Why I Shaved My Head Once

Picture of Pietra taken by James Mosley

The word identity can describe what a person is or who they are. Some people claim their personal identities by their clothes, music they listen to, their job, or what they like to do. As a little girl, I knew I was different because of my hair.

In my Catholic school we all wore the same blue uniforms. We all had our hair in blue ribbons. The other girls ponytails laid against their backs, mine curled upwards towards the sky. I was constantly questioned and ridiculed about my hair. I was asked why it wasn’t straight or if I ever washed my hair. There was even the time the principal sent a note home to say that my hair didn’t fit the dress code. I was identified as different.

In middle school, like many other African-American teenagers, I went through the female rite of passage- the first relaxer. I refer to it as a rite of passage because it seemed like such a big deal. With my previous hairstyle, all I had ever known was the weekly routine of taking my braids out, washing my hair, and trying to hold still as my mother carved intricate designs into my hair with her comb and fingers. This new “do” was different, I had to take my braids out, promise not to touch my scalp with a comb or brush for a week, and base my scalp with grease the day before the service.

Walking into the salon seemed like such a change from sitting in the family room as my mother braided my hair. All the older Black women had their heads under the dryer reading Essence or Ebony magazine. When my time came I sat in the chair. A woman with long pink nails unleashed my hair from an elastic band and said, “Whew! You got some hair on your head!” As she examined my scalp, she said, “You’re going to have some pretty hair when I’m done.” Every woman in the shop just watched and seemed to express silent excitement for me.

After I was relaxed, I realized that I did indeed look different, and somehow older. I looked just like the other African-American girls that were of age. I identified with growing up.

For me, it was fun to have straight hair for about 2 minutes. I was really into old seventies films and wished that my hair could be as pretty as Pam Grier’s. I wondered if I could get it to curl ever again. Almost immediately after getting my relaxer I began rolling my hair in tiny red and blue perm rods every night. In the morning I would take out the rods, resulting in what looked like a textured afro.

It took just about to the end of my junior year of high school to grow out my relaxer. I was enrolled in cosmetology school in 1999. In class teachers talked about African-American hair in its natural state as, “something they’d never wear like that in public.” I had students and teachers offering some type of chemical service just about every day. After receiving my license and graduating, I went out into the working world.

Although I didn’t have a hard time getting hired because of my portfolio, I received differential treatment from customers. When I had to do a blow-dry service, the white women would put more emphasis on the word “straight.” No one, not even the other African-American girl I worked with understood why any Black woman would chose to wear her hair natural. I wore my afro out anyway, that is until I answered the phone one day when the receptionist was out sick. The woman on the other end referred to me as,” that colored girl with the brillo hair.” Colored, wow, I never imagined I’d hear that word except in movies. But now I had heard it in “real life,” and I had to question whether my personal crusade was enough for me to endure being called something worse than colored. I tried wearing wigs to work for a while, then I just gave in and relaxed it. I hated it and promised myself to grow it back out while I was in college.

The months preceding my decision to shave my head surrounded my unhappiness within myself, caused by other’s opinions of me. I felt I wasn’t able to be myself because I had to be the “non stereotype,” the testament and credit to my race. I was always going to be that black girl. But my hair seemed to be the deciding factor on how I would be treated.

Why did it matter if I wore my hair curly or straight? Why was I being stereotyped by my hair when everything else about me was just as preppy and “American” as the people around me? I just wanted to be an individual, not a race, gender, hairstyle, or collection of likes, dislikes, and favorite movies.

The initial cut with the scissors left a half-straight, half fuzzy baby Afro. I picked up the clippers, removed the guard, and in military fashion, shaved all the hair off my head. For the first time I actually saw my face. I inspected the shape of my ears, curve of my head, thickness of my nose and lips. It was me without a strand of hair to hide behind. I didn’t feel regretful, I just was. As I had wanted, I disappeared, becoming background, people pushing and brushing against me as though I weren’t even there.

But my invisibility didn’t last long. I took the train to New York, for a school assignment and men with dreadlocks, afros, and cornrows seemed to respond to me as metal does a magnet. From head nods and a simple, “How you doing?” to “You have a good day”; “I like your hair,” and “You’re beautiful my sister.” It was uplifting and spiritual because it wasn’t a pick-up line; it was just a statement to be heard and understood, nothing more. So different from suburban Jersey where I could only aspire to be “pretty for a black girl.”

After three years of wearing my hair shorter than an inch long, In 2002,I started letting it grow again. When I went back to work, co-workers recognized that it was getting longer and they asked me if I’m going to relax it. I replied no.

Shaving my head allowed me to find myself. I was able to connect with others beyond what I looked like or what was going on with my head. Being bald forced others to see me and learn my other attributes.

Did I get frustrated some days and wish that I didn’t cut my hair? Sure. As a hairstylist I express myself with my hair. Although there wasn’t much of it I was still creating an expression, nonetheless. But being a blank canvas is something that I had to experience and comprehend, before opening myself up again and telling the world, “Hello.”