Overcoming Fear of Others: It’s Just Hair

I am no stranger to long hair. Almost my entire childhood, into my senior year of high school, I had hair that reached about the middle of my back.  And, I’ll be honest, I never really liked it.  I mean, it looked ok.  It didn’t make me feel ugly, or anything, but it was a hassle. It was always tangled, it never looked the way I wanted it to when I’d attempt to style it.  It was thick, but finely textured, and often slipped out of clips and hair ties.  Curls fell out within an hour or two of removing curlers. And it took FOREVER to dry because of its fine texture. But I was rarely allowed to cut it.  Why? Because I was taught that “A woman’s crown and glory is her hair.” Fair enough.  Women with lustrous locks of hair *are* beautiful.  There is just no denying that!  I have several sisters who have absolutely *gorgeous* heads of wavy dark brown hair. But to put those verses in their original historical context, in ancient times, when everyone wore long robes, hair could often be a big part of the distinction between the genders, and so veering one direction of the other often did seek to blur those distinctions – especially after Roman and Greek influence came into play.  And women in both Jewish and early Christian traditions wore head coverings to worship gatherings, which long hair was part of. In addition, in past centuries, a shaved head was often a sign of mourning, punishment, illness, contagion, imprisonment, poverty, or shame.  So, historically speaking, generally, not positive connotations. In that context those verses make sense.

Growing up, I feel that those ideas were often taken too literally, or, at least, emphasized beyond what was healthy in my family of origin. Growing up we were taught short hair on women was equated with lesbianism, or, at the very least, domineering uber feminists who militantly rejecting any kind of Biblical gender roles.   Pants were frowned upon as well in favor of dresses and skirts.  Pants were tolerated, but as I heard on more than one occasion from my Dad, “if you wear jeans too much, people will think you’re a ‘bull dyke’.” Lovely.  Not only untrue, but also couched in homophobic and hateful wording to boot.  To be fair, guys weren’t totally excluded either. Boys were expected to have short hair – cut so it touched neither ears, nor collar.  Not that too many guys in my church were tempted by skirts, but you definitely needed to look a certain way as a male, too. And all of that I took to heart, because it was how I grew up. 

I’ve also always been someone who thinks far too much about what people think of me, which can, in and of itself, be a form of selfishness and idolatry.  Fearing what people think more than what God actually thinks.  But this was coming from people I respected spiritually, so take that atmosphere with its rigid definitions and emphasis on outward appearance as indicative of one’s spiritual state, and it’s a recipe for neurosis.  I’d often find myself thinking too much about my appearance, or being afraid to veer too far out of the accepted norms, because “what if someone thinks…”  Not healthy from a psychological or spiritual perspective, really.  “Guys don’t like girls with short hair.” “Guys don’t like girls who wear pants too much.” “Don’t wear too much eye makeup, or you’ll look like a two-bit whore.” (yes, another favorite gem of my Dad’s).  But we were also taught if you were an adult woman and didn’t wear makeup, or keep up your appearance, you were “letting yourself go,” and husband would stop being attracted to you and cheat.  Wear skirts…but not short skirts. You get the picture.  While appearance wasn’t everything, and the heart was also emphasized, still, it was definitely clear that outward appearance was, nevertheless very important. There was a very fine line between acceptable and unacceptable expressions of feminine appearance.

Even after rejecting the “your hair must be long” standard, I still struggled off and on with finding an “acceptable” length or style of hair that I liked, but still wouldn’t open me up to too much scrutiny. I’d cut it, I’d grow it back out. Lather, rinse, repeat. And any time I’d put the time into growing it back out, I’d ended up wondering why. Haircuts and colors I’ve done in the past to switch things up often ended up being more expense and trouble than they were worth, or damaging to my hair. Keeping it long (well, long-er) was also time consuming, and I didn’t even really like how it looked on me, without spending tons of time on it.  I didn’t HATE my hair, but I was just kind of “meh” about it, and tired of spending so much time (and at times, money) on it, in one way or another. Even in stepping out of the old standards, my hair remained a source of fear and inner conflict between what I was taught growing up, and what I was beginning to realize as an adult – even into middle age.  My hair wasn’t the real issue.  My heart was.  And my fear of people’s expectations and opinions of me.

At some point I just grew tired of allowing myself to be held captive to this idea that women have to look a certain way or their gender identity, or femininity is called into question.  I was weary of being in bondage to fears about people’s perceptions of me. What does this rigid definition of feminine beauty say to women who have thinning hair, or have lost their hair to cancer, or alopecia, or who keep their hair short due to past abuse?  Who says that a woman can’t be stunning in short hair, or no hair at all?  Is hair length truly the that much of a gauge of feminine beauty? Isn’t that just another external standard that society holds women to?

