For most of my life, I had really long hair. I mean really, really, really long. (In my 20s, it even went past my knees.) A long time before hashtags ever existed, I was #hilarywiththelonghair. Lucky for me, I have always had thick, healthy hair, so I never had any trouble with thinness or stringiness. My hair and I have gone through several phases and emotions together: Love, hate, pride, embarrassment, fear, experimentation, charity; you name it, we've done it. I have never been able to wear hats and I could tell you hundreds of hilarious stories about when my hair got caught in [other people's] zippers, earrings, car keys and door handles. Ultimately, though, I am just really happy to say that my hair never got caught in anything dangerous enough to cause serious bald patches!
I'm guessing most people don't know who Crystal Gayle is anymore, but I heard that name a lot growing up! I can't say I ever felt a connection to her — I never felt like I was part of some long hair tribe or anything of the like. My hair was my hair and that was that. Whilst I don't think that your hair defines your personality, it is entirely possible for other people to think it does. Maybe that is the reason I always felt a bit strange about being #hilarywiththelonghair — because I didn't feel like it defined me, but other people used this one characteristic to do just that. So, you know, for the sake of self-reflection and maybe a little bit of self-indulgence, let's take a look at my hair-history.
FOR STARTERS, A REALLY QUICK ROUNDUP OF LONG HAIR STORIES IN HISTORY
I'm guessing you'll have heard the story of Biblical figures Samson and Delilah: When Delilah found out that Samson's strength came from his hair, she chopped it off and everyone died. Rapunzel will not be new to you either, considering she's the hairiest princess of them all! But there are many more stories, traditions and beliefs based around long hair, so I've collected a couple of the most interesting ones.
If you like a good conspiracy theory, you're going to love this one: The story goes that during the Vietnam War, Native Americans were recruited for their outstanding — almost supernatural — tracking abilities. However, when provided with a military haircut, their tracking abilities mysteriously vanished, only for the Native Americans to explain that without their long hair, they could no longer sense the enemy.
And how about the Vril Society, who believed that their twisted hair acted as antennas to facilitate contact with extraterrestrials? The theory of connection to nature or higher beings via your hair is touched upon in a couple of films, with this being the explanation as to why soldiers, navy seals and prison inmates have their hair shaved short. You know, so that they have no individual connection to nature and can be manipulated as one large, obedient group.
Then there are, of course, the Rastafarians who grow their hair long in dreads as a symbol of the Rasta Lion of Judah — which stands for living a life that is clean and free of medications, cigarettes, meat, negative thinking, and negative deeds. (Um, what now?) Never mind, back to me!
I NEVER HAD SHORT HAIR
I'm not sure whether my mom was communicating with aliens when I was born, but she adamantly decided that I would have long hair.
By the time I was six years old, my hair was past my elbows. I don't remember much about it to be honest, but I do remember hiding under the kitchen table to avoid the hairbrush before school in the morning. Around this time, my mother took me to the hairdressers for the first time (until then, my father had been my live-in hairdresser, cutting my bangs with the help of a strip of sticky tape across my forehead). So my mom dropped little me off at the hairdressers, left instructions to trim my hair and went off to do her shopping. Upon her return and realizing that Mandy the hairdresser had cut off a lot more than intended, my mother was very expressive in communicating her displeasure. It must have been pretty harsh because 12 years later I went to Mandy once more to get an up-do for my high school graduation ball: She was still pretty traumatized about it proceeded to triple check with my mom before any trimming could be done! I guess these are the experiences that build strong relationships, because 25 years later, my mother is still good friends with Mandy.
One of my fondest memories of this time in the life of my hair was when I was about 10 years old and in the swimming pool. We went swimming every week with our school class and while the after-swimming hair care was a pain in the backside, I really loved swimming. Our pool had a rather strict swimming cap rule, which meant that I had to swim with a self-designed creation on my head consisting of two swimming caps and several hairbands to keep my meter-long hair under control. One day after the swimming class, I was helping the teacher by collecting the weigh balls from the bottom of the pool, (YES, I was the kind of kid who helped the teacher after class). And then the teacher and the lifeguard (both looking very excited) asked me if I would swim up and down without my swimming cap on so they could see my hair in the water. I was delighted with myself — firstly for being allowed to do something against the rules; secondly for being able to make the teacher happy (yeah, yeah I know); and thirdly, for having the whole pool to myself while doing my best mermaid impression ever. It was fantastic!
