I don’t think I’ve ever had such a swift reaction as the one I experienced immediately following the unceremonious chopping off of my hair. I could still feel the pressure of the rubber handles etched between my fingers when I eased those wretched shears onto the bathroom counter and took in the fruits of my handiwork. I’d woken up with my hair on my head but after six or seven reckless snips, it was strewn on the floor. In contrast to the white tile underfoot, it looked like an awful lot, like I’d just lopped off a mass of Esperanza Spalding’s locks instead of my own. I was romanticizing the glory of those befallen strands, of course, but the stark reality of what lied beneath them spurred an epiphany.

I looked in the mirror.

Then back at the floor.

Then, slowly, reluctantly, unbelievingly, I eased my gaze back into the mirror again.

On top of my head, where my signature, just-below-shoulder length wrap had hung since I’d wrangled authority from my mama to style my own hair, there was a halo of brown, cottony-looking bushiness. It lay shorter on the sides, packed tight at the top and gave up just a little hangtime around the nape, reminiscent of Bobby Brown’s shaggy back bang circa the Don’t Be Cruel era or Lester Jenkins’ perpetually misshapen box on 227. I hated it. Not the hair itself, though it was definitely far from perfect, but the way I looked underneath it.

My decision to grow out my perm wasn’t a me too! hop on the natural hair bandwagon nor was it the aftershock of some rebirthed commitment to my blackness. I was just as power-to-the-people in a wash and set as any sister in an Afro or dreads. I gave it a go to try something new and to allow my hair a well-deserved break from the deep-fried straightening process of the Dominican salons I’d faithfully patronized since the first Bush administration. I’d grown it out for months, trying to press the new growth to meld as inconspicuously as possible with the habitually relaxed ends. For a while, the effort was successful until a run-in with a bad, sulfate-free shampoo broke it all off and accelerated the inevitable.

So there I was, standing barely past sunrise on a Saturday morning, teeth unbrushed, face unwashed and topsy-turvy with my hair by my feet. But unlike so many other Black women who’ve celebrated the exhilaration of the big chop and reconnected with their minimalistic beauty, I didn’t feel free and I certainly didn’t feel cute (and wouldn’t have even if I had gotten around to brushing my teeth or washing my face). I felt awkward, I felt homely and I felt a trip the closest African braid shop coming on. I don’t mind telling you I was her first client of the day. Literally. First in the chair. And I’ll keep going back as a gold star customer until this crop grows back out. God bless the inventor of the kinky twist.

What an unfortunate discovery it is to learn that your face is not designed for short hair after you’ve scissored it to shreds. Bernadine did it in Waiting to Exhale and it was a hit. Janelle Harris did it in Washington, DC and it was a fail.

It’d always been one of my best assets, that hair, but I hadn’t realized just how much of a security blanket it had also been. I’ve never been “pretty” under the general definition of what “pretty” is, and that’s OK. Not everyone is a great beauty—someone has got to be average and I was unknowingly volunteered for the job. But seeing myself in that brazen stage of almost baldness brought to the fore all of the flaws I bemoaned but conveniently distracted from with sassy updos and fresh wraps and cute bangs.

Without my hair to hide under, all I could do was focus on the perceived mistakes Mother Nature had made. No pair of dangling earrings or dusting of makeup was going to compensate, and I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to embrace that version of myself. It was keeping it just a smidge too real for my liking.

Once, I accidentally died my hair platinum blonde after a bright idea, too much time on my hands and close proximity to a beauty supply created the perfect storm for an attempt at doing my own highlights. I had to rock a ponytail weave for months while my poor tresses recuperated after that debacle. Another time, I put relaxer on my new growth—while I had a headful of Poetic Justice box braids, mind you—in an effort to stretch the time between touch-ups. But none of those boo-boos compare to the baggage the big chop forced me to confront about how I look at myself, especially in the honest hours of the morning when it was just me and a spur of the moment rendezvous with a pair of scissors.

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  • Nikki M

    I knew my hair was unhealthy but it was long and I loved it long. My daughter decided not to be held hostage by her hairdresser and that made me start thinking about my hair. Why was I willing to go bald (maybe forever) to say I had long hair over most of my head? Was I afraid of short hair or of looking “black” or any of the multitude of issues black women have about our hair? My husband encouraged me so in a moment I chopped. At first I hated my hair surprisingly only because it was short. My husband loved it at first sight and has expressed his hope that I’ll never go back.

