Hair & Back Again
I’ve had almost every haircut and colour. I’ve had all the bobs: long, micro, blunt, angled. I’ve had an early aughts emo kid mullet with blonde and blue elements (the bleach burned my forehead). I’ve had thick blonde streaks. Thick red streaks. Black hair. Red hair. Long hair. Even longer hair. Long blonde hair. I had that ombré that later became balayage. There’s been pink and purple. Auburn. Violet. Dark brown. I’ve had a fauxhawk (thank you, 7th grade bullies), pixie cuts both voluntary and not (thank you, big sister and a pair of safety scissors). I’ve had Meg Ryan’s haircut, that short style Mandy Moore had way back. I’ve had a small undercut. A full undercut. It’s been a journey that in a lot of ways has been tied to my gender and sexuality, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
I am currently in the process of growing out a short pixie that had a full undercut. That may be boring information to you, and I get that, but it’s interesting to think about the ways that our hair impact our understanding of ourselves. When I was younger, I had a lot of short haircuts. I also had a lot of people—adults included—chide me as though I had “ruined” myself by cutting my hair. I had people mistake me for a boy because of course nobody else could have short hair. Those kids in the 7th grade called my hair my “dyke spike”, and at the time, I didn’t even know what that meant. One kid also called me “rooster”, which, to be honest, was clever so I didn’t mind it. At least he tried something different!
As I’ve moved through life, my hair and appearance have been affected by many things—when I moved to Ottawa for university, I felt like I could be everything that people never thought I could be: thin, athletic, blonde, and beautiful. I became all of those things and for a time, it felt good. People are remarkably kind to you when you fit the ideal standard of beauty we’ve been fed our entire lives. But that feeling faded as my eating disorder took over and I felt like my body didn’t belong to me. Even now, thinking about that person doesn’t feel real. I don’t think I was ever really in my body that entire time.
This body has always been strange. I’ve always been the tall one, the bigger one. Most of my friends growing up were easily a foot shorter than me, with long hair and femininity that I didn’t seem to fully grasp, even when I tried. It was never quite enough. Now I am 27 and I am still working through the ways that other people’s ideals about my gender impact my expression.
I “came out” as Queer during grad school. It was subtle and not a big deal. My friend became my girlfriend. My family was supportive. I’m lucky for that. I feel sad for the version of me that was always scared to—the young Darby who felt like everybody was right about her and she was kidding herself forever. The version of me who tried so desperately to be the right kind of girl. To move through the world in the seemingly effortless way other women did. The one who was scared to say she didn't just like boys.
Lately, however, I’ve been contending with another question—that of womanhood insofar as it pertains to my gender. I had asked a friend about using she and they pronouns. Their reaction was to say that if I were going to do that, I had to caveat it with the privilege that I have. I wondered, how the heck does that work:
“Hi, I’m Darby. My pronouns are she/they. But I know I look like a she so I move through the world in a privileged way”
Hmmmmmm. First, I wonder what this accomplishes? White people seem to love to toss in “acknowledge your privilege” to everything, because their biggest fear is being racist or being called out. However, who is this FOR? Does it actually do anything for racialized communities? For queer folks? To say, hello, this is me, BUT. But what? This seems more like a tool for white people to distance themselves as “good white people”. This does not mean you should never acknowledge your positionality. Of course you should. But I wonder what, in this context, that would accomplish?
For me, it made me shut down. It made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to make any statements about my gender because of how I look. This feels counterintuitive to queer theory that seeks to break down stereotypes and limitations of how clothing and presentation is gendered. I understand that when you look a certain way you move through the world more safely and with ease. You are not targeted for being queer when you don’t suit this idea of how queer people “should” look. I have a cis male partner. When I look more femme, people assume we’re a straight couple. I move through the world safely.
And yet. I still owe it to myself to understand my gender for me. Not for the queers that police one another. Something that is upsettingly common. The concept of privilege is more nuanced that people are willing to admit. I can possess the privilege of moving through the world safely when my hair is longer and I look more femme. I can also possess the privilege of not having my Queerness questioned when my hair is short and I’m wearing a five panel and look “gay”.
But the thing is….maybe that doesn’t feel good to me all the time? Gender is complex and personal and we do not owe anybody explanations or qualifiers. If it affirms you, that’s what matters. You don’t have to come out. You can have whatever hair you want. If it affirms you, that’s what matters. If it affirms YOU.
I’ve now found myself with short hair again. Of course, it was my choice, but part of it felt like I had to look the part in order to be considered Queer enough. Cutting my hair again was something I had to do at my age to understand how I feel about myself and my hair and how I actually present separate from all those expectations. I am growing out this short hair cut because while I enjoy it, sometimes when I put on my favourite five-panel or toque (I love hats), I experience dysphoria. I feel too masculine for my comfort. I know people look at me and my partner and are confused. I know that I feel like I am playing a part and not feeling like myself. In those moments, I feel like I am looking back on my younger self with long blonde hair who also felt out of their body.
We all deserve to be empowered and feel comfortable in our bodies and our presentation. To all my Queer babes: you do not owe anybody any caveats. Do not police other queer people. Do not ask them to explain their gender to you because you are owed a long-winded piece of critical analysis while they work through the deeply personal, and often triggering, experience of understanding their body and their presentation.
I am lucky to exist safely in this world. I know that asking for that caveat was because some people cannot “blend in” or “pass”. There is a fine line between asking your Queer comrades to be aware of the privilege they hold, and erasing them from the rainbow because they present differently than you. The beauty of the Queer experience is that we are all unique and varied and strong and courageous and trying to find our place and our people.
I don’t truly know what the point of this was, but I had to get it out. In the words of my beloved friend KJ, “femmes can be thems”. Being queer doesn’t mean you don’t make assumptions about people. Being Queer doesn’t absolve you from having to question where those assumptions come from or why you are demanding other Queer people present and identify in a way that makes sense to you.
Your Queerness is what you want it to be. What it means to you is yours and yours alone.