As I settle in the chair, hands clasped in my lap over the polyester gown, a sudden shiver of excitement rushes through my body.
“I’d like to go short,” I tell the stylist.
As he runs his fingers through my hair, he talks me through the various options and tells me which ones he thinks will suit me best: do I want a longer bob that skims my collar bone, a shorter chin-length bob, or something in between? But I’m not listening particularly hard. I feel a strange, unfamiliar detachment from the fate of my hair today.
“I trust you,” I say. Then, after a pause, “Let’s go shorter.”
There was something different about this haircut; for one thing, it’s the shortest that my hair has ever been in my life since I was about four years old. Once, the day after my father died, I got a spur of the moment shoulder length cut, but that’s as short as I’ve ever gone. Even then, when I was undone with grief and felt like doing something really radical to my appearance to reflect the change I felt inside of me, I lost my nerve at the last minute.
It’s not that this haircut was bad or deliberately unflattering in any way: quite the opposite. The stylist was incredibly skilled, and did a great job. It’s just that for most of my life, I’ve been pretty convinced that looking my absolute best involves perfectly coiffed, long, golden curls. In my dreams, I’d have someone do a Kate Middleton-style blowout on my hair every morning. My first semester at college after high school, I’d spend time each morning curling my locks before breakfast; one day when I didn’t go through this ritual, someone asked if I had used straighteners.
I’ll never forget the haircut I got after a particularly painful and confusing breakup, the haircut I got to make him see what he was missing; I told the stylist all about the heartbreak, and she spent ages blow-drying my long locks with a curling brush and then carefully coiffing it with curling irons. In my mind, that haircut was the pinnacle of perfect hair for me, the most flattering and knock-out it can possibly get, and I remember feeling like a million bucks that evening. If only I could look like this every single day, I thought.
What differentiated my recent haircut from all the rest, though, wasn’t just the length or style; it felt different because for the first time in my life I wanted to get a haircut just to see what it would look like, motivated purely by a sense of curiosity and fun, rather than to necessarily look my best. I wanted to feel less weight on my shoulders, to spend less time in front of the mirror in the mornings. I wanted to feel good in a deep-down my-hair-doesn’t-define-me kind of a way. I wanted to free myself from something, although at the time I wasn’t exactly sure what that was.
My husband loved my long hair, as did my daughter, who said “Oh, mommy, you’ve cut your hair!” with dismay when she saw my shorter style for the first time. I felt a little bit like Jo in Little Women when she cuts her glorious mane to make some much-needed money for her family—although in my case the length of hair I had cut off went to charity. I no longer had something to hide behind, to fuss about.
A few weeks after my haircut, I watched an interview with Tim Ferriss in which he expressed what I’d been feeling, instinctively. Talking to Marie Forleo he mentioned that he’d recently grown a beard even though he thinks he probably looks better without it. He said that he did that, even though people on the Internet were hating on it, “To train myself to ignore [the opinion of others]… To train myself not to care. Because it doesn’t matter. And when you train yourself in the little things, then you stand a chance of being courageous when you need to be for the big things. You can’t wait for the big things, you have practice on the small things.”
He explained that the famous Stoics like Seneca and Cato advised people to overcome their fear of loss and criticism and attachment to the passing and superficial things of the world by deliberately practicing some kind of small discomfort regularly, doing something a little odd or slightly against the grain. They believed that this would help you to “Learn to be ashamed only of the things that are worth being ashamed of—and that is not clothing, that is not walking around barefoot.” In my case, challenging my own assumption that long hair suits me best and deliberately going against that life-long habit has helped me realize that, far from being a disaster, I can actually handle it. I’m still me. I still feel beautiful. And, as Tim Ferriss said, that’s an incredibly freeing realization. It may just be hair, but practicing this little act of personal courage exercises the muscles I’ll need for larger acts of courage in the future.
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to look your best; feeling beautiful inside and out is very important, and not at all a superficial or vain endeavor. Taking care of our appearance can also be an act of courtesy to those around us; these days, looking my best is an act of love, a very real gift that I can give to my husband. I won’t have short hair forever, but when I do grow it long again and find a style that I think is more flattering for my face, I’m confident that I’ll feel just the same way as I do now about my beauty and self-worth.