As most people discover shortly after hearing my name, I am part Native American on my father’s side. A heritage which is a mix of Purépecha, Lipan Apache and Comanche. Beyond my name, there are many other aspects of my heritage that have stayed with me. I still say prayers for animals, plants, and all living things, burn sage to cleanse my space, and watch the moon carefully for clues of future events. Although all tribes are different, one of the more widely accepted beliefs among native people is that in times of grief one must cut their hair.
This belief stems from the idea that your hair is the physical extension of your thoughts and spirit; therefore, if someone you love dies, your thoughts are no longer the same, and your body should mirror your mourning soul. This is not a tradition that all natives observe, in fact, most modern natives cut their hair just as often as anyone else does. This was not a tradition I upheld either, in my early adolescent years I dyed, bleached, cut, and razored my hair without any concern.
When I was seventeen, I fell in love for the first time. We met in a very typical way, at a party. He was a friend of a friend, I caught him staring at me while I was taking a jelly shot, he referenced my favourite Wes Anderson film and made me laugh. Game over. Spell cast. It wasn’t an easy relationship, but it was ours. But, only a few months in, it ended with a bang, like pots coming crashing down from a high-up cabinet onto an unsuspecting victim. Despite being short-lived, the relationship was meaningful to me because it was the first time I had ever felt it… that strike of lightning we call “love”. I was absolutely devastated. Sleeping and eating, were out of the question. My mind had become a violent video game and dreams were the level where you fight the “boss” and get your ass handed to you.
If you’ve ever been heartbroken, you know how it feels. How anything can remind you of them, from a cheesy country song to a marshmallow candy. Everything and everyone is against you, especially all those smug couples kissing and laughing merrily together on the sidewalk.
What could make this any worse? Being heartbroken during the Texas summer. Summer in Texas means you are continually faced with sunshine, pool parties, and BBQs...which was torture, when all I wanted to do was lay in bed and cry. My friends would soon grow weary of my moping and I would grow weary of myself. Something had to be done, I decided, and ached for the idea to come to me.
Rinsing my face before the bathroom mirror, one night, it occurred to me that I should cut my hair. My hair had always been something I had treasured, and something he had loved about me, so cutting my hair was one of the deepest symbols of mourning I could offer myself. However, just cutting it was too simple and didn't seem substantial enough. I would have to do something bigger, I thought, as my eyes landed on a pair of scissors.
The one and only time I had ever cut my own hair was in the fourth grade when I got a glob of chewing gum stuck in it and was unable to pry it out. Lifehacks weren’t a thing at the time, so I made my own and hacked the chunk of hair off. My mother’s hairdresser side-eyed me with disdain at my following hair appointment. I shrugged and laughed nervously. Naïveté: the root of all pardons.
This time, however, I would not blame naïveté. I would chop all of my hair off because in a way, it was all I had left to remind me of him. The wound was deep, but this way I could start again with a blank canvas/scalp. It seemed at once melodramatic and extremely appropriate, so I did it. But, it wasn’t easy. Being half Spanish, on my mother’s side, means I’m genetically disposed to having a lot of hair. The scissors were not an appropriate size for the job, but I tried my best. Holding strands up to the light, as if taking some kind of measurement and haphazardly slicing. Then gazing in the mirror, tilting my head, squinting my eyes, examining my poor craftsmanship. At times cutting terribly; at others just right. Attempting a form of symmetry.
Half an hour and a rusty pair of Fiskars later, I had chopped nearly all of my hair off. I was essentially bald. I laughed and cried at the sight of the chestnut strands cluttering the sink and floor. I wondered if this meant I was crazy or free. I texted a picture of the sink to my best friend. Her response was, "WTF is that?"
What the fuck, indeed. I didn't know what to say, the words I needed to explain myself had floated away, out of reach. With time I would coax them back to me, but not before I rode a rollercoaster of emotions, but not the fun kind of rollercoaster where you’re happy and loving life. No, the kind of rollercoaster where you jump out of your seat at the end and puke in a bush while simultaneously offending the entirety of the waiting line. That kind of rollercoaster.
