It’s More Than Just a Haircut: Navigating Self Expression At A Cost

Cutting my hair has personal significance to me, but also to my immigrant mother.

Nov 1, 2018 · 13 min read

by Brenda Li
Content Note:
Relationship issues with mothers

I. The Dream

“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

LLast night I dreamt that my mother found my hair shaven. Buzzed on the side. That peeky hidden thing all the cool kids do these days where you can’t actually see it unless you pull your hair up. An undercut. Sensible Asian chick when it’s down, don’t fuck with her when it’s up.

It was something I had gone to great lengths to hide from her, like wearing hats, and holding it down while running in the cold as winds threaten to literally blow my cover. But in the dream world, we had skipped all of the sensible precautions I would have taken to the moment she found out.

It felt like my subconscious was having a dialogue with me. Two scenes played out.

Scene One
She moves closer to me and her hand recoils from the side of my head once she realizes what I’ve done. Her eyes flash shock, then confusion, and land on hurt. Her mouth turns, weighed down with concern. The reel skips, we are midway through conversation or perhaps midway through silence. She looks at me and quietly asks, are you becoming a man?

The conversation that ensues plays out in a 360 degree screen around me as if I am watching a movie of my mother and me — I suppose what we don’t get from Hollywood, we construct in our dream worlds. It’s a conversation that finally names all of the unspoken things we kept locked up over the past few years out of peace for the family, out of self-preservation for both of us.

  • Her hand, firmly placed on my knee to stop me from challenging an uncle’s sexist comment. Not at my dinner table, says the gesture.
  • The tears in her eyes as she sincerely reveals her greatest want for me in life, before her death, was to be “secured” — in other words, married.
  • The fear in her voice masked as spite as she pretends for the infinite time to not understand that I work in sexual health. “Shen me dong xi?”

She is now crying, breaking down. Showing me the true vulnerability and concern she kept so safely guarded the last couple of years. With an openness to listen — for any explanation really — that can help her understand who her daughter is these days. Perhaps she is crying because she realized the danger or the sadness of not knowing who this person is. I am unsure what to make of it, but I feel a sense of honesty. And where there is honesty, there is possibility of warmth and hope. I realize in that moment, I wanted her to want to know me, like she once used to.

But almost instantly, my subconscious kicks in as a rude reminder. That’s not how it would play out, it sneers, and I feel the warmth of the scene quickly slipping away.

The alternate scene plays.
Her eyes gleam shock, flash hurt, and land firmly on rage. She is grounded in her dogmatic Christian beliefs. She condemns me for “mutilating” my appearance. I fight hard not to feel instant guilt and shame, but it’s almost not worth it — they sweep in as quickly as any deeply conditioned behaviour would.

Knowingly or not, my mother taught me from a young age, that the only way to earn her forgiveness was for me to demonstrate shame and guilt for my wrongdoings, and it was for her to decide how much shame and guilt was enough. This was further reinforced by the Church, which preached constant repentance for our sins: the ones we committed and the ones we didn’t. As an earnest child, the only way I knew how to demonstrate anything was to actually feel it. Self-taught method acting or breeding grounds for depression?

The scene skips, everything is dark and I am in the pits of my own misery. I feel the familiar feeling of something gone horribly wrong. I am left with questions that would have never crossed my mind a few years ago, but are now always lurking nearby, threatening to take over my thoughts each time we have an argument: Is this it? Is this the all or nothing moment where I storm out and sever ties like all the dramatic white people do on TV? Is that even an option? Do I continue to compromise? For how long? When am I going to stick up for myself? Is it even possible to do that without being disrespectful?

I have always found my dreams to be a place where repressed feelings surfaced. It’s as if my subconscious was airing its grievances and saying well I told you we had to deal with this while you were awake, but you pushed us aside because you had to what, Work? Netflix? Scroll for hours on Twitter? Masturbate?

I realize that the idea of someone extrapolating the thought of a haircut immediately to being trans or going through a gender transition, may sound absurd to some people. But sadly, transphobia is not a new concept to Chinese communities. Just last year, the Beijing LGBT Centre and Peking University released an online survey of more than 2,000 transgender participants, where over 90 percent of participants felt their family could not fully accept them as a transgender person and over 70 percent experienced some form of violence during their school years.

What’s more, I think my own insecurities on what it means to look conventionally less feminine was also reflected in dream-Mom’s question. As someone who grew up in her formative years with “pretty privilege” (despite struggling to fit in during what seemed like eternal puberty), I conformed to mainstream societal expectations of beauty for women and had gotten used to the benefits associated with it. Months later with the same haircut, it intrigues me that the hidden buzz cut continues to make me feel like I have a secret, both in a cool way but also, in an “othering” way.

