Holding My Ear: On a Haircut
Shaping Up My Gender
by Elle Roberts
I chew on the decision for months before I casually ask B over dinner at my house. I know their response is an enthusiastic yes ahead of the question leaving my mouth. The weather is warmer than should be mid-November and the day ends in y. The details are lost to me now, a hallmark of cyclical time in a global health crisis. B gushes over the experience they have in store for me. We plan for Monday night before my 33rd birthday.
My hair grows past my ass by time I finally book a March 16th appointment with a local black lesbian stylist to cut my locs short. This particular femininity project runs a near eight-year course, ending abruptly as the first few U.S. residents contract COVID-19 abroad and stateside. The governor of Indiana mandates a lockdown along with most states. I begrudgingly cancel my appointment.
The world quickly descends into mass disabling and death-dealing chaos. I cannot tell if my tightening chest and neck aches are symptoms of illness, gender dysphoria, or grief on grief. I turn to YouTube to learn how to cut my hair at home. I sit in front of our cheap floor length mirror propped against our coffee table, loosely measure and tie my hair into small sections, and direct my nervous partner handling the kitchen shears in this trust exercise.
Are you sure?
I promise. Please cut it.
They steady their breath and I hear metal slice through each strand. A moment later, I am holding a foot-long bundle of my hair in my hands.
Okay. Let’s keep going.
With two dozen bundles gathered in my lap, I am slowly combing my fingers through my ear-length locs. My head is a million times lighter. I am staring at a new configuration of my face in the mirror. Hair cut away, I cannot hide behind it anymore.
Two years of intense research on loc styles and methods lead to one too many pro/con lists detailing the hair care ease I want and the level of commitment I am afraid of. I commit and find K on the official Sisterlocks website. I use my entire tax return check to pay for one of the most expensive natural hairstyles. The adapted interlocking technique works for locs of most sizes, but the founder and her loudest followers insist the specificity is superior. Several YouTubers tell me the pattern is less harsh on the hair than palm rolling. This assertion may actually be true but the highly secretive exclusivity, costly installs and retightening appointments and trainings, and specialized product lines beg a deeper connection between black wealth and the promises of femininity.
K installs my locs in my parents’ living room over 21 hours in three days. She brings a custom cushioned seat helping her maintain posture and I sit in my dad’s home office chair he carries up from the basement. First, K constructs my grid, parting my hair into near-symmetrical sections before weaving each loc tip to root from back to front. While she works, we watch episodes of OG CSI back to back on A&E. I am not yet a police and prison abolitionist, questioning my dying love for copaganda as a dressed up and popular crime drama. Every hour on the hour:
Who are you? Who, who? Who, who?
I am a wayward daughter of black middle class upbringing, of which image is everything and the goalposts of what is acceptable as a black woman move in lockstep with anti-blackness. The last cishet man I date praises my hair as both cultural call back and political power play. Complicated and cruel as he can be, he is also very candid about our class differences. He is wrong about a handful of things, but not this:
I choose Sisterlocks with purpose, to manipulate my hair into growing long rather than big. Same reason why my mother brings little me to N’s salon around the corner from our church every few weeks — I remember the Vaseline she lathers on to prepare my tender scalp for relaxers. Same reason why I follow my high school girlfriends straight into the Dominican blowout trend. Same reason why in undergrad, I grow out my relaxer in pursuit of healthier hair, riding the natural hair wave of the last decade.
The girl, the teenager, the young adult I am grows up to make my own hair choices, choices that hold living history I fail to understand. I want to look like the woman I think I am and the people I come from and I want a Seat at the Table for what I think are righteous reasons at the time. I will untie the knots I uncover somewhere down the line. For now, these diametrically opposed conditions catch me in their crosshairs.
The year from hell, as Zora Neale Hurston might say, is one of questions and a good chunk of them are about my gender. I am swimming through emerging and evolving answers that inevitably unearth more questions. Somewhere up the line, the woman I think I am outgrows woman as category. I lose interest and investment in the project of femininity, refusing arbitrary rules reinforcing what makes a woman. Hair is one of many visible manifestations.
In their essay "My Gender is Black," Hari Ziyad says, Blackness ruptures the laws of gender. Hortense Spillers’ seminal text, Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, offers necessary context: U.S. slavery effectively ungendered captive African females. Property does not have a claim to gender and we are living in the shadow of this history today. Ziyad continues, citing Saidiya Hartman, Blackness is that which is denied access to humanity, and thus Blackness is denied access to human gender/sexual identities. Our subjugation, our ungendering, provides the foundation for our current mis/understanding of gender and violence against anyone moving beyond and breaking down the binary.
The gender marker on our birth certificates and driver’s licenses and medical charts will never have the same currency or benefits as whiteness demands and affords. It is a fool’s errand to believe otherwise. I do not blame us. I am gratefully not the first or the last Black woman to interrogate my allegiance and attachment to the gender assigned to me when I was born. We are not women in the same way others are because we are not people in the same way others are. We are the reason others can be. We are a world apart.
I stand in front of my bathroom vanity as my fingers trace the outline of my impending undercut. I toss my hair into a messy top bun and take out the locs that will soon no longer be attached to me. I pull the locs left hanging into a fist and pull them taut, down and back, and stare at my face at this angle, and that angle, and back again. My eyes meet my forehead, my jawline, the traces of my father’s face more clearly than ever.
My partner double checks my guess work. We move a loc up and take a loc down until my lines are in agreement. Then, my partner takes a newer pair of kitchen shears to my locs and cuts with confidence. I carefully brush out the remaining hair, feeling the bristles on my scalp for the first time in ten years.
B learns how to cut their own hair during the ongoing pandemic, after combing out and chopping off their locs into a cropped style a few years ago. They collect their kit of proper tools over time. As a teenager, they would occasionally give their dad and younger brother line-ups in between haircuts. Tonight, I join their ranks.
We set the stage in their living room. I grab a dining chair and set up a ring light for better visibility for B and of course, for my partner documenting the affair. They drape me in a matte black cape, buttoning the snap just behind my left ear. I want a low fade so they start with an eighth inch guard. My body tingles head to toe as B deftly maneuvers the clippers through the first pass. I relax into the feeling as B moves from the right side to the left, talking me through every step. With B’s advice, I decide on a rounded hairline. The more feminine option feels good on my body as I put down the femininity put on me. They warn of the edger’s stinging sharpness.
Hey, would you hold your ear down?
I think I can manage that.
I still myself best I can. The buzz tickles anyway, sending a jolt up the back of my neck. As they finish cutting, I can feel remnants of hair collecting in crevices only a hot shower can clear out.
Oh, you weren’t kidding. This is an experience!
B somehow tracks down the scent of black barbershop in a plastic green bottle for less than $5.00. They tap a little Pinaud’s onto a brush and sweep the powder along my hairline, brushing away excess hair in the process. My partner and my friend hype me up as I ugly cry when B places a heavy handheld mirror in my lap.
I lift the mirror to my gaze and I meet myself again.
Elle Roberts (she/her) is a writer, artist, and facilitator based in Indianapolis, exploring the connections and collisions between the political, personal, and poetic. She shares her essays, art, and political education workshops in community spaces throughout and beyond Central Indiana. You can find and engage with her work at msha.ke/elleiswrite.