I Would Grow My Hair To Cover the City

I had a dream last night where my hair was long and black and cut to my shoulders. I remember it being natural, like it had always been this way and I had just never noticed. I remember running my hands through my hair, feeling the length of it touch my cheeks, my neck, my shoulders. When I woke up I plodded to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror, running my hands through my hair: buzzed on the sides, short on top. My head, a bristle-brush comb. I pull at the hair on the top of my head so it stands up from my scalp.

My grandfather didn’t recognize me the last time I saw him. The last time I went to see my family in New York City I sat in the kitchen on a stool next to my mom. He is in his nineties, bird-bone thin and frail, a sparrow, and all I think of when I see him is him in my ten year old eyes, watching him show me how to use an electrometer, pulling the parts out from boxes in a closet in the hallway. Now he turns to my mom and says in Toisanese, “Where is your little girl?” He puts his small thin hand out in the air close to the floor as if measuring the height of a six year old, measuring my height. My mom says in Toisanese, “She’s right here,” patting me on the shoulder. “She’s right here.” He looks at me, startled. My mom says, “It’s because of her short hair that you didn’t recognize her.”

Picture 1

Me, taken in 2012.

I look into the mirror and I want to pull my hair, every follicle attached to a spool of black fishing line under my scalp. I want to pull and pull and pull until every strand is touching my shoulders. I want to pull until every strand is down to my knees. I pinch patches of buzzed hair between my thumb and forefinger but the tug never gives to the release and zip of a line thrown out to water. I want to undo every time I cut my own hair with a set of electric clippers in the kitchen of my apartment these past nine months, my wife going through and making sure the cut is even. I want to pull and undo my short masculine hair, my “Sir, do you need help with anything” in the supermarket, the “What can I get you, son?” at the diner, the “He was in line first,” at the movie theater.

I want to undo the hair that has inched me closer to who I am, made me feel the most like me that I have ever felt. It’s the hair that gave me the courage to tell airport security that I am female bodied when I went through the body scanner. It’s the hair that showed me the first step to figuring out how my body felt under men’s cut clothes, the courage to go into the section of the store where the male mannequins stood, the first step to binding, the first step to making my body my own.

It is the hair that has given me who I am but has made me feel farther from myself than I have ever felt. It is the hair that quieted me in my grandparent’s kitchen. I went to the living room to sit by myself after my grandfather didn’t see me, six years old, under his palm. The hair that meant I was growing up and getting old and he was growing old and getting older and it meant that things were changing and I was changing and he was changing. It was the hair that made me see how I didn’t fit into the four-foot space between his outstretched hand and the floor, measuring the inches of child-me, the one with the long hair, the one with the girl face, the one who has a place in my grandparents’ kitchen.

Taken in 2007.

Taken in 2007.

I first shaved my head in a cabin in Maine when I was 19, after I had come out to my parents and often found myself crying in the shower, on the train, in the bus, in my bed. When I first saw the hazy specter of myself in the flashlight-lit mirror in the dark of the bathroom, no hair to cover my scalp, the nape of my neck, I saw myself as my grandfather: hazy, myself but not myself. My head was the texture of someone else’s head. My body was a part of someone else’s body. I had made a mistake. I was losing parts of me in patches: The tuft of hair at the top of my head, the skin on my knees. I was losing myself and losing my family. All I saw in the mirror in the woods was what I missed: My father’s eyes, my mother’s cheekbones, my grandfather’s mouth. I found myself crying, hand on the sink, hand in my cactus hair.

I wanted to get it back. I started growing out my hair, sharp and jagged and haphazardly mulleted. I refused to cut it as it grew, feeling the length at the back of my neck as the return of something familiar. All I could do was wait for my hair to be long again to undo what I had done, to unsee what I had seen: An aging man, an aging granddaughter, a lack of time. I didn’t think about my hair much then, what it looked like. What I cared about was its length. I counted the inches, waited for the moment when it would be back to normal, when I would look the way I used to, and maybe he would look the way he used to, too.

But 12 months later, my hair grown into a bob cut, we were still old, and getting older, and I was still me and unhappy and gay and lonely and it didn’t fix anything. I wanted my hair to be a time machine, a way of going back. I was willing to do anything to get child-me back, the girl under my grandfather’s palm, the one he missed, the one he was wondering and asking about, instead of me, myself: Short men’s hair cut, plaid men’s shirt, deep voice, five foot eight. I was a foot and eight inches too tall, hair too short, missing someone even though he was right in front of me. I knew he missed me, too, sitting next to him, close enough to hold his hand.

