It all started when I was a child getting dressed for primary school in the morning. After I put on my red jumper and white socks, my mother would tie my wild, curly, Kate Bush–esque hair back in a style we coined the "teapot": a half-up, half-down hairstyle of sorts. Gingham-checked ribbons kept stray tendrils back from my face. I adored it. My teapot hairstyle saw me through my primary school years.
In high school, when most of my peers were investing in £5 boxes of peroxide from Superdrug, I swept my hair back with a tortoiseshell clip. My traditional hairstyle and non-conforming curls earned comments and jibes from peers who favored hair-straightening. I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t popular, and I didn’t fit in.
By the time I traveled to a more progressive college along the coast, I finally felt ready to explore the idea of switching up my hair story. Free from my high school peers' judgment, I started to wear skinny jeans and replaced my bulky backpack with trendier shoulder bags. I made new friends who loved life drawing and beach parties, and I worshiped my English teacher, who wore purple Doc Martens. I felt freer than I ever had before. But it turned out that transformation doesn’t occur overnight, nor could it be achieved by merely replicating the examples of confidence and individualism that surrounded me. I experimented with my physical appearance but still refused to reinvent my hair.
I worried about how wearing my hair down in public would be received, and found that my hairstyle did affect how I was treated. On the rare occasion that I wore my hair down in public, I always garnered attention — some of it pleasant, most of it unwanted. In the murk of London clubs, men took it upon themselves to stroke it. Women continually asked me why I opted for a "traditional" hairstyle, or made comments about its length, height, and unruliness.
As I grew older and learned more about the social significance of hair, I started to understand why I felt uncomfortable — deviant, even — when I dared to wear my hair down. While loose hair is now commonly interpreted as a mark of sophistication, sexual empowerment, and unwavering confidence, that wasn't always the case. Letting loose one's unruly hair was long seen as a conspicuous, attention-seeking act — and traces of this distaste are still evident in some people’s reactions to it. For years, I believed that the unsolicited attention my hair garnered was my fault, and I couldn’t untangle the reservations about my own self-worth from the negativity projected onto me over the years. So my hair stayed put, each loop of hair set. I was resigned to believe it would always be a burden.
As I embarked upon my early twenties, however, I realized that hair can play an important role in allowing women to construct new identities. Adjusting one’s appearance might sound simple in theory, but breaking free from long-held conventions can be a lot harder in practice — and deflecting new reactions to those changes can be even harder. Transformation is so often lauded as an empowering state of being that we frequently fail to acknowledge that it can be an experience of fear and apprehension, too.
Once I began to wear my hair without my old fear of objectification, my life improved. It took a long time to stop factoring in others' opinions, but wearing my long hair loose eventually became an act of personal celebration as well as a visual representation of my strength to the outside world. While I once longed to blend into the background, I am now more at ease with my femininity and sexuality than ever before. Most importantly, I’ve finally learned to forge a relationship with my body image that I’m happy with, instead of reflecting back what others want to see.
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