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Buzzcut Season

The back of my head is weirdly shaped.

I’ve been aware of the little abnormal lump just above the nape of my neck for a long time. It was never really an issue until very recently. I always had hair. I was born with an unruly crop of it, more than I think babies are supposed to really have. It grew into an afro that doubled the size of my head by the time I had been on this Earth for 18 months. The little lump was always inconspicuous, always hiding beneath the blanket of my hair, no matter what style it took on. And, in a way, I would hide beneath it too.

Hair is a rather polarizing thing in my community. When you’re black, and a woman, your hair is not your own. It’s subject to criticism, ridicule, false praise, sloughs of comments. “Is that all yours?” “How do you get it like that?” “Can I touch it?” Hands prodding, pulling. Unsolicited styling tips. “Have you ever straightened it?” Perms — not for me, thank God. But blowouts. Tedious trips to the salon. Fried hair that puffed up after 30 minutes in southern humidity.

Art by Maddy Sutka

All of this pressure compounded when I decided that I wanted to be an actress. I became less a person than a two-dimensional image, an archetype. My hair was always my calling card — the first thing anyone noticed about me. My hair might have gotten me more jobs than my actual talent. That was never confirmed, but when you realize how much hair can determine perception, you start to wonder. You notice the pigeonholing. You realize people are imagining Lisa Bonet, Zoë Kravitz, Amandla Stenberg — so they cast you to embody that ideal. It makes you feel like a cheap knock-off. You start to retreat into yourself, to doubt your true merit. You become an insecure, introverted adult — a far cry from the aspiring diva you were as a child. You retreat into your hair.

That is, until you’ve had enough of it.

I shaved my head for the first time 2 years ago, after completely flubbing an audition that would have gotten me a spot in the actor’s showcase at my school. This decision was not so impulsive as it sounds; I’d been thinking — and half-joking — about pulling a “Gift of the Magi” for a fair amount of time. But it caused such an uproar every time I brought it up. The people around me were more invested in my hair than I was. I, however, was over it, and all the upkeep, and all that aforementioned perception. I wanted to be free of all that, to do something for myself, and no one else.

And it was freeing. Greatly freeing. I looked pretty damn good, my weirdly-shaped head notwithstanding. But shearing off hair you’ve amassed over a lifetime, while incredibly cathartic, can create an environment ripe for lifelong insecurities to grow in its stead.

There were parts of being bald that I absolutely loved. Before the buzz, my morning/night routine was padded with an additional 60 minutes for any hair care needs that could (and, why lie, usually did) arise. After there was no routine besides garden-variety skincare, nothing to do in the morning besides brush my teeth, slap on some makeup, jump into some clothes.

There was also the matter of my striking new face. I only say “new” because I truly looked like a different person without the shrouding halo of hair obscuring my face from every angle. Without it there was room for my caterpillar eyebrows, my flying-saucer eyes, to take center stage. I liked the way they stood out against my buzzcut. I liked how clearer my face seemed. It felt like cosmetic minimalism.

As long as I looked at myself head-on and from the neck-up, like a headshot, I wasn’t worried about the size of my head, or the little abnormal lump just above the nape of my neck. I wasn’t fussed over the size of my bust, which I already abhorred. It looked considerably larger with no hair to offset it. It made my head look even smaller. But as long as I didn’t think about it, right?

Too bad I did think about it. All the time. And as happy and free as I felt, I still couldn’t stop from appraising myself in the tri-fold, full-body mirror at work. I couldn’t stop myself from picking at all the other tiny things I never really noticed when my hair was big and distracting enough.

Art by Maddy Sutka

I was told I might have body dysmorphia. While it was not nearly as intense as in other people I know, it still controlled so much of my day-to-day thought. I started to grow paranoid over people watching me in profile, from behind. I wondered what they thought of me, of my body, what they saw. The fear of external perception had the nerve to haunt me again, and after I’d gone through the trouble of shaving my head, just to escape it.

So I started growing my hair back. It’s been two years, and it’s growing fast — enough to bring my small head back into proportion with my body, to frame my face nicely. But the sad thing is I can’t stop thinking about the buzzcut. I swipe wistfully through old photos. I watch the Gossip Girl reboot and feel a furious envy thrash through my blood at the cast members (there are 2!) who live in a perpetual state of buzz. I remember how confident I felt, how much more myself I felt — even with a mental disorder running rampant in my head. Even with a head I didn’t particularly like. It’s a weird kind of dichotomy: the inability to be completely happy, one way or another. The inability to just pick one state of being.

Despite all this, I see myself shaving my head again, and soon, too. A buzzcut just feels like one of the few ways to maintain a sense of autonomy. Maybe because it’s so polarizing. Just the other day my mom wondered aloud if it would affect my future relationships: “What if your future husband doesn’t like it?” The answer to that question is so devastatingly simple: That wouldn’t be my husband. I have trouble enough accepting myself. My partner, whoever and wherever they are, should have no trouble at all in accepting me, in thinking I’m beautiful no matter how I look.

Granted… neither should I. But I’m working on that bit.

That, I think, is the lesson I took from shaving my head that first time. Laying myself bare like that, throwing all my once-hidden imperfections into the light for all to see and having to live with them. It’s kind of a metaphor for the rest of life, isn’t it? The rest of our bodies? There are things we can’t change, not without a couple thousand dollars and ample recovery time. And if we’re religious at all, there’s the argument that whatever higher power you believe in made you a certain way for a certain reason, and didn’t make a mistake.

The latter, I struggle with. But I get the sentiment.

We’re all weirdly shaped one way or another. I think the trick is getting used to the weirdness. And the maddening thing is we may never, but that’s… life, I guess? Sounds gross, not being able to snap my fingers and just magically be okay with everything about myself. It’s a process. I hate that. But it makes the prospect of shaving my head again that much more appealing.

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katie wilkerson
katie wilkerson
Sep 06, 2021

Dude the body dysmorphia was real when I shaved my head. Didn't help that I had bad skin and posture lol. I saw myself with long hair when I closed my eyes. It was easy though, and freeing, and I was proud. I'd do short hair again but I like having a little something to hide behind. Like the hoodie I wore every day in the 6th grade.

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