Taken in 2008, immediately after I shaved my head.

Taken in 2008, immediately after I shaved my head.

I want to be the granddaughter he remembers so badly. I want him to see me and know that I am my mother’s daughter. I want him to believe that nothing happened in the last six years, after I came out, found myself alone, found myself no longer a daughter but a disappointment, my marriage a secret my parents don’t tell their friends. I want him to believe that I am the same girl I grew out of, the one with the long, long hair and braids. I want him to believe it so badly that I want to believe it, too: That I am a daughter who is welcome even though my mother asked me not to come to Christmas last year. I want to believe that I am accepted even though my grandfather does not know that I am married and this is a secret we will keep from him, now, until he passes away. I want to believe that I am loved and loved and loved even though I have to go to Thanksgiving alone, and this Christmas alone, in order to see my mother and father and brothers. I want to believe that it is easy, pretending like this is okay, that my wife is not a part of me, like my heart is not missing.

My dad tells me that this will take time, but he did not tell me that time hurts. It feels like all of this is my fault, but my wife tells me it isn’t when we are sitting on the couch, our foreheads pressed against each other, her hand on my cheek. It feels like if I could have fought more, things would be better. If I had done nothing at all, maybe things would be better. I want to undo it, as easy as letting my hair grow into shocks of black to my shoulders and elbows and knees. I would do it; I would let my hair grow to the floor. I would grow my hair out to the carpet. I would have it trail yards behind me as I walked. I would have it grow out the door, out of the apartment building, if I could. I would grow my hair out to cover the city if I could get it all back.

Taken 2010.

Taken in 2010.

But my hair is still buzzed, clipped over my ears, and it was too late to grow my hair out for this Christmas, and I do not know how much time I have left with my grandfather. I want him to see me and know that it is me who is sitting next to him. I want him to know this one more time if I can. As I stand over my bathroom sink, staring into the mirror, I imagine my hair is a spool, and I pull out the length of the strands, one by one, willing them to luxuriously long lengths. I imagine myself as not myself, at my grandparents’ apartment this Christmas, wearing makeup, a women’s blouse, long hair combed to the middle of my back: What he thought I would grow up to be, what my mom thought I would grow up to be. I want to pretend that it is easy.

So I do: My hair is long, and I am straight and I have no wife; I am single, and I am happy. I am happy to see my family, and everyone greets me at the door and my grandfather sees me and calls me Whitney. My mother tells me that she told her friends about me at church, at her volunteer work, and that everyone is excited to see how I am doing. I am sitting on the stool in the kitchen and I know I belong, and I have never questioned this. I brush my hair out of my face, tuck the long locks behind my ear. I look up to see the faces of my family and I take this all for granted. I take it all for granted.

And then, I wake up.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

Avatar of Whitney

Whitney is a lover of food, books, comic books and journals made for left-handed people. She is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, where she studies video games and new media. She is also a graphic designer, writer and editor who has worked for places like Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match, Publishers Weekly and The Feminist Press. Check out her blog at whitneypow.com and follow her on Twitter @whitneypow.

Whitney has written 51 articles for us.

77 Comments

  1. Thumb up 10

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    Whitney, this is absolutely, achingly beautiful. You always completely blow me away with your writing. I feel so lucky to know you and I’m so honored that you share these feelings with us. I wish I could reach out and hug you right now (if you’re a hugging person).

  2. Thumb up 20

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    God, this piece ripped me apart. Living at home means I’ve been growing my hair out, and I can’t decide if it’s the strangest thing in the world, or the most painful. Whatever sense of self we gain when we cut off all our hair shouldn’t be so easy to lose, or so grounded in something as tangible as hair, but there it is, right? I know your relationship with your family is incredibly difficult, but know that you have a huge support system of readers and community members who care and understand and embrace you no matter what.

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      Thanks, Kate — I have been scared to write about this for a while, but I feel like I can speak about it now. Hair is so tied up in identity and choosing to be exactly who we want to be and how we want to present ourselves. Hair can also do the opposite — it can be a part of us pretending to be who we should be and how we think we should present ourselves. I guess what I’m saying is that it feels less lonely knowing that other people are going through this, too, and that there is a community here that understands what this is like.

  3. Thumb up 5

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    <3. I think this is a big part of why I've never cut my hair and even so, there have been so many times that I wished I was dressed more feminine around my grandparents. No matter how many times my grandfather proudly introduced me to people and told me how much he loved me, there were still times when I couldn't shake the feeling of wanting to be that granddaughter. And as complicated as it all is and as much as I wish that nobody felt like they had to present themselves in a specific way to feel closer to the ones they love, I find a little comfort in knowing that I loved him that much.

