After a long, restless night in which I dreamed that John Updike was yelling at me, drill sergeant-style, about the book he wanted me to write, I woke up to the sun trying to sneak in the window like a teenager who’d blown curfew, and I gradually remembered that today is my 44th birthday.
Every year, this is the day I take a few moments to reflect on the previous year of my life, do an emotional inventory, toss out what I no longer need, move the important stuff to the front, and maybe this year decide to read a little less Updike.
The biggest change for me with this birthday came last weekend, when I went to my favorite salon in midtown Manhattan, sat down in the chair and said, “Cut it off.” I like this salon because they’re funky and daring and never question me, no matter how bizarre my request is. This time, though, the stylist asked me if I was sure. Her boss came over and asked me if I was sure. The receptionist got out the smelling salts and looked up my therapist’s number, just in case.
“Cut it off,” I repeated.
The stylist gathered a big handful of my hair into a ponytail, put the scissors near the roots, and looked at me in the mirror as though I’d just asked her to harvest an organ.
“Are you ready?” she said. All around the salon, I could see stylists and clients alike trying to watch out of the sides of their eyes. The receptionist looked like the “Kilroy was here” guy, peering over the divider wall. When she closed the blades and the scissors chewed through the wad of hair, the entire salon was so quiet you could have heard a gnat sneeze. Looking back now, I should have screamed. Just to mess with them.
By the time she was done, everyone agreed – it looked really cute. Very Jamie Lee Curtis. And almost completely gray.
The most amazing part to me is not that I had the guts to chop off all my hair or even go gray – I’m ridiculously brave when it comes to my hair – it’s the psychological change it has made in me. I never realized how much emphasis I had been putting on my hair as a vital part of my appearance. I would spend ages drying it, curling it, putting it up, pulling it back… and of course coloring it. I don’t know how many thousands of gallons of hair dye have rinsed down my shower drain, leaving a veritable rainbow of earth tones stained onto my follicles and ends so dry they should have been labeled a fire hazard.
Now it’s just me. Without all that hair, when I look in the mirror I just see my face. In my years-long deliberation over whether or not to wear bangs, I kind of forgot what my forehead actually looks like. While pulling my hair back on the sides in barrettes and combs, I didn’t pay any attention to my temples and cheekbones. Without a ponytail hanging down over it, I’ve noticed my neck is longer than I thought.
It still feels a little strange, I’ll admit, being out in public. When people look at me, I can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking, because there’s no doubt what they’re seeing – they’re seeing me. Just me, just my big, broad, Anglo-American face, with its wide, round features and thin lips and whatever mascara mishap I probably had that morning. I’m more aware of my face, in a good way. I smile more. I lift my chin. I make direct eye contact.
That was my birthday gift to myself this year – a haircut that isn’t about my hair at all. It’s about uncovering me.