Growing up in a small town with less than 4,000 people in rural southern Delaware, it was difficult to discover my own identity.
I enjoyed the company of the people around me, but I never felt like I was one of them, always believing I deserved more than backroads and farm fields. I desperately searched for ways to express myself and become my own person while living in a community where everyone else seemed to think one-dimensionally.
When I was five years old, I came across CBS’ NFL Sunday coverage while sitting on the living room floor, five inches in front of my old box television set, when I noticed something that stood out: No. 43 on the Pittsburgh Steelers had long, curly hair.
The player, Troy Polamalu, ended his career as one of the best defensive players in NFL history, but at the time, I just noticed his hair flopping from under his helmet.
“Boys don’t have long hair,” I thought to myself when I first saw Polamalu on the pixelated screen.
In my town, most boys kept their hair short. That little boy looking up at the television just discovered the perfect way to become his own person.
I immediately told my mom I wanted to have long hair. My mom, unlike most people in my hometown, lovingly obliged, like she always did.
As the months went on, I finally felt strands of hair pass the side of my face and eventually graze the tips of my shoulders. I loved putting it up, braiding it and discovering new ways to show it off. I was finally content with my individuality.
While I was growing out my hair, my parents were going through a rough divorce. I spent my nights hiding in my room hoping the yelling downstairs would stop. My weekends went from road trips and family movie nights to hauling all my stuff out of my bedroom to stay with my mom at my grandparents’ house.
When I’d periodically visit my father’s side of the family, who were less accepting of my style, I was constantly pressured to cut my hair.
“You look like a little girl,” my father and his dad always told me. “You should look like a man, not a woman!”
Surprisingly, I remained confident about my long hair, as my mom gave me the reassurance I needed to let their ignorant comments serve as nothing more than background noise.
But one day while sitting behind the counter of my father’s family’s business, a customer mistakenly called me a little girl. While it was surely just an honest mistake, I felt self-conscious about my long hair for the first time.
“Do I actually look like a little girl?” my confused 10-year-old self wondered.
Despite my uncertainty, I still loved my long hair because it allowed me to express myself, and I began to embrace it again until my father’s dad took me to get a “hair trim.” He assured me no length would be taken off and it was just to maintain healthy hair growth.
However, the haircut was taking longer than it should for a regular trim. Before I knew it, clumps of my long hair were on the floor, leaving me heartbroken.
After this moment of betrayal, I promised myself to protect and fight for my long hair, never cutting it unless I wanted to. During high school, my hair varied in length. Sometimes it just passed my ears, other times it grazed the tips of my shoulders, but it was always long.
When I got to college, my hair became a major hassle and difficult to manage, but I was too afraid to cut it because I thought my personality was dependent on my long hair and without it, I lost my individuality.
In early April, while sitting in my room, I impulsively grabbed a pair of scissors and went into the bathroom to cut a couple inches of my hair. My heart broke as I watched strands of hair fall, but for some reason, I didn’t regret it.
Still, I was too afraid to cut above my ears and my hair quickly grew back, already approaching my shoulders after a month. Despite feeling like I took a significant leap, I was right back where I was prior to cutting it. I questioned why seemingly meaningless pieces of hair bothered me so much, and I knew it was time I cut it for good.
In August, I walked into a salon in Philadelphia and showed the stylist a picture of a cut above the ears for the first time in years. In just 15 minutes, my long hair was gone.
Half of me felt at peace. It was freeing to know I wouldn’t have to manage my long hair anymore.
The other half of me felt like I let the seven-year-old version of myself down. The version of myself that promised to fight for my long hair after being betrayed. For years, my long hair was a way to express myself and stand out from others.
As weeks went by, I finally got comfortable with my short hair. I realized that, despite no longer having long hair, I could still be my unique self.
I appreciate my journey with my hair for allowing me to express myself and become my own person. The version of myself my family and friends have grown to love will remain and continue to grow — regardless of how long my hair is.