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The Long and the Short of It

First published in The Denver Post, May 24, 1998

I finally did it, after years of wondering, months of considering, weeks of yearning, days of vacillating, and the last final minutes of panicking. I had my hair cut short.

To those who experiment freely with their own hair, this may not seem like a big deal, but my identity has been framed by long hair ever since fourth grade when I finally persuaded my mom to cool it with the pixie haircuts. It was the beginning, for me anyway, of that hippie, let-your-freak-flag-fly movement. By junior high, my tresses were neatly parted down the middle and plastered obediently to my head. Because my hair was naturally curly, I did what any self-respecting '70s girl would do—I ironed it, leaning awkwardly over the ironing board in the basement, feeling the hot metal draw dangerously close to my scalp, smelling the unmistakable odor of singed hair.

In the big-hair '80s, I fit right in. I let my 'do go wild and it grew until I had a head the size of Kansas.

Near the end of my twenties, as I was scaling the corporate ladder, my long hair definitely made me look more secretarial and less professional than I wanted to appear. I marched right down to my hairdresser, Christine, and got it lopped to shoulder length. Still long, really, just more manageable, and more '90s.

And that's the way my hair stayed, stuck in a long-but-not-long, middle-of-the-road style. Sometimes I asked Christine to layer it a little more on top, or shape it a little differently, but really, it was a noncommittal 'do. Even though I'd pine over photos of cute, short haircuts, I was scared of looking old, androgynous, asexual. When faced with the age-old dilemma—"What should I do with my hair?"—I took the familiar, safe route. I kept it the same.

Last Tuesday I arrived at Christine's chair with the same old song and dance. Just trim it up, get the weight off the top. My friend Ellen appeared just then for her haircut, and her hair, curly like mine and previously shoulder-length, was short! Short and elegant. Short and easy to care for. Short and to die for. I looked longingly at her as she glided away to the shampoo sink.

Christine put a scissored hand on her hip. "Do you like her cut?" she asked, pulling my hair off my face and neck with her other hand.

"Mm hmm," I mumbled, heart pounding, knowing where this was heading.

"Ready to try it?" she asked. Her scissors flashed in the mirror.

"Sure," I heard myself saying. "It's just hair, it'll grow back." But I was thinking, what if I look like my fourth-grade pixie self, or worse, what if I look like my mother? Christine leveled her scissors and took one big snip, cold metal blazing a trail across the back of my neck.

Mostly I like my new short style. But the other day as I passed a window, I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar woman next to me with short, practical hair. I was dumbfounded, wondering who the heck that was standing in my reflection. As I reached to touch my newly shorn head, so did she. In that moment, I had a pang of longing. I missed my old self. But when I cocked my head, I saw a spirited, contemporary woman. My new self smiled. Definitely not a kid anymore, she looked sophisticated, maybe even a little sexy. She sneaked me a quick thumbs up, winked, and walked confidently away.