a personal essay on bodily autonomy and disobedience
In the children’s story bible that I read as a child, Delilah tempted Samson with fat wet lips and wide, lying snake-eyes. It was a bible for little girls, so the story was not about Samson’s strength but Delilah’s treachery: it was Delilah’s fault that Samson lost his strength. Delilah forced Samson to drink. Delilah drove the nails into Samson’s eyes. Delilah held the scissors - Delilah did the cutting.
When I walked into the Great Clips a few towns over, away from the fancy salons of the town where I’d grown up, away from the targeted Instagram ads that promised more curls, more volume, more luscious hair, I tried not to think about Delilah and Sampson. I tried not to think about God, about how long hair on a woman like me was a mark of a ‘good Christian daughter’. I tried not to picture my patron saint, Agnes, who had been so skinny and delicate that shackles could not hold her teenage wrists as she was marched to martyrdom. In the book of saints that I’d grown up with, Agnes had been painted as a picturesque white woman with flowing auburn curls. I had chosen her because she was the image of beauty and divine goodness.
When I walked into the salon - can Great Clips be called a salon? - I knew what I wanted. The fluorescent lights felt too bright; the mask on my face felt claustrophobic. Covid restrictions, a sense of unease, and a desire for obedience, had kept me out of any salon for almost two years. The stylists looked somehow both annoyed and amused at my nervousness. It was the fourth of July weekend, and I was a late arrival at their doors, but I knew what I wanted. I had recently quit a steady, soul-crushing job at a bank in favor of my dream: working at the bookstore in the town where I’d grown up. The bookstore was about a thousand square feet and packed to the rafters with books, toys, candles, socks, journals, puzzles, nature guides -
“What are we doing today?” the stylist asked. She pointed to the chair, and I sat down, my hands shaking. Her gesture felt somehow like a living equivalent to someone leaving the recording on their message machine with a terrifically bored statement of,
“You know what to do at the beep.”
There had been a time when that was the recording on the message machine on my cell phone. My first cell phone, a Verizon Cherry Chocolate, with the sliding screen. The memory is still sharp and white-hot: back when my older sister only knew how to be bad, and I only knew how to be good. Back when I would have done anything to stop her from spiraling into that dark place, that wretched place - I can still close my eyes and smell her rigid hugs - laundry detergent, Victoria’s Secret ‘Seduction’ perfume, and the thick, heavy undercurrent of pungent vomit. No matter how much perfume she sprayed, she couldn’t ever completely cover it up.
We were both obedient. Just to different Gods.
“Well?” The hair stylist hiked up an eyebrow. “I’m only here until noon. Do you know what you want?”
I nodded mutely. It was such a vast chasm of a question -- Do you know what you want? -- yes. Yes, I know what I want. I want the love of a kinder God. I want the memories of my sister’s cruelty to soften. I want to succeed at this new job. I want to be free of the little worms of anxiety that seem to burrow into my brain when I drive somewhere new. I want to laugh like I used to. I want to move out. I want to live at home forever. I want to travel. I want to eat a pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich. I want to know when I’m supposed to feel like a real grown up -- is it before or after the wrinkles stay in place? I want to do yoga on the beach. I want wildflowers. I want to burn candles and grow plants and listen to rock and roll records and fill my life with beautiful things. I want…
I looked at my reflection in her mirror. Enormous, gold-rimmed glasses and hair that extended past my elbows. Hair that marked my obedience. Hair that told me and the world who I was.
“Cut it off.” I said. “Cut it all off. I want you to just chop it all. A pixie, please.”
She didn’t blink. She didn’t ask me if I was sure. I suppose she didn’t really care that my beautiful, long dark hair would never blow in the wind, or bask in the sun, or whip out of a car window with the music blasting. Never again. This hair would never again get tangled or untangled, be clipped back with barrettes or ribbons, be styled, curled, straightened, relaxed, or permed. This hair was going to be sliced off, and she didn’t care. She didn’t have to care. All she had to do was pick up the scissors and cut. And she did. The snip of the metal scissors was loud, and she scratched my ear more than once with the black comb that she used to pull the hair back. I didn’t flinch. For the first time in years, I felt free.
She talked about local grocery stores and deals on oranges. She didn’t ask me many questions. I told her about the bookstore anyway, my excitement at new possibilities. When my tangent was finished, she went back to talking about bargains on white bread. Within twenty minutes, the whole thing was over. She handed me two thick ponytails which I later sent in a donation envelope to Locks of Love. I tipped her and thanked her. She barely looked up from the computer.
“How do you feel?” my mom asked in an excited squeal as she met me on the sidewalk.
“People are going to get us confused more than ever now. We match,” I said, smiling at her. It was true -- my mother’s pixie cut had a little more gray in it, but we looked so similar it was striking. People at family parties would mistake us for each other, easily.
“But how do you feel?” she pressed.
“Well, when I had this haircut the first time, it was because I was so depressed, I wasn’t really showering,” I said, looking at my shoes. “But now… I have this haircut because I choose to. Because I don’t need my long hair. I feel good.”
I waited for the guilt and shame to set in. It has been over four months now, and I don’t feel them. In the bible stories that raised me, Delilah is portrayed as both treacherous and evil. I don’t feel I look particularly treacherous or evil with short hair (though some crusty old conservative white men may disagree) but I do feel powerful. I feel that this tiny rebellion, this tiny disobedience, opened the door for radical self-healing. In the past four months, I have ventured out of my comfort zone to make new friends. I have gone on lengthy solo hikes, tasted new foods, read new books and articles, danced to new music, laughed like I used to. I have journaled every day of those past four months, painted elaborate and ugly abstractions, bought (too much) unusual Etsy jewelry, written letters to long-distance friends… I have transformed my life.
I did not lose my power when I cut my hair. I gained it.
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