Growing Up, Growing Into, Growing Out, Outgrowing

Well, this is a post that’s been coming for years. So: hair.

Hair has across time and space been imbued with meaning: religious, cultural, societal. It has shown affiliation, status, rank, and beauty; my father’s hair even indicates his profession. Cutting it, shaving it, growing it, being unable to grow it, losing it—hair is super important as a form of expression. And because of that, it also tends to seem like no one can catch a break.

To wit: my hair is stick straight and dirty blonde, and look, right there we have two negative adjectives, and my hair is not even particularly far from the beauty standard! The most impactful fact about my natural hair, though, is that it goes down almost to my knees. Maybe more impactful still is that most people don’t know that, since I wear wigs in most situations and have for over a decade.

The question is: why?

The official line on my hair is that it’s an experiment: I wanted to see how long my hair could grow. It’s true that different people have different max lengths, so unless you do it for yourself, you won’t know for sure. And that was a motivation; it’s not lie.

It’s also the case that growing out my hair in this way has kept me out of the salon or the barber shop, which is a highly gendered community space. I don’t really feel comfortable engaging with them, and I’m also very happy not to have to lose the time or expense. That’s another motivation, but it’s not the origin story.

I started growing out my hair because I didn’t like the way it made me look. I don’t remember this personally, but according to my mother, I decided to give myself a haircut when I was 5, and I’d done enough damage that the only way to save it was to cut it all off. The school photo from that year is apparently her favorite picture of me, and it taunts me to this day.

This disgust at an image of myself certainly colors the way I think of my appearance to this day. If I cut my hair, would I even recognize myself? Who would that person be? Would I lose all that growth, be trapped as that 5-year-old girl who looked like a boy?

It’s the common lament of the ace to be infantilized, viewed as static, standing still, trapped in amber. Those close to us will outgrow us and leave us behind. We’ll end up alone because we will never be recognized as adults by society.

I don’t think I need to repeat in detail what they say to us; you know. It doesn’t help that median age of the community is not quite 23, meaning that a lot of us actually are young enough to be condescended to in this way anyway. Despite my chronological age, I’m not immune from this. I regularly have to tell people around my own age that I’m older than them.

When people look at me, they don’t see someone who has years of work and even managerial experience, who is financially stable and owns a home. They don’t see someone who has a partnership and two failed marriage proposals in their past and has outgrown them rather than been outgrown. They don’t see someone who has gray in their hair… although to be fair to them, it’s not usually visible.

Both of these choices—keeping my hair ultra-long and covering it—set me apart and mark me as different. They invite scrutiny and misunderstandings, and the wigs in particular are highly stigmatized. I want to underline this point, because I think it is not really understood by the vast, vast majority of people, not even people who pay a lot of attention to the politics of fake hair: artificially replacing or supplementing your hair is taboo in my cultural context. When you admit to it, like me? Your hair and your choices become fodder for public debate.

One of my grad school classmates told me she was surprised I was there, because she wouldn’t want to be in a foreign country away from her family if she were that sick. I got half the third grade in trouble when one of my fellow teachers told me she’d scolded them for spreading rumors about my hair being a wig. And I couldn’t count for you the number of times I’ve had other professionals (grown adults!!) pester me for the day they would get to see my “real” hair. It has really only been my black women colleagues who are the exception to the rule (although they definitely do still think it’s weird).

This is not a bid for sympathy; it’s definitely something I’m doing to myself, and I could remove this attention from my life if I chose to, if I just stopped covering my hair.

But as befits the no-win pattern of hair, that likely wouldn’t be the end of it. Ace women who cover their hair for religious reasons talk about how, even as modern Western society likes to pretend hair is neutral, women’s hair is in reality sexualized, and covering removes that sexual attention from them. In a certain sense, I do conceptualize my grooming habit (and my ace ring) in that way. It’s a ritual that makes my hair for me in a way that just cutting it short wouldn’t, and one that feels resonant with the history of changing one’s hairstyle to signify adulthood.

Because we don’t participate in the ordinary milestones of adulthood, we have to make our own, and this is mine.

I bought my first wig shortly after as I came out at asexual; it was not a coincidence. That period of my life saw me radically altering my grooming patterns and later my clothing as part of a process of giving myself permission to have my body be for me. But that doesn’t explain the length of my hair, nor does it explain why there are quite a few aces who grow theirs out too.

I have cornered many of my long-haired (or formerly long-haired) fellows to ask them about their feelings on the subject, but I got as many answers as people I asked, and many of those were uncertain speculation. So what I’ve learned is that I’m far from alone in my lack of answers, and that at least is comforting. I’m not particularly surprised, though, because to be asexual is to be illegible.

My hair looks neither butch nor femme, neither straight nor queer. It doesn’t communicate my status or class or religion or beauty; it communicates only “??????” and that is what I want. I want to live in the way that feels most comfortable for me, that makes me feel confident and happy.

The period of time it took for my hair to get from long to ultra-long happened to coincide with my adolescence. It grew out and I grew up. I grew into myself and outgrew the people and expectations keeping me from living authentically as myself. My hair is the living testament to that growth. It’s a source of joy and of renewal and power and it’s mine.

Why do I keep my hair the way I do? There’s no Answer, only another question: Why shouldn’t I?

Special thanks to: Vesper, Rowan, Queenie, Siggy, Coyote, Maco, and everyone who has let me talk their ears off on this subject over the past eternity I’ve been noodling this topic.

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