I shaved my head a month ago, but it hit me while I was scrolling through Instagram. I’m twenty, so a lot of the content tailored to me is about college. A particular post that made me stop and think: a girl was shoving party clothes under the bed. It’s a frustration that must be felt around the globe; the independence to go and party during the spring semester was cut short.
But that’s not what struck me — what struck me were the clothes. I remembered owning clothes like that: fun colored cropped tops and short skirts. I was reminded of weekend afternoons spent in a college dorm, changing into different outfits and deciding which one was the cutest before stepping out into the night.
Wait, I thought. Why do I have nostalgia? I’m twenty.
Not much later, I opened an online clothing site with not much in mind. At the top of the page, there were suggested categories. I almost clicked on graphic tees, but I stopped. I saw a model in a tight top. It was labeled “Going Out”.
I paused for a moment with my cursor over the link. I used to wear clothes like that. The memories started flooding back like a VHS tape flying in reverse: walking tall down the street and greeting everyone I passed, almost always smiling. The way I dressed or looked wasn’t what I was focusing on. It was what I felt. I took pride in looking good. I was coming into being a woman and finding out what I liked.
For a short time last year, I worked as an overnight janitor at a gym. I was returning a duster to the front desk when someone who looked like him came in.
I lived with my aunt’s boyfriend as a child. He would always try to catch me in towels. He would stand in my doorway in the dark. I would run into my room and slam the door, sliding back against it and freezing, hoping he wouldn’t try to come in. When I had finally confronted someone about it I was told to stop walking back to my room from the bathroom in a towel. I was starting to be told to cover up more. Cover up more? I was thirteen.
Apparently that was enough. I hit puberty and I was a walking reproductive system — an object to be admired or judged. Men yelled out their windows about how hot I looked. The compliments were nice at first. I was even a little proud.
As I got older, the shouts were more frequent. Little by little, my routine was shifting. I started to wonder if my tops were low enough to get a head to turn, if my hair looked shiny enough in the light. I was always aware of my own presence and my moves became calculated. I continued my days like a Barbie, posing myself, making sure my angles were right. Catcalls became a tally in my head. If I got less than five, I’d wonder what I did wrong that day. Dressing became a chore.
Not long after my sixteenth birthday, I auditioned for a theater production in a light pink turtleneck and a skirt. Afterwards as I was winding down for the night, my stepmom came into my room with a sheer shirt and a black bra underneath. She turned the lamp towards herself.
Do you see that? You can’t wear a black bra under a shirt like that — especially not in the stage light. I could only blink at her. She was always the strongest supporter in telling me I should wear what I want. It felt like the last person in my corner finally walked out. You can’t wear skirts like that in the winter, and you should be wearing panty hoes. It looks trashy if you don’t. My body. My clothes. Trashy.
What was the line anymore, anyway? It all became muddled. Dressing wasn’t for me anymore. It was for a presentation: here I am, boys!
So I took scissors and I cut the back of my hair off. I felt the spot close to my head, now missing the thick hair. It felt good, like taking off a piece of clothing you didn’t ask to be wearing — finally changing from your Easter dress into your play clothes as a child.
I didn’t realize it at first, but my closet started changing. It started innocently enough, getting rid of some clothes I didn’t wear anymore and donating them to goodwill. Then little by little, all I started to wear was comfy, baggy men’s clothes. Everything I used to wear went into a garbage bag to be thrown into a thrift store drop box. I started avoiding mirrors.
It wasn’t enough. In February of 2018, I walked into a salon and asked if they had any time for a haircut. Within minutes, my hair was a pile on the ground. Looking at the locks, they didn’t even feel like mine.
I tried to grow it back out but months of frustration later, I walked into another hair salon and without feeling, I cut it all off again. Here’s the punchline: I didn’t like how it looked! In fact, I hated it, but my hair felt like chains and I was already having a hard time keeping my head above the water. The feeling of hair was just another reminder that I was letting a piece of myself out of my control.
Nothing would change the feeling. No different hair color, no haircut and no manicure would make me feel at home in my own skin. No outfit, no pair of shoes and no amount of makeup would let me feel confident at all.
So people no longer cat-called me unless they were telling me to smile. I stopped dressing up and going out completely. I waved off compliments, so far dissociated from the idea of physical appearance that the words meant nothing at all.
A month ago, I finally bought a pair of buzz clippers. It was the final thing I could do, to maybe get a bit of freedom. I took scissors and hacked away with no hesitation. An hour later my hair was on the floor. I thought I would feel something — some sort of parting sorrow to the strands around me. Nope. I didn’t even feel relief. When it boiled down to it, none of it felt like mine anyway.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. Every person hiding under a sweatshirt too big for their body, every person who can’t leave home without covering a scar and every person walking with their head down must have had something taken from them. Maybe it was the playground bully. Their parent. Their partner.
Maybe we all have something to take back.
My cursor still scrolled over the “Going Out” tab, this all hit me like a bolt of lightning. It was in front of me the whole time and I missed it, step one of a long road to reclaiming myself: if not for anyone else, what would I look like? I asked myself, what do I want to wear? What do I want my hair to look like when I grow it out again? What makeup do I even want on my face? Not what Vogue says I should want, and not what any body shape calculator online tells me I should wear.
I didn’t plan on it, but I bought two tight crop tops from that “Going Out” category that I know seventeen year old me would love.
Vanity may be a vice. One may argue that avoiding beauty and mirrors is beneficial. But in my case, I realize it was never about thinking I was beautiful for anyone else. It was about believing it for myself.
So now there’s no one in my way to tell me my skirt is too short. That is my judgement and mine alone. No one to tell me my hair looked better longer or shorter. That is my judgement and mine alone. No one to tell me how much makeup I should wear. It gets to be mine. I get to be mine.
By the way, I just looked over at a mirror. My hair is growing back in. Mine.