“You’re pretty strong for a girl.”
In retrospect, I believe it was those six brief but toxic words that sounded the death knell for the beautiful, flowing locks of sandy brown hair I sported as an eight-year-old.
They were uttered to me at the St. Croix Valley YMCA summer day camp after an archery lesson left a blunt-tipped arrow embedded firmly in a hay bale, unyielding as Excalibur to the pre-adolescent grasp of my fellow campers. In an uncharacteristically bold display of physical prowess, I stepped up to have a go and successfully wrested the arrow free.
“You’re pretty strong for a girl.”
My pride turned cold on the spot. This particular little punk had been harassing me all week long, taking every opportunity to solicit and then reject my assertions that I was, in fact, a boy, in spite of my androgynous appearance. I have to imagine he had never before encountered a boy who looked like a girl, and found it vitally important to deny the possible existence of such a disconcerting creature, affirming and enforcing his duality-based worldview. Sadly, my own understanding of my gender was scarcely more sophisticated than his- I doubt I could have articulated even to myself what I was, let alone defend my identity to a hostile stranger. If I ever magically acquire the ability to travel back through time and offer advice to a single past incarnation of myself, I will without hesitation go straight to this moment at day camp and pull myself aside.
“Hey,” I will say to me, “Listen. I love you, but you are making a big mistake. You and I both know the reason you grew your hair out in the first place is so you’d look like a girl. And you are the most beautiful girl in this whole fucking town…don’t say that word til you’re older. But listen, this jerkface is seeing the real you and trying to make you feel bad about it. Don’t let him! You want to look like a girl. You always will want to. Right now you’re succeeding, and if you learn to ignore the haters and keep on being your beautiful, girly little self, you will save us both a LOT of trouble further down the line. Okay? Now get back out there and tell that little asswipe to go fuck himself…don’t use those words. Just ignore him. And always remember that you are beautiful and I love you!”
Unfortunately, I did not have the hard-earned wisdom of my latter-day self to guide me, only that bully and his taunting and an unceasing accumulation of a thousand tiny weights: confused questioning from my classmates, uncertain double-takes from adults, and the constant, well- meaning, intolerable reassurances that it was entirely possible to be a perfectly normal, manly little boy in spite of my silky, swishy hair. These weights added up day by day in the year following that fateful archery lesson. And I can’t deny the memory of grinning in relief as I stood up from the hairdresser’s chair, caught off guard by the sudden new sensation of my freshly shorn head: weightless.
I arrived at college with a beautiful, sandy gold ponytail swinging behind me, and soon embarked on a quest to transfigure my hair into the expressive accessory I had always wanted it to be: not just long, not just “grown out,” but markedly and visibly feminine.
It was an uphill battle. My hair hung gracelessly straight and blunt when I wore it down, so I mostly kept it pulled back from my face. Standing between two mirrors, I relished the look of my usual gently cascading ponytail or occasional scrunched-up attempts at a bun- but the view from the front was a different story. I cursed my sky-high forehead, and the breakage that left impudent, frizzy tufts perennially sprouting from my temples. I slowly began to develop, one painful, on-the-fly lesson at a time, some sense of the importance of blow-drying, styling products, and regular haircuts- to maintaining the kind of cared-for appearance that people would understand as pretty. It was a lot to take in all at once. Given that I’d spent years habitually neglecting my hair, I struggled to incorporate these new expenditures of time and energy into my routine.
But I had come to a turning point. No longer content to ignore my appearance and downplay my queerness, no longer willing to settle for a ponytail that caused many high school classmates to read me as some sort of anachronistic, 21st-century hippie, no longer tolerant of being seen as the Shaggy of the Scooby Gang, I had my sights set on Daphne and I would realize all my high femme dreams or die trying. There was no turning back. I had taken the red pill and plunged down the rabbit hole, aware now of my past ignorance, determined to correct all my beauty transgressions and bring about the dawn of a glorious style future.
There was just one problem. For all the small triumphs I began to achieve – the photographs of myself that didn’t make me cringe, the compliments from friends and co-workers – there was one key demographic whose admiration I was still failing to attract. Namely, men, or at least gay men close to my own age.