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      Big hearts forever. <3 <3 <3. Family is so important. It is not just about presenting ourselves the way we think we need to look to be loved, but to accept the love that is given to us, even when we don't think we deserve it. You're very brave for loving your grandfather so much.

  4. Thumb up 7

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    Okay I’m a lurker bu this article struck a nerve! I have soooooooo many feeling about this, that I can hardly put it into words. It’s so weird how something as small as a haircut can be a manifestation of so many feelings and concepts and identities – I mean really, it’s just hair. I cut my hair short right after I came out to myself and my close friends but before I came out to anyone else, and it was the most dysphoric thing I’d ever felt. It felt right but so wrong at the same time. It felt like by being visibly queer, I was not being fair to my family. I mean, they didn’t ask for a gay daughter, and by having short hair it felt like I was rubbing it their faces. Now that I’m completely out I’m terrified to cut my hair again. I just wish everyone could dress and look and act how they feel without their being any negative connotations or stereotypes around it. okay rant over, thank you so much for writing this :) I hope things get better!

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      <3. It is hard trying to figure out the balance between family and self. For me, I've been trying to figure out how much I need to give to my family in order to be accepted and loved, and I'm learning that I come first sometimes, too, and what I need is important, too. If my hair is short then yes, it might be difficult, but it's important to me and I'm learning to accept that people will still love me, short haircut or not.

  5. Thumb up 2

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    I sometimes get old forwarded letters from my grandparents, sent to the wrong address, and addressed to the wrong last name…if only it was about the length of my hair.

    Thank you for your searing writing on estrangement, Whitney. I wish things were different, but I guess then we’d have to be different people too.

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    This is wonderful and so painfully relatable. Your writing style is beautiful. Though I have long hair, my life with my family right now is very much the awkward gray area between “closet” and “full acceptance” where I pretend I’m single and don’t talk about being queer so that I can have a relationship with my sister and niece. I wish you all the best in the future- you and your wife seem like a great couple, and I hope you get more quality time with your grandfather in the time he has left.

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      Thanks, Eliza. I have been in the gray area too, and it is difficult having to pretend that a huge part of my life doesn’t exist in order to have my family. I am still trying to figure out the balance between myself and my family — what I feel like I have to give and what I should give. I’m learning that I’m important, too, and what I need is important, even when I want to make myself and my life so tiny and invisible with my family to be loved and accepted. You are very brave. You are not alone. And you are very important.

  7. Thumb up 3

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    I’ve been waiting for a piece on Autostraddle about this season and what it’s like for the rest of us. Thanks for writing this, it’s very brave and eloquent and also your hair is super cute.

    Do you write poetry? I hope so.

    More power to you.

  8. Thumb up 1

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    Man, the feels I am getting right now even with my beer face. I. Can’t. Even.

    You’re so brave and the way you wrote the article, it’s painfully beautiful. So painfully beautiful. More power to you! And I hope you continue to be on AS. To inspire people and let people know that they’re not alone. To give us more than just the feels. It’s weird you know…’cause I was actually planning on cutting my hair short but then I’ve always ALWAYS wondered what people would say particularly the fam. I just so get you with the whole grandfather thing; in my case it’s my grandmother who doesn’t know anything about my sexual orientation and I’ve thought that it would be something she’d never know..Is that like an Asian thing??

    Thanks for writing this dude..Thank you. *bowing motions with hands*

  9. Thumb up 5

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    Thank you Whitney, for so beautifully weaving this article and more importantly, for sharing this.

    I became very emotional as I read this, and reason being is that I emphasize so strongly with your words and your metaphors and your experiences.

    Recently having gotten a hair cut myself, where I went from having extremely long dark hair to a boyish pixy cut, I have of late been ignored by my mother (which has had a huge impact on me emotionally, and is draining). My mother and I have always been very close. For my birthday and the holidays, however as a result of the haircut, she did not speak much to me at all, or even acknowledge my presence.

    I was very particularly feminine before I had cut my hair short, and still am very feminine after the fact. However, cutting my hair brought more visibility to my queer status in my mothers’ eyes. It’s been the kind of deal where, out of sight, out of mind, has been the main theme for navigating my identity and romantic relationships. Basically, it was the deal where “gay is o.k” as long as gay looks and portrays itself a certain way where it is invisible, or where it follows certain rules.

    While I have come out to her, this kind of visibility is not something she was able to deal with and is not something she was working towards attempting to tolerate. She has since stated being embarrassed to be seen in public with me, and wishes she could have her daughter back.

