When I was a little girl I had very long hair.
My mother made sure of it – it was her pride and joy – and I loved it.
I have vivid memories of evenings together after school where I would sit down on the floor while my mum brushed and styled my hair.
Typically it was woven into a simple but elegant plait. But sometimes my mother would wow me with some new and quirky styling tool that left me enchanted at the mere sight of it.
I had a 101 Dalmatians bag filled with bands and baubled, which we would ho through happily together. My favourite was the Minnie Mouse bow. I felt very special when that got clipped in to my hair.
Flash forward to my early teens and my mum was sobbing.
I could see her teary expression and heartbroken glances every time I looked in the salon mirror.
I was bored with my long hair. I wanted to look like Kairi from Kingdom Hearts. I also wanted to date Sora (because we all have a fictional crush at some point, right?) I didn’t care what my mother thought.
…Actually I did, quite a lot really.
I was at that tender age where independence meets rebellion and, although generally a goody two shoes, I yearned for some control in my life.
Having my hair cut short was one of the very first times where I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother’s happiness and my own wouldn’t always align perfectly, and that this was okay. That we’d both be okay even through that truth.
That first brave moment hurt like hell, but it gave me valuable tools to use and refine in later life.
And, yes: I did try to style my hair excessively to get the ‘anime’ style down.
And, yes: It did look stupid as shit.
Flash forward, yet again, to my later teenage years and, this time, I’m the one crying.
I’m in school, in public, sat on a chair waiting to be called in to the office.
I couldn’t tell you what I was crying about. Bullying most likely. I was bullied a lot in secondary school (and not just for my failed anime hair).
My head is dipped down low and I can feel my shoulder length hair and overly long fringe covering my face.
In that moment my hair is a shield – protecting me from the outside world and holding me close, hiding my shame, obscuring my tears.
For once in my teenage years, I see the benefit of long hair. I think of my mum. I want her there with me.
Skip many years (and a few more shoulder length cuts) forward and my partner makes a snarky remark.
‘My hair is longer than yours now’.
It’s said with a smile that’s a bit too smug for my liking. I start growing my hair.
It’s not long before my partner’s remark becomes null and void and my hair has become a long and lazy mop of growth from my scalp. But there’s no love there: just an undergrad’s budget and a lack of time or motivation to get it trimmed. I tie it back in a ponytail every day and forget just how powerful hair can be.
That is, until, my nan is diagnosed with cancer.
It’s lung cancer – years of smoking like a chimney doing what it does. The diagnosis came late and her chances aren’t great. Treatment is given but mainly to prolong the inevitable. We’re all shattered.
One of the hardest parts of cancer treatment for my nan was losing her hair.
She hadn’t always worn it long (at times she had gone much shorter than I) but it meant everything to her. My nan’s hair was part of her identity – a life in locks that was being rudely stripped from her body. I don’t think she ever fully came to terms with that.
But we all came together and tried our best to cheer her up. We made jokes, we offered support. When my nan’s wig came we all took playful terms with it and my dad even traded it out for a tea cosy, decorated with the union flag. It was a good day.
So, after my nan passed, I was determined to get my ever-growing ponytail cut and donated to a wig charity.
You can imagine my mum’s reaction. ‘Not again!’ she lamented. For her it was deja vu. And this time I also had a partner to break the news to. They weren’t thrilled.
‘I don’t like short hair’ they deterred, hoping their words would halt my (admittedly stubborn) mind.
‘It’s for a good cause’ I reassure them. ‘Besides, hair grows back’.
After I’d had my charity cut my mother felt tentative pride but the disapproval from my partner was palpable. ‘I feel like I’m fucking a guy’ they confessed. It hurt. I accepted it.
Still, in time we got in to a lovely hair tugging routine, so it wasn’t all bad.
And then, today, I shaved all of it off. This time for Macmillan Cancer Support. As short as short can be.
I can’t say I wasn’t nervous – at times I was. Midway through the process I looked like the antagonist from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and winced. That guy had terrified me as a child. But I never regretted my choice and still don’t.
Knowing what my hair has been through, reflecting on what it’s meant to me, my family, my now-ex over the years, I feel blessed to be able to use what I have in order to help those who need it.
As for my mum? She was with me again, flashing back to her own mother’s sorrow at her involuntary loss of hair and fearing she might burst in to tears.
But, you know what? She filmed the entire fucking process. She made jokes with me along the way, complemented how I looked, and the photos in this article were taken by her. And, as I glanced at her during my shortest trim to date she wasn’t sobbing: she was smiling, eyes wet only with happiness and pride.
Hair is part of us. It is our identity and our life enfolded at the seams by neat little follicles (which, themselves, contain our DNA). I love my hair and I love my new hairstyle and I hope that its significance shines through with every smile.
Thank you to everyone that has supported me along the way. Your shares, donations, and words of encouragement have meant the world to me. You rock!