THE HIGH SCHOOL DREAM
So of course there came a phase in my life when I wasn't down with the Rapunzel look, and unsurprisingly this era coincided with puberty related rebellion. I wanted to cut is all off after becoming exasperated with the knots and hours of brushing. My mother's simple and final reply to this was that I didn't own my hair until I was 18 and was therefore not allowed to cut it until then. Sounds a bit mad in retrospect, and I don't think many parents would get away with it these days. But it didn't cross my mind to question her ruling (I was an obedient nerd, remember?). The rules were, however, not so strict for my younger sisters (they never are!), and so my middle sister was allowed to get her long hair cut when she was 11 years old. She cried for weeks from the trauma of her lost hair, and that made me lose interest in cutting my own for the next 15 years.
High school was not the "funnest time ever" for me: I lived abroad for a year, and upon my return I joined the local school for local people as the new girl. Believe me, this was nothing like the life of New Girl's Jess. So the odds were already against me, and having freakishly long hair didn't make it any easier for the local teens to accept me. Whilst I didn't exactly do my best to fit in, and I wore my hair in crazy styles, it was around this time that I colored my hair for the first and only time in my life: A typical teenage dark maroon/wine color. And I always had a smart ass reply for the bullies. In fact, writing this now reminds me of an essay I wrote and read aloud in my English class about why people should learn to accept those who are different to them, and why they had no logical reason to treat me so badly. My poor English teacher didn't quite know how to react.
Don't get me wrong, I made some good friends who I am still in touch with to this day, but you know what they say, empty vessels make the most noise. The empty vessels in my school were indeed loud, and the most laughable was the daily, "Is your hair brown 'cause you wipe your ass with it," moving to spitting and snotting in my hair, all the way up to the top prize of setting my hair on fire — which was significantly less funny. On that particular day, I was getting my books from my locker when I heard a weird hissing noise followed by my friend thumping me on the back. Before I had the chance to ask, "WTF," the burnt hair smell told me all I needed to know. At the time, I just thought, "What losers," but it is only now that I realize how insane and dangerous this experience really was. You read awful news stories about people whose whole faces get burned following their hair getting caught alight, so I understand how lucky I was that my friend acted so quickly.
THE COLLEGE YEARS
Transitioning from a small town's local school to art college in the big city was a dream come true for me. Suddenly I was the least weird of the weirdos, and no amount of crazy clothes or hairstyles turned heads on campus. To quote the fabulous, beautiful and inspirational Yolandi Visser: "I fink u freeky and I like u a lot." Every day was a fancy dress party: Rapunzel? Pippi Longstockings? Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezey, and everyone played along. We talked about feelings and ideas, theories and innovations, and maybe I am donning the rose-tinted glasses, but I don't remember anyone beng bullied, put down or laughed at. Sure there were cliques, but most of the creative people were far too interested in themselves to bitch about others (and I mean that in a positive way, of course, because #selfexploration and all that!).
Random people stopped me on the street all the time to ask me the same questions over and over again: How long had I been growing it? How often did I wash it? Did I get split ends? How long did it take to dry? How did I keep it so healthy looking? How did I go to the toilet? So many #rolleyes moments. One afternoon, I was in a bar where my (then) boyfriend was setting up the sound installation for a gig that evening, when from an old guy propping up the bar came the all too familiar question: Can I ask you something about your hair? Feeling tired of hearing the same old questions, I told him that he could ask but I would only answer it if I had never heard the question before. And then I indeed heard a question that I had never heard before: If you bend backwards, does it touch the ground? I smiled and tilted my head back enough to do a quick whoosh of the floor with my hair, and everyone was happy!