The friends who don’t get it (many of whom are cis men), are surprised when I maintain the visceral reactions of dream-Mom as real possibilities. I would imagine a reason many men don’t immediately get it is likely because they, for the most part as grown adults, have not experienced the same societal pressures that tell women we don’t have ownership over our bodies.

For me, ownership over my body has felt like a negotiation for as long as I could remember. Skirts, makeup, dyeing my hair, and more recently piercings and tattoos, elicited reactions from my parents that made you feel like you physically hurt them, as if it were their bodies you were changing. Basically anything that could jeopardize my respectability as a young girl and my desirability as a young woman was off limits because it could affect what teachers, employers, aunties and uncles, and future husbands think of me, and by extension, what they think of my parents.

“My body, my choice” reproductive health messages, co-opted by every mainstream brand who wants to jump on the bandwagon of trendy feminism, may seem empowering. But, they’ve always made me wonder, is it really my choice? Do I really only have to think about myself?

In recent years, I’ve thought a lot more about just how much my actions might mean to my mother’s definition of personal success and sense of self-worth.

II. Mama

“My family of origin provided, throughout my childhood, a dysfunctional setting and it remains one. This does not mean that it is not also a setting in which affection, delight, and care are present.” — bell hooks, All About Love

The thing about immigration is that it’s about survival.

Not everyone gets a chance at living out their dreams, and even those who do, make significant individual sacrifices for the collective. It can be quite a disheartening process to have to simultaneously manage the enduring racism and xenophobia, the continuous pressures of providing for your family, and the persistent doubts of whether you’ve made the right decision to come here.

But as far as I can tell, one key difference between Mama and Baba’s immigration trajectory laid in whose goals and needs were prioritized. Ba’s career was prioritized because it was more stable and made more money. In the earlier years, the moves we made were mostly driven by his job opportunities. WaiPo often laments how different Ma’s life would have been had she stayed; she was beloved by her boss and colleagues at the hospital where she worked.

While working at one of her higher paying jobs in Toronto, Ma was among the first to be let go, despite company policy stating cuts were to be made based off tenure. She spoke up. They barely batted an eye at her, but she knew she had burned a bridge as she was rejected from every other role she applied to despite prior encouragements from her boss. When asked about it today, she simply responds, defeatedly, “I should have listened to your father and kept quiet.”

Unfortunately this experience was likely just one of many where she was told to distrust her voice professionally. Anyone who meets Ma walks away thinking she is a confident lady, not to be messed with. But we all know there are different sets of rules at play in the workplace, where institutional power exists and productive value means very specific things. Such rules are harsher on certain (im)migrant women of colour, who have non-native English and education from different countries. Ma’s confidence in this setting was low.

At home, Ma’s lack of affinity for the role of the housewife has always been the subject of conflict and continues to defy my father’s expectations of what makes a good (Chinese) wife. Often left out of his assessment is, of course, the emotional labour of anticipating and managing relationship dynamics to meet the needs of their children, extended family members, and family friends that she shoulders almost exclusively between the two of them.

Survival as a family also meant that everyone had a role to play. Mine was that of the model daughter who defied expectations every time we moved, and surmounted all possible challenges to bring my parents joy and honour in the form of straight A’s and awards. At first, it was just easier to only show my parents the good stuff — their praise and pride in response to being told good outcomes, was easier to bear than lectures and drama over negative outcomes. As time went on and I learned more empathy, showing them only the good stuff also became about sparing them from another dimension of worry beyond their already challenging lives.

As I cultivated this habit, it also meant establishing my independence, and leading, as so many (im)migrant children do, double lives. Insecurities and anxiety about whether I was good enough for my university major or performing well enough at work, ran amok in one life, but I would (mostly) only tell stories of successes and praise and promotions in the other. I grew apart from my parents, and I imagine the message Ma internalized from my actions and confident rhetoric was that she was no longer needed in the same ways.

As we each question what makes life worth living through the various stages and transitions in our lives, I think about what makes Ma’s life worth living. I think of the hardships she’s endured throughout her life and the habits she was incentivized to build from prioritizing other people’s needs above her own. I think about how society has told her to derive her self worth from a few places: her appearance, her ability to manage a household while simultaneously holding down a job, and above all, her ability to raise “good children.”

