Cutting Away Insecurities?
"Our insecurities encircle our minds, entangling themselves in loops that make noticing and hating “imperfections” inescapable." Contemplations on self-worth and physical appearance at the hairdressers.
Snip-snip. The metallic scissors expertly work through the frame around my face. I stare at myself in the full-length, over-sized mirror. Perfect time to have my face magnified to maximum exposure. Oh, wow. This light is the least flattering thing that has fallen on my face since a girl’s elbow met my cheek as we were wrestling to get the ball during water-polo. Sunken eyes. Dark circles form hoops under them, becoming the focal points that have taken central stage. Skin with an unhealthy, yellowish tinge. I spy that double chin peeking out from under there (Mate, what are you doing?! Please hide). Since when did my cheeks get so full? I have seriously gained bad weight. Since when did they jut out so much (Not cheekbones, mind you)? And wow, where did my jawline go? Nonexistent. It has melted into the hues of my neck. I look at myself, shifty-eyed. I do not like what I see.
This was my stream of consciousness, as I sat at the hairdresser’s earlier today. My hair had grown so long—probably the longest it had been in a long time. It was nice to be able to successfully entwine it into two long braids. It almost felt more "feminine" to have that thick, long hair, to be able to feel it swish back and forth in a high ponytail. "Femininity." A strange concept. I use the term loosely. Long hair does not equate being a "female." Then, why did it make me feel "more like one?" However, my hair also felt heavy. There was a lot of it. Sometimes, I did not know quite what to do with it. I just let it hang. Sweeping silk over my shoulders—a curtain hanging around my face, a mask for my insecurities.
I have been wanting to cut it for ages. Change is something I constantly need. Not necessarily huge significant changes, like moving houses. I do like consistency, too (I have always yearned for a steady, early-to-bed and early-to-rise pattern, but one can only dream). But small transitions are required to keep my life going. I attribute this to being born and bred surrounded by the backdrop of a metropolitan city. A city is alive, and it sustains itself by constantly evolving. There is always something new happening on the scene, and I like my life like that—whether it be new music I’m listening to, new fashion styles to try, or a new hairstyle. Maybe that’s why I’m also fairly indecisive.
The appointment is booked for the afternoon. I go on my phone, and scan through the web. Any inspiration for fool-proof ways to make your face look better? “Hairstyles that suit your face shape,” the search engine announces. As I browse, I decide on something after consulting a picture of Selena Gomez under the sub-heading, “Round Face, Long.” Yep, sounds about right. Next, I processe how I will specify exactly what I want to the hairstylist in Mandarin, Chinese, making sure language won’t stand in the way and misarticulate. No, I didn't intend to repeat my bad haircut experiences. The best one probably was when I was in kindergarten, around five years old, with the local Shanghainese hairdresser. A lovely, sweet, friendly woman she was. But oh, if only words, misinterpretation, and pure childhood naivety did not stand in the way of a perfect finish.
She had asked me with a huge grin, “Do you want a hairstyle like Maruko Sakura, in Chibi Maruko-chan [a popular Japanese children’s cartoon]?" (Search it; you'll be able to visualize it better.)
“Yes!” I replied with glee and excitement (You poor, unknowing child).
Oh, the childhood innocence. Instead of the zig-zag bangs Maruko has, I ended up with a helmet-like cap on my head. I looked like some child off a Communist propaganda poster from Maoist China. Wonderful! You can bet all the boys at school were woo-ed by this chic-choice of hair. Never again.
4.30 PM rolls around, and I’m on the road peddling away on my brother’s bike, rushing to my appointment with the hairstylist. (Slightly) Late again; it’s classic me. I have to detour and take the long way around, due to construction blocks. By the time I arrive at the salon, I am a little out of breath, and a touch frazzled. Lying back on the black, pleather chair to get my hair washed, I am reminded of how weird it has always been for me to be shampooed by someone at the salon. As they’re massaging away, I always wonder how strange it is to touch another stranger’s scalp. What if they had head lice (my brother did once), or some scalp skin infection, or oily dandruff? Shudder. I stare listlessly up at the ceiling. “The best color in the whole world, is the one that looks good, on you!”—Coco Chanel, the ceiling reads. Huh.
The guy wraps my hair up, tucking the towel into a white turban. I do not, however, feel grand. My mind is still succumbed to thoughts and guilt about material I still haven’t finished learning yet for my university exams, about the time I’ve wasted, the procrastination that kept cyclically repeating. They guide me to a swivel chair, where the white plastic cover is ceremoniously draped over my front, immobilising my arms underneath. The hairdresser approaches and asks if I have any pointers to give. I instruct as I had planned earlier, even showing him the picture for reference. He nods, and gets started.
Before leaving the house, I had downloaded a few Spotify podcasts to entertain me during the cutting process, all of which I was looking forward to hearing. I tried being ambitious, and even downloaded Part One of someone reading Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately, I can’t fumble into my bag, get my phone out, get my headphones out, plug them into the phone, plug my ears up, sit back, and block out the external world whilst diving into an internal one. I am left out, under the blaring salon light and alone with my languid thoughts.