Now I consider myself a proud feminist, well-versed in the critiques of the second and third waves, and I’d be goddamned if I was going to tailor my appearance for the sole purpose of appealing to the male gaze, even the male gays’ gaze. Still, my romantic history consisted of little more than a handful of abortive encounters, and I was beginning to feel restless. I yearned to shed what felt like a permanently affixed cloak of invisibility, shrouding me from the eyes of potential suitors.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I began to see my now chin-length hair as a liability, no matter how well I was learning to wear it. After all, contemporary gay male beauty standards are hardly a paragon of diversity. I compared myself against the prevailing ideal in a process of elimination: young – check. White – check. Skinny, check, muscles, check. David Beckham haircut? Mine was more like Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, or Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
I found myself faced with a dilemma: supposing I did cut my hair short after all these years, I mean short-short, boy short. Would a short haircut mean selling out, sacrificing my authentic self at the altar of gay men’s current obsession with narrowly defined, “str8-acting” masculinity? Or might it be an act of liberation, unshackling myself from the shadows of Willy Wonka and Anton Chigurh once and for all and trusting my fabulous, femmey inner flame to shine on, maybe even brighter than before?
I began to obsess over the issue. I spent hours gazing into the mirror, pulling my hair back this way and that, trying in vain to visualize the possibilities with enough clarity to pick the best one. I attempted wildly speculative calculations of risk: if I do cut it short and I hate it, how many months or years before it grows back out to this fraught-but-familiar length? To make matters worse, behind all these inflated worries lurked the specter of my ultimate boogeyman, the one fear that I could not even begin to conceive of reckoning with: male pattern baldness. Surely that inexorable foe would arrive sooner than later and put a cruel end to my physical prime once and for all. This could very well be the last haircut I would ever receive as a youthful, beautiful person.
I played out my options in my head.
I will go to the hairdresser and say, “Cut it off!” Make me look just like them, only better. I want to be the most conventionally attractive gay man in the universe. I want them to want me, all those men whose eyes slide over me without a second glance in nightclubs and pride parades. I want to play their Abercrombie game, get their attention, gather their hearts into my bulging biceps’ gentle embrace only so I can throw them to the dance floor and crush them under my stilettos, letting out a rallying cry of “Gender non-conforming beauty forever!”
…Or maybe so I can just stay sell out silent, and bask in the admiration.
No. I will go to the hairdresser and say, “Let it grow.” Screw society’s mandates! I will keep my hair flowing and beautiful, and maybe I will let it become dirty and matted while I’m at it. I’ll sharpen my crooked teeth to lethal points- the better to rip your gay assimilation to shreds with, my dear. I’ll study faerie witchcraft and retreat to self-imposed isolation with only my own gleeful malice for company. My days will be spent throwing rotten eggs at happy couples and planting spider eggs in Valentine’s chocolates, and at night I’ll paint my nails the colors of nuclear apocalypse and feast on as many Oreos as I want in my Silence of the Lambs-style punk rock tranny lair.
Or I will go to the hairdresser and say, “Cut it into camouflage so if I stay perfectly still, no one will see me.”
Or I will go to the hairdresser and say, “Take a little more off the top.” And a little more off the sides. Take a little more off my hands, and my arms and legs, and chest, not just hair, but flesh and muscle and bone, cut it all off and keep on cutting until there’s nothing. Sweep me up with your cuttings and scatter me to the wind, one final flourish before I dissipate.
Where most people have a general idea of the sort of hairstyle they’d like, I had nothing but a swirling toxic vortex of anxiety and ambivalence- so it should come as no surprise that my next haircut was something of a disaster. I requested something short but not too short, my stylist made a suggestion, I balked, we compromised, and I came out looking rather like a mushroom. Or like the duke from Moulin Rouge, depending on whether it was windy.
I was faced with a choice: either implode in a weary little fireball of self-doubt and insecurity, or learn to deal.
I had long before instructed myself in the art of recovering from a stumble or physical blunder: immediately spring back to a dignified posture, body radiating assurance with just the slightest trace of a self-parodying smile on your lips. Once I mastered this subtle trick, I found it worked like a charm to erase the humiliation of any public clumsiness. It is conviction as magic: if you believe hard enough that you’re not embarrassed, then, poof, it’s as though there was nothing to be embarrassed about in the first place.
And after all that I’d been through with my hair, all the roller coaster highs and lows and hairpin turns that had racked me with whiplash to within an inch of my life, it was a similar act of magic, performed out of necessity, that allowed me to disembark. I looked into the mirror, peering out from under my wretched mushroom-cap haircut, and decided that I was beautiful.
And poof. Beautiful I was.
Cat Hammond is a writer, performer, and musician based in Minneapolis. In addition to Story Club Minneapolis, their work has been featured in Word Sprout’s OUTspoken!, Intermedia Arts’ Queer Voices, and 20% Theatre Company’s The Naked I: Insides Out. They have also drafted employee trainings and organizational policy proposals regarding inclusion of diverse gender identities and expressions in the workplace. At the time of this story’s publication, their hair is pink and they are currently at work on their first full-length play.