I break when I think of the weight and direct reflection of what my actions mean to her in this context. A simple haircut becomes a rejection of femininity, central to what she believes to be a woman’s worth. An act of self assertion from her eldest daughter is seen as an act of defiance — an implicit rejection of Ma’s values, her way of life, and ultimately, of her.


“While it is important for us to understand the origins of fragile self-esteem, it is also possible to bypass this stage (identifying when and where we received negative socialization) and still create a foundation for building self-love.” bell hooks, All About Love

I learned a lot about self love recently and I think it was spurred by the recognition that Mom didn’t seem to have a lot of it.

Mom didn’t grow up in an age or culture where #selflove or #selfcare was a thing. For a long time, I was confused by how easily she was able to identify the pain of others and make them feel better, but seemed to not have anyone around to do this for her. In some ways, I took this to mean that Mom’s pain was special, and wasn’t fit to be handled by those around her, and that included me. I realize now, that this ability to help others, does not automatically translate into having a good grasp of her own emotions, or an understanding of how to handle them — Mom was terrible at being vulnerable. And that was by no means my fault as a child, or as an adult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the agency we all have regardless of circumstance and how a lack of tools, education, and opportunity can explain how we got to a situation, but cannot be an excuse for inflicting harm on others. While this has helped me understand I am not responsible for Mom’s emotions, the way she reacts to the world around her, which includes my decisions, and ultimately, for her happiness, I am still at a loss somedays for how to move forward.

The social justice and mainstream feminist rhetoric these days of “cutting people out of your life that don’t respect you” took me down a serious path of questioning whether I should cut Mom out. But was she a bad Mom with ill intentions? No. Did she not do everything in her power with what she had and understood at the time to give me the life that she felt I deserved? Yes. At the same time, I also don’t believe in the “honour your parents above all” Chinese principle, where I often see my peers concede to their parents in return for all of their family’s sacrifices and hard work.

So where are all the paths in-between? If I still want to try to have a meaningful relationship with Mom, where does that put me?

IV. Us

“Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” — The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck.

It’s a difficult thing, to watch another human, never mind another human you love, go through self destructive behaviours, while reminding yourself in the face of such pain that you’re not ultimately responsible. It’s also a very difficult thing to continue fighting for my choices over my body and my life, with the idea of not breaking Mom’s humanity, so that I can have mine; but I have to believe that it’s possible.

It’s been over 8 months since I’ve gotten this haircut. I’ve gotten so good at hiding it, I’ve developed automatic responses as protective mechanisms. For instance, I flip sides in my sleep and do a quick run through my hair to make sure everything is covered as I hear her enter my room. I don’t plan on showing Mom for as long as I can help it. In fact, I’m actually thinking of growing it out.

In the context of my life, I’ve realized this isn’t one of the things that I care or need to fight her on. But I also know I don’t need this haircut to feel like myself, which is why this is a very personal decision. I want to have a relationship with Mom, but I also know choosing that option means there’s a really difficult road ahead of us filled with tough conversations and intense feelings we both will need to commit to working through, and I cannot do that work alone. Interestingly enough, after all that inner turmoil, it turns out that maybe this haircut just doesn’t have to be one of those tough conversations.

Shen me dong xi : “What is it?” but in this context, can also be translated as “What are you talking about?”
Mama & Ma: Mom
Baba: Dad
WaiPo: Maternal Grandmother

From the author: I acknowledge not all of these resources are accessible by everyone, but I am providing the options in case they are available for some.

  • Therapy — Having tried three different therapists, I have found the person who shares a cultural identity and understanding of social justice (coming from an Masters of Social Work) background to be the most helpful. Our sessions have allowed me to hold up a mirror to some of the issues I’ve struggled with. She provides perspective and new ideas for how she thinks about problems when I am stuck, but she does the necessary pushback and strives to provide the space for me to draw my own conclusions and decisions when needed. Sessions are $125 an hour, however I know she and others sometimes offer sliding scale payments for those who cannot afford it.
  • Meditation — Try the Headspace App for free for 10 days. They also have deals sometimes for monthly or annual subscription.
  • Psychedelics — As with anything that requires more research and is considered a “drug,” the decision to try psychedelics is personal. I have personally found some psychedelics to be enablers in increasing self awareness. I also recognize there is a lot of appropriation and injustice to indigenous communities who have always used psychedelics in their cultural practices and that the industry is primarily dominated by white men.This is a list of experiences and resources that make reference to some of these issues.
  • Exercise — I have started exercising more regularly and this has helped me feel better about my body and overall self-care.
  • Journaling and writing this piece.


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