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The Long and the Short of It

March 20th 2008 – Vernal Equinox
I have been blessed with the most beautiful head of dark red hair; the kind of hair that would mark me as a witch or a healer in a Marion Zimmer Bradley novel. My hair could crown the head of an Irish queen. It is thick and healthy, and large natural curls tumble down my back.

I hate my hair.

Most people who grow up with red hair have to learn to love it. Despite the childhood prejudice and teasing, as an adult I find red hair appealing and even desirable. Today it’s not the color of my hair I hate, it’s the length. I hate it so much that when I look in the mirror, I feel a visceral revulsion. This reaction is not compatible with my feminist, meditating, therapized, emotionally intelligent image of myself.

If my hair were the crowning glory of a femme girl of any persuasion, I would happily appreciate its splendor. But I am no straight girl and I'm definitely no femme girl. I’m a butch boy dyke. That's the real issue here. When I look in the mirror, see my long curly hair, I feel like I am in an episode of Dr. Who[1], where the human hero looks out from inside the alien’s body and wonders if she is ever going to be able to go home. When I look at my long curly hair in the mirror, what I see contradicts my internal image of myself to such a degree that I feel like I have substituted these curls for my true self, my authentic self. I feel like I have sold my soul.

You may be asking why I grew my hair in the first place — a question I have investigated a lot these last few weeks. It's complicated.

I have cut my hair short for most of my adult life. I first shaved my head when I was 15. I didn't know I was butch then, so it wasn’t a deliberate statement of gender. Back then, punk rock was being born and skinheads roamed the streets of East London. I loved the Sex Pistols, but wasn’t allowed to pierce my ears with safety pins or wear ripped clothes. I loathed the politics of the skinheads but shared their passion for reggae and ska music. I loved their Rude-Boy look, the bovver boots[2], the short jeans and bright red suspenders. Perhaps shaving my head