Snip-snip. I stare myself down, squaring up to my own eyes. I do not know quite what to make of what I see. The harder I study my visage, the harder it becomes to recognise myself. When did I become like this? I look lifeless, overworked, exhausted—which did not reflect how I felt that morning. Oily skin in all the wrong places. Cheekbones ducking for cover under my bloated face, concealed. A sad hollow stare. I look... old?! How this even happened without me noticing, it baffled me.
As the hairdresser cuts away with nimble chops and trims using a pair of shining shears, I watch parts of me fall through the air, dark ribbons floating and then quickly dropping by gravity’s pull, my genetic material on the surrounding floor for all to take. Every time he picks up strands on my head and shifts the blades through them, I sincerely wish that the finishing product would make me feel better, that what I see in the mirror after it is done will be something I can look in the eye, and affirm with more confidence than I had before.
Like everyone, I have insecurities. I am conscious of how my forehead (and cheeks) take up a rather large surface on my face, like a basin where sweat, sebum and tears drain. That from one angle, my nose could appear perfectly proportionate on my face, but on another angle, it is spread too wide, takes up too much space, becomes undesirably prominent. Everything below my eyes is a bit too wide for my liking. I wish I had more prominent bone structure. It’s there, it’s present, I can feel it without my hands. But somehow, as I look at myself in front of me, all I can see is shapeless flesh within a round outline, an accidental glob of leaked ink on a page. The boundary between my face and my neck seemed to meld, from peaks of a mountain, to a valley, then to flat land, all structure eroded. I hate that as I look down, the edges of my face would begin to round. The fat and skin beneath my jaw, next to my chin, try to wriggle out. I raise my head, determined to not let it rear its ugly head. Long story short, according to me, I do not look beautiful nor feel even the slightest bit beautiful.
After a while, the hairdryer is brought out. My hair feels light and feathery. It feels new. With anticipation, I look through my now swirling tresses, being blown in a frenzy by the wind. What do I look like now? The hairdryer buzzes to a stop, and the last finishing touches are made by the hairdresser. Favourite part: when the fragrant hair gel/mousse/wax/leave-in conditioner/mysterious substance is scrunched and weaved through the reborn locks. He steps aside and I look in the mirror.
Obviously, it isn't a movie moment. It's not a grand reveal, with epic music playing in the background as the protagonist’s eyes fill with surprise, shock, amazement, and whatever other emotion. No, nobody else in the salon spins around and drops their jaws. The protagonist (in this case, me) looks at my face in the mirror, tilts her head to the sky, and smiles a little.
No, the haircut did not magically transform my face into the chiseled, luscious Victoria’s Secret model, smizing at the cameras and adoring fans. It did nothing revelatory. It just made my face look a little more structured, "complimented my face shape," a little more, and felt just a little different. A good thing, that’s what I wanted wasn’t it?
But the more I think about it, the more I question. Why was making my face look slender or thin the key criterion that made me satisfied with the result? Why was I hesitant, even a little ashamed, to tell the stylist straight-up in the beginning to please cut my hair to make my face look thinner? Why did my mood, my belief in self-worth, my ability to achieve self-affirmation all depend on superficial appearance? Why was it that, once I notice one insecurity on my face, that whisper amplifies, the damn gates to the subconscious open, and suddenly, 10 more demons flood into my head? I am worth more than this, and deserve better.
One of my past New Year’s resolutions was to be less self-conscious and care less about what other people think of me. At the end of 2017, I concluded that I had made progress with that goal. I gave less thoughts to other people’s opinions, and often shrugged off hesitations to just do my own thing in life. It felt good.
Nevertheless, truth be told, I was still not entirely free of the chains of insecurity, especially about appearance and others’ perceptions. Maybe we should blame this tendency, which I know I’m not the only one facing, on society, on its expectations and beauty standards?
Or maybe social media? The perpetuation of an image-oriented value system grounded in superficiality. An unrealistic, virtual culture that has permeated daily life, filled with pictures and unachievable standards defining "success," "beauty," "happiness," "fitness," and the rest. Forcing us to be more self-conscious than ever, under the constant scrutiny of the public.
Perhaps we hold some family members culpable, for being brutally honest and commenting once or twice about our occasional double-chin or bloating face?
It’s likely these all factor in. But, in fact, we must not forget that we ourselves are equally complicit. Our insecurities encircle our minds, entangling themselves in loops that make noticing and hating “imperfections” inescapable. We have to learn to build mental fortresses, that ensure our self-esteem does not come under siege. We have to learn to put things into perspective. We have to focus on more important things in life and all the aspects of ourselves, that we are already proud of, make us feel confident, and that we love.
Why should I let my self-affirmation be dependent on how I look on a particular day at a certain moment? I am worth more than my outward appearance. Oftentimes, we just need to remind ourselves of that.