength and identity I know it can provide, but that I no longer need.
Learn more about Locks of Love at www.locksoflove.org.
Amy Martin is the production assistant for Mt. Lebanon Magazine and is the Assistant to the Public Information Officer in the Mt. Lebanon Public Information Office.