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The Big Chop: How a Haircut Changed My Understanding of Beauty

BY Chanté Griffin

Most women have a dramatic story about why they chopped off their hair: it broke off after a bad hair dyeing experience; a romantic break up warranted a change; or a milestone birthday or event prompted a rebirth. My decision to cut my hair was anti-climatic. No break-up, no drama, no one star Yelp review for the hair stylist who did me dirty.

One evening while sitting on my bed, I simply decided to go natural. That was a little more than three years ago, and my hair hasn’t felt the scorching heat of a pressing comb since. But when I decided to “go natural,” I naively thought I could keep all of my hair. Growing up, I was known as the black girl with the long hair. My dark brown hair cascaded down my back and people often asked me where I bought it, assuming I had purchased it. I didn’t realize how big a part of my identity it was until…

I mistakenly tried to use natural hair products on hair that was accustomed to being pressed. It was an epic fail, documented for all of my family and friends to see on Instagram. Despite having studied YouTube’s best tutorials, my hair refused to coil because all of the coils had been pressed out of it for more than twenty years. My strands laid limp and weak.

Image courtesy of Chanté Griffin

One day a friend said, “You know you just need to chop it off,” but I didn’t want to hear that. I kept hope alive… until hope gave out and I realized that if I really wanted to rock my natural hair, then I needed to chop off all of the parts altered by chronic pressing, which was most of it.

I did “the big chop” January 13, 2017, and since YouTube had prepared me, I didn’t cry. I did gasp when I saw all of my hair strewn on the floor of the salon, though. And I gasped, too, when I ran my fingers through my two inch afro.

Photo courtesy of Chanté Griffin

The hairstylist parted my hair and twisted it into finger coils—small twists formed by twirling your fingers—and when I left the beauty shop, I was still in shock. I had done it, but I kinda- sorta-almost regretted it. All I could think about were the encouraging words from the YouTuber who had told me what to expect immediately after I cut my hair: “You may say, ‘What have I done?! But you haven’t made a mistake,’” she warned. “You will be okay. It’s gonna be okay.’”

“You will be okay. It’s gonna be okay,” I told myself as I drove home with hair that didn’t feel like my own.

For days—even weeks—I mourned the loss of my hair. I mourned the loss of the femininity that shoulder length hair had secured me in. I mourned being able to put my hair into a ponytail and quickly run out to do an errand. And I mourned the literal warmth that longer hair offered my head in the winter months. I turned to hats during the first few weeks to provide warmth and a physical crutch because I still wasn’t secure with my new ‘do.

Photo courtesy of Chanté Griffin

To be perfectly honest, I questioned my attractiveness. I was super thin at the time—115 pounds at 5’6”—and without my hair, I felt like a lanky fifteen year-old boy, which wasn’t exactly the look I was going for. Clothes that used to work no longer looked good on me because my longer hair had worked as an accessory of sorts. So I abandoned some of my favorite outfits and embraced more jewelry, especially large, statement earrings. They brought adornment and beauty where my hair once stood.

I noticed a difference, too, in how men looked at me; or rather—how they didn’t look at me. It’s as if my short hair rendered me invisible and unattractive. That summer I briefly dated a man. I was rocking long braids (as I sometimes do for variety) on our first date, and he told me how beautiful I was. But three dates later, when I took out my braids out, I noticed a shift in how he interacted with me. He didn’t like my hair. I could see it in his eyes.

As the months progressed, I grew to love my short, natural hair. I loved its texture, its coils. Heck, I loved the fact that I no longer needed to put rubber bands on the ends of my hair because it coiled into itself. #winning. I discovered my hair’s versatility and its inherent, shape-shifting superpowers.

Photo courtesy of Chanté Griffin

Plus my cheekbones, no longer obscured by long hair, protruded more prominently on my face. With short natural hair, water was no longer the enemy. I could wash myself without fearing that water might splash onto my edges; and if it rained, I didn’t panic if I didn’t have an umbrella because my hair could manage it. I began to love and appreciate my hair so much that I thought about keeping it short, and perhaps getting a cool mohawk to rock for months and years to come.

Eventually the reality of my laziness hit me: I would rather have long hair that I could easily throw into a ponytail than shorter hair that I needed to keep manicured in a particular cut. I decided to grow my hair out.

Surprisingly, today my hair is just as long as it was before I chopped it off. When I look back at pictures taken just three years ago, I think “Wow, your hair was really short,” but I also think “Wow, you did something really brave.”

That woman is not her hair, and her hair is not her, whether it’s short, long, straight, kinky, or coily.

Granted, I realize that cutting one’s hair off is low on the list of all of the brave things one can do in life, but in a society that prizes a woman’s physical beauty—and a particular type of beauty—above all else, it’s a pretty bad-ass move. The confident woman I am now, the one who felt more like her authentic self after she cut off her hair, was birthed January 13, 2017 when she purposely separated from the thing society told her she needed to feel feminine and beautiful. 

That woman doesn’t care if men prefer that her hair be short, natural, or long. She wears it her way. That woman is not defined by her hair, even as it reflects who she is and what she values. That woman is not her hair, and her hair is not her, whether it’s short, long, straight, kinky, or coily.

Photo courtesy of Chanté Griffin

Chanté Griffin is a writer and natural hair advocate based in Los Angeles. She is the creator of the newly formed @kinky_coily_comedy, an online community for black women who rock their natural hair.