Six years ago, I was living in a tent a few miles outside downtown Austin, Texas. It may have looked like an ordinary WalMart camping tent. But it was actually U.S. government housing.
I was working for a federal program called Americorps, which sends young adults out to various places in the U.S. to do community service. I worked at a daycare in rural New Mexico and cleared a hiking trail in the middle of the Missouri forest. In Austin, my team and I were helping out at a recycling center. By day we sorted cans and bottles on a conveyor belt, at night we slept at a park. We cooked our dinners over a campfire and showered at a YMCA.
One beautiful May morning, our team leader said we had nothing scheduled that day. For an introvert, there are few feelings more blissful than a rare day all to yourself after months of living and working in close quarters with a dozen other people. I decided to take a solo walk through the city.
I walked by a barbershop and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window. I hadn’t looked at myself in over a month. The first thing I noticed was my hair, which hung in limp waves just past my shoulders. The bottom few inches were tangled in split ends and the remainder was a brittle mess. I had a sudden flash of impulsiveness. I walked into the barbershop.
A middle-aged woman with a dyed purple bob greeted me and showed me to her station.
“I’d like to have it all cut off,” I said as I sat in the chair.
“Are you okay? Are you going through a breakup?” she asked incredulously.
I spent the next five minutes convincing her that I really wanted the clippers, not scissors. Finally she accepted my request.
“Everyone, check this out,” she announced.
The other stylists paused their work and several barber chairs spun around. In the mirror, I saw my cheeks turn cherry red above the cape. I forced myself to smile through the embarrassment because my hairdresser seemed hesitant enough to call off the whole operation if I showed a hint of uncertainty. Her hands shook a little as she pinned my hair back in pink butterfly clips.
When I walked out of the shop, I felt like I was floating. It was euphoric. “So this is what it means to have ‘a spring in your step,’ ” I thought. For the first time, I felt the breeze against my scalp. I couldn’t stop running my fingers through my half inch of hair.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring downtown, and in the evening I went to 6th Street (where the nightlife congregates) to meet up with three of my teammates. Sherrell, Lukas, and Myrna were all in their early 20s. They walked arm-in-arm out of Coyote Ugly Saloon, smelling like tequila and the faint odor of recycling that we could never completely wash off.
They all did a double take. Sherrell screamed, lifted me up off the sidewalk, and spun me around. Lukas doubled over in laughter. But Myrna stared in distress at my new appearance.
“Why would you do this?!” she wailed.
“Well Myrna,” I said, “your hair is so thick and lovely, and mine was all stringy and yucky.”
She shook her head at me, still aghast. “You’ll regret it.”
On the bus ride back to our camp, the three of them took turns petting my head. That’s when they noticed that the barber had somehow left a few long strands in the back. Like several inches long.
We got back to the campsite and Lukas went to find clippers. A hanging lantern cast a circle of light outside our tents. Lukas cleaned up my haircut in the dim glow, and did a decent job considering how tipsy he was.
I kept my hair short during college and for a couple years after. When I met Sung I had it all buzzed to a #2. Then last spring, Sung and I moved in with my grandparents for a few months. One night as we sat around the dinner table, Grammy casually mentioned, “so, are you going to grow your hair out now?”
That’s when I stopped cutting my hair. This past year it’s grown down to my shoulders. It looks alright I suppose, but I hate it. Just like I hated having long hair for the first 19 years of my life.
My hair is thin and breaks easily, so it always ends up looking ragged despite my best efforts to be gentle. Also, my roots get unbelievably greasy if I skip a day of shampoo. I used to look with envy at my friends and their long luscious hair and thick curls. But when I have a buzzcut, any jealousy melts away because I feel confident in my own style.
That’s why today, I’m sitting on a folding chair on the porch while Sung runs clippers over my skull. Chunks of brown hair pile up at our feet. Sung meticulously trims around my ears and lines up the back. When he’s done, he steps back and gazes at me with a big smile.
“You look perfect,” he tells me.
When I look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I feel like I’m seeing myself again. It’s like I’m back in my true form. A birthday haircut is the best present. Thank you Sung for making me feel beautiful. 🥳