    For me I discovered a few things about myself through my new short do. First I realized how I was so happy with the long hair that I neglected some of the other girly things like wearing cute earrings and taking the time to get fully made up beyond special occasions. Second, having never seen what my hair looked like without perm (aside from some baby photos), I had just assumed that it would be a horrible mess. I was completely wrong. After spending some time on youtube (thank you to all my sisters who have shared their hair wisdom), I began to experiment with different products to see what worked for me. Once again surprisingly it took very little (organic aloe juice and coconut oil) and I discovered that I was capable of making my hair soft, curly, and best of all pretty all by myself. I’ve never felt better and my hair has never been this healthy. To anyone who has chopped and isn’t happy with the results–take some time to get to know your hair. You aren’t going to find what works immediately but you will because like black people, black hair is RESILIENT.

    • Nikki M

      Was I afraid of short hair or of looking “black” or any of the multitude of issues black women have about our hair?

      Just to clarify. I think I bought into the idea that my hair could only look pretty if it looked nothing like an afro. I was completely wrong and my idea of pretty has expanded. My new hair looks pretty and makes me feel pretty too and that is a whole new hair sensation for me.

  • Pseudonym

    Girrrrrrrrl, I (and others) have been there. No worries! When I big chopped, the hairdresser straightened my hair so it was at chin length and still easily workable on its own. I always had hair below my shoulders and never learned to actually “style” my hair besides switching the part from the left, right, or middle, so when I did that first wash and my hair drew up to and inch or so (and I had no idea what to do with it!!!- the front kept flopping down into my eyes), I almost cried.

    Then I put a headband on it, threw on some bigger earrings, and got used to it after a couple days once I figured out how short hair works.

    Not sure how long it’s been, but you might just need time to adjust to your new face. I’m a creature of habit and that’s what I’ve always needed the three times I’ve changed how I look. Even now, when I straighten my hair, it takes me a day to get used to it and like despite the fact that that’s how I used to wear my hair for years!!!

    But don’t worry too much. and I agree with a lot of the comments above: if you can afford it, go see a natural hair stylist who can give you a nice shape and some ideas on how you can style your hair to your liking.


  • deb

    A nicely shaped tapered fro does wonders for any face, check out ladies with TWA on tumblr. I’m not gorgeous by any stretch and they flatter my face. I agree that you should have got it shaped up.

  • The BC doesn’t have to mean all-even kinks. I’ve kept mine very low for almost a year now, and I like fading it on the sides and in the back. That gives it a more deliberate, more stylish look. I like experimenting with color, too. It all depends on what you plan to do with your new ‘do.

    Having said that, if you don’t feel comfortable with your face on full display, no amount of styling will make much of a difference. The value of confidence, of fearless self-acceptance, can’t be overstated. Many people won’t like your hair, and if that group includes you, you have to be honest with yourself. Long or straight hair will only be bandages for your insecurities if you don’t accept yourself.

  • L. Scott

    Hi Janelle,

    I do believe we used to work at the same company here in DC some time ago. Great to see you doing wonderful things!

    Well, I “big chopped” and relaxed about 3 times before I finally felt comfortable with my natural look. I had been natural for a year and one day hastily slapped a relaxer in my hair because I realized I just wasn’t feeling “pretty,” Like I said, I did that 3 times. It took the 4th time around for me to actually “take” to my natual hair and become “one” with it lol! I had to realize that I would not look like all the naturals that I viewed on Youtube and the internet, my hair is just that…my hair. I had to just let it be. By this time around I knew exactly what it would look like, do and not do and how fast/slow it would grow. So, I was ready. I know I’m rambling but what I’m trying to say is that not everybody gets “it” the first time. And, for that matter, natural hair may not be for everybody. You have to make sure that you are comfortable with your inside and your outside. Do you boo!

    • I know what you mean. I felt exposed and unattractive the first time I BC’d. Four years later, after some serious soul-searching and self-esteem boosting, I chopped my hair again. The second time was the charm for me :-)