    This isn’t the first time that I have cut my hair off before either, but this is the first time I have cut my hair while being out.

    I know the feeling of wanting to have the hair back, in the hopes you’ll find that acceptance and inclusitivity once again. To show and prove that you’re still the same person. The constant thoughts of re-growing your hair out, to reassure yourself that things will be ok again, once the hair returns. The feeling of anguish and regret when you stare at your reflection in the mirror, the novelty of your new short haircut now having worn off. The sleepless nights spent thinking about conflicts that could’ve been avoided, had you sacrificed your own preferences for the ones of your parents and relatives.

    The constant guilt, the constant pain, confusion, loneliness.

    I know that, I feel it.

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      <3 <3 <3 forever. I experienced something similar with my mom when I came out to her — it was very hard for me when she experienced my queerness as a betrayal of her. I think it had more to do with her and her expectation of me and my life than it had to do with my own choices that I made as an individual. And as a daughter, I could only make sense of this betrayal by pinning the blame for our struggling relationship on myself and the things that I did "wrong," even though the reality of it was much more complicated than that. Even when I'm aware that all of the difficult family things aren't my fault, I still want to go back to a place in me that almost wants all of this to be my fault — just so that I can have control over something, even if that something is feeling like I betrayed somebody, when the reality is that I am queer, and I don't have a choice about it, and the family things have more to do with my mom and her feelings. You are very brave. There are times when I worry, too, that I hadn't given enough to making things better but I think I did all I could. And I think you're doing all you can. And you're not alone.

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    This was beautiful and touching.

    I’m kind of on the opposite end of things because I never did the requisite lesbian chop that seems like a rite of passage. I’m extremely attached to my waist-length hair. It’s voluminous and curly and would look terrible short. As a result, I have pretty much zero visibility, though I desire and crave a way to be identified. It’s like I’m invisible at Truck Stop.

    My sexy butch roommate that I had a crush on did compliment my hair a lot, which made me happy.

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      Long hair solidarity! I chopped mine a few months ago, on my own terms, cos I wanted to, after several years of being the girl in the gay bar with long hair. The dyke chop is so not worth is only fun if it’s for you and you alone. It can be difficult sometimes, looking a bit outside of people’s expectations for what a queer woman is allegedly ‘supposed to’ look like. People are dense sometimes, but the interesting ones always figure it out eventually!

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        Yes! I feel like it would be fun for a few seconds and then I’d be like “ahh, fuck, not working.” I was trying to figure out some long gay hair ideas but no such luck. It also intersects with being bi, so it’s kind of a double whammy. It took years to realize that I’m a blue jeans femme at heart and to learn to embrace that. Here’s hoping I meet someone who loves me for me

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    Oh wow what a sucker punch square in the feels! This was gorgeous Whitney, thank you for sharing. Hair is so mixed up in identity for everyone, I think that it can often become a battle ground with those people that just are not comfortable with the person you’ve become. I’ll never forget coming out to my mom and her saying through gritted teeth “Just don’t cut your hair anymore. You look like enough of a lesbian as it is” Seriously Mom? I think ‘stop fucking girls’ would have been a better order to issue if you were that worried!

  12. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you for putting into words everything I’ve wanted to say but could never seem to. I still can’t find a balance between pleasing my family and myself. Even though this was hard to read, it made me feel less alone about everything.

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    And now I’m crying. This is the first year I missed out on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I haven’t spoken with my paternal Grandma in over a year even though as a woman I resemble her more than any other family member. This article really helped me process those feelings. Thank you.

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    I’m growing my hair out because I recently internalized that I don’t have to have short hair in order to be gay, ha. I’m a little nervous because hair is such a big signifier in LGBT culture, and I’m afraid of the reactions from friends and family who have only seen me present one way (MOC) since coming out. But my gender feelings are a little more complicated than that.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking essay.

  15. Thumb up 0

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    So I’m just crying at my desk at work, don’t mind me.

    This was an absolutely beautiful and brave and breathtaking piece. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
    Us Autostraddlers would love you if your hair was as long as a highway or if your head was shiny bald.

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    Gd every time I read this i get chills. It is so wonderfully written and heartbreakingly beautiful. Thank you for taking your pain and turning it into art an sharing it with us so we can know we are not alone. As so many others have said, it is amazing how important hair is to our communal identity. I’m usually a lurker but this one struck a cord. Hair was a big issue between me and my parents for a long time. Maybe because it was easier to talk about the length of my hair than what it represented to each of us

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