I never knew how to react to compliments I received about my hair, always having the feeling that they came with a freaky subtext — like people thought it was nice, special, amazing and pretty, but also a bit bizarre. Of course, there was that one time when an old guy started shouting at me on the street that my hair was disgusting and that I should cut it off and not be so dirty, but you know, I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion(?!). Getting shouted at on the street is something I got used to with my long hair, and I dealt with it by laughing and wondering if my hair was really the most interesting part of their day. This one time, I was cycling through Dublin and heard someone shouting something about my hair, their tone of voice a bit more panicked than the usual shouts of "Rapunzel" or "Pippi Longstockings." So I stopped cycling to find out what he was trying to tell me: Turns out he was worried about me because my hair was touching the spokes of the back wheel of my bike!
Oh, and then there was that one time with the snake who happily explored my hair: I can't leave that out! I thought it was cool at the time, but I did have an Indiana Jones type nightmare about it afterwards! And yes, as you can see, it was during my rebellious braless phase, because everyone does that in college, right?
THE FIRST MAJOR CHOP
In December of 2009, I decided to get my hair cut. At the time, it seemed like a big, big deal but if I look at the photos and consider how short it is now, the cut wasn't really that dramatic. It was, however, a first step! I had heard about a charity that collects donated hair to make wigs for cancer victims who can't afford to have a wig made, so I signed up and headed off to the hairdressers. My hair felt fantastic coming out of there (it also just felt fantastic to leave the salon in general, considering I had been in there for four hours). I couldn't stop touching my hair in the days and weeks that followed. And a friend of a friend even told me that he thought I looked like someone out of a shampoo advertisement!
What I did not anticipate was that compliments could hurt my feelings. "Your hair looks much better now, it really was too long before!" I politely smiled and shuffled off to cry in the bathroom when I heard what translated in my head as, "I think your hair looked rubbish for your whole entire life." Being someone who is generally very careful with other people's feelings, I just couldn't fathom how others could be so hurtful — and the fact that it was unintentional made it even worse.
ONE LAST GOODBYE TO MY LONG HAIR
I never thought I would still have really long hair if I were to have a baby. When I thought about my future/imaginary children, I no longer had long hair in those visions. I don't know where this feeling came from — maybe a subconscious idea that if I had a baby, I would have other priorities in life other than being known for my long hair. This feeling seemed to be cosmically confirmed when my son was born. During the seven hours of his birth, my hair tangled itself into one big knot-ball unlike any knot-ball I had previously experienced in my entire life. I ignored it for two days, distracted by a hell of a lot of pain, but also a beautiful little baby who had my face! On the third day, I found myself alone with my little boy sleeping peacefully beside me. In a dream-like, silent hospital room with soft orange lighting — high from overwhelming feelings of love — I decided it was time to do something about the dreaded knot-ball attached to my head. It took me four hours to get the knots out, sitting in my hospital bed, in the middle of the night, crying silently from the agony of it. And at that moment I knew that my life with long hair was behind me.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
In the five years since that first major hair cut, I have donated a total of 6.5 feet of my hair to the wig-making charity. For the first time in my life, I am experiencing the joy of going to the hairdressers and of trying out new styles with my locks. It is a nice feeling to do my hair up, and to actually feel like it looks great without the voice in my head whispering, "People think you look like a freak." I enjoyed having long hair, and I am sure it contributed to my sense of self and my strength to walk my own path — but now I am ready for something new!
I realize it sounds highly over dramatic to be talking about a haircut in such a life-changing tone when there are so many dramatic, life-changing things happening in the world much more worthy of your attention. However, I always felt a bit misunderstood when it came to my hair. And to be honest, I'm not sure I understood it myself. I never had a satisfactory answer to the condescending question: "Why would you want to have such long hair?" I never understood why I had to justify the existence of my hair to other people — or why they felt it was OK to make me listen to their opinions.
I recently read that some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health, and I completely agree. So thank you for the free therapy session. Same time next week?
Images: Hilary Phelan; Giphy