Thankfully I met and married a guy who not only doesn’t mind short hair on women, he actually likes it, and he encouraged me to wear my hair however I wanted….long, short, and anything in between.  He made it absolutely clear that his love for me and attraction wasn’t tied to hairstyles.  That may sound like a “well, duh” but for me that was HUGE. It gave me a little more freedom to experiment with different looks. I tried pixie cuts off and on – especially after the birth of each of our children, and really liked them.  Then, in the past couple of years, I experimented with even shorter pixie cuts, and liked how they looked too. SUPER easy to maintain, I can cut it myself, and really no maintenance whatsoever (apart from my brief stint as an Annie Lennox-style platinum blonde). Every time, fighting back against residual fears of some kind of backlash, and still hearing my Dad’s voice in my ear, but ultimately reminding myself that I know I’m a woman, and short hair doesn’t change that.  And each time I was pleasantly surprised at how many people, even at church, said my hair suited me and was actually quite cute.  I am sure a good number in the “if you can’t say something nice” camp, and said nothing, but no one (with the exception of one drunk dude) was ever unkind.

Over the years, while occasionally dipping my toe in the waters of short hair styles I’ve Sinead O'Connor Digital Portraitbriefly entertained the thought of shaving it (almost) all off a la “Nothing Compares 2 U” era Sinead O’Connor, but again, those voices and doubts and fears would keep me from thinking about it for long. Would that be “too far”? Would people think I was about to leave Alvin and run away with a woman?  Would people think I was losing my mind, or having some kind of weird crisis? Would people think I was “ugly”? And so I’d put it out of my mind.  Not long ago I saw the husband of a friend wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt that his family bought him as a joke.  Turns out the joke was on them – because he loves the shirt. I thought, because of my short hair, that it might be funny to find a Sinead O’Connor t-shirt for Alvin to wear.  Couldn’t find one I liked, so I do what I always do, and I decided to make it myself. I started creating a digital portrait of Sinead O’Connor, using one of her old publicity photos as a model, and it turned out well.  What was weird was that after I finished, I realized, in that particular photo, and at that particular angle, that the portraited I’d created looked an awful lot like me with my head shaved. It was really strange. The more I looked at it, the more I thought, wow, that’s actually kind of pretty, and while certainly unconventional, that person doesn’t look at ALL masculine. It was more a pared-down, bare-bones minimalist beauty.

But, still, I wasn’t ready to go there.  

Not long ago we went to see a Talking Heads tribute band, and they had added a new gal to their band…and let me tell you, she was *totally* rocking the Sinead O’Connor almost bald look. Again, not  at all your traditional idea of feminine beauty, and not something every woman can pull off, but she looked gorgeous and still undeniably feminine. I toyed with the idea for another week, thinking about it every time I went to the bathroom and saw the clippers.  After asking some friends what they thought (I know, I know, old habits die hard…baby steps), I decided to go for it.  I mean what’s the worst that would happen?  Someone I don’t know, and who doesn’t know me, might think I could possibly be gay?  And? So what?  Anyone who knows me knows I’m not.  I told myself, “It’s. Just. HAIR.” And, besides, if I hated it, or Alvin absolutely hated it, hair grows back, and I’d be back to my recent pixie haircut in a matter of weeks. It’s a haircut, not a face tattoo.

So, with butterflies in my stomach, and still hearing some of the old fears, I went into the bathroom, grabbed the clippers, and went for it.  

Brooke with a super short buzz cutAnd do you what happened? Well, actually, let me tell you what did NOT happen: I didn’t suddenly start wanting to kiss ladies, or leave my husband, or become a member of PETA, or get a hankering to tear up pictures of the religious leaders on late night comedy shows, or burn my bras (um, no thanks – I need them), or start compromising my faith or principles. Surprise! I was still me. I still loved God.  I was (and am) still someone in dire need of the grace of Christ and dependent on His strength to get through life. I was still a devoted wife and a mom.  I still liked makeup, and dangly earrings, and painting my nails, and my absolute “she-shed “of a home office.  Absolutely nothing had changed except the length of the hairs on my head, and, well, it takes a lot less time to get ready in the morning.  Weird, right? And as a special bonus, I managed to take a selfie that actually looked good for once, to show the world.

It should go without saying that NONE of this is to say that I believe having short hair is the way to go either.  It’s totally a matter of personal preference.  What I’m talking about is not letting fear, preoccupation with people’s opinions or society narrow ideas about “beauty,” or even out of context Scripture passages quoted by, perhaps, well-meaning believers, hold you in bondage.  I’d also caution against wearing our hair certain ways just to try to piss people off – which is just another way of allowing other people’s opinions and expectations to dictate your choices – in that instance taking the form of defiance. And you there – because I see you, sister – who don’t really have the option to have long, lustrous locks, for any number of reasons, beyond you control – you are lovely.  Or those of you who DON’T happen to like dangly earrings and makeup and painting your nails. No matter what your look is, or whether you choose to wear your hair as is, rock a shaved head, or opt to wear a gorgeous (or wild) wig, because, darn it, it’s just what you feel like doing, you are beautiful no matter how you wear your hair, or don’t.

At the end of the day, people don’t have to like my hair – I know many won’t. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  And that is absolutely, 100% OK. And, at least for me, that is a freeing place to finally be. We don’t all have to look the same, or like the same things.  People can have whatever opinion they want to about however I wear my hair.  Whether I keep the Sinead look for a while, or grow it back out, the difference now is that I’m going to try to not let other people’s opinions – or even worse, my *assumptions* about what their opinions are –  define my femininity and ideas of what beauty is *for* me.

I am female.  I am straight.  I embrace my Biblical identity as a woman.  I am beautiful, and I am feminine. And I have a shaved head….well, at least until I decide to try out some other crazy hair style.