The coming weeks were a bit like Groundhog Day, sans Bill Murray, sprinkled with outbursts of genuine concern.
"What happened to your beautiful hair?"
"Oh my god, do you have cancer?"
“Did something bad happen to you? Like, do you need help?”
"You used to be so pretty!"
"Really though, what happened to you?"
(Repeat one hundred times)
How do you tell everyone you know you chopped all your hair off because you felt totally broken inside? You don't. So I played it off as some alt-rock way of challenging society and its warped beauty standards. But the more I told people that, the more I believed it myself. I had hobbled out of this weird cocoon and people respected me for my lack of fear of being viewed as ugly. It was like a bizarro placebo effect. I had chopped of my hair to give myself courage, but also seemed to be giving courage to everyone I met.
The wound slowly started to heal, and as my hair began to grow again... So did I.
That same summer my second oldest brother got married and I attended his wedding in a vintage 80's lilac shift dress, giant gold clip-on earrings, false eyelashes and of course, my quasi-bald head. My brother's wife's family were slightly taken aback, as were many of the guests—more of the same inquiries into my well-being. I smiled through it all and assured them I was fine and that it was actually a new fashion trend (it conveniently was, see Alice Dellal.) My siblings didn't seem that concerned, we had sailed through worse storms together. As I recall, at the wedding reception, my oldest brother told me I looked "metal" and handed me a glass of Crown Royal under the table.
Sooner than I’d ever imagined, I had learned to live with my bald head. I could look myself in the mirror and see beyond it and into the new me that was growing beneath all those exposed follicles.Yes I was young, naïve, irrational, impulsive, and overdramatic, among other things. But I wasn't afraid. I chopped off my hair in hopes of losing something and I found something I never knew I had, power.
But before you think:
"Wow, what a cheesy ending to this story, I bet she's gonna say she'd do it all over again, blah blah blah..."
Truthfully I must admit, that I wouldn't do it again. It was terrifying. I had tried to heal a burn by setting myself on fire; fighting fire with fire or I suppose a broken heart with rusty scissors. Instead of being left alone, as I had previously desperately wished, I instead made myself something no one could look away from.
Nothing draws attention quite like a bald seventeen year old girl on a dance floor, or a bald seventeen year old girl mulling over vegetables in the frozen food section, or a bald seventeen year old girl standing in front of a photocopier trying to hide the fact that she's crying, oh sorry, there's just something in her eye. Nothing makes you question every molecule of your being more than constant questions, stares, and the continuous act of fending off the vultures. (By vultures I mean you, me, and everyone we know... The tiny voice inside us that begs, how dare you be different?) Nothing is as terrifying as looking yourself in the mirror as you rip the physical self you know apart for the sake of some greater good. And nothing is as beautiful as waking up to the faint morning sunlight filtering through your bedroom window as you wander toward the kitchen in search of breakfast and catch your own eye in the hallway mirror, run your hand through the few inches of hair that have awkwardly begun to grow back, and smile and think: this is me and I'm okay with that.
With time, patience, and lots of terrible tasting prenatal vitamins my hair grew back and has been lovelier than ever. Never again did I bleach, dye or razor it, although I do cut it... after some deliberation. When I feel ready and I feel a change in the wind, I stand before my bathroom mirror to measure out the inches; decide how much of the past I wish to relinquish to the bathroom sink, then snip away. The process is always freeing, but never equal to that of that long gone summer.
As we natives believe, your body reflects your soul. Even if there is some delay, like when trying to video chat on horrendously slow WiFi, the voice and the image, the body and the soul eventually match up again. It's beautiful to maintain such harmony, although not always easy in this age of photoshop and body shaming. Your body should be your soul’s haven, not its battleground. So if you need a word of courage, I’ll be the one to say. Do it. Chop your hair off. Get that tattoo. Stop shaving your legs. Whatever it is that will make your body feel less like a jail and more like a home. Do it. You owe it to yourself.
WRITTEN BY ASHUNI LUCÍA PÉREZ
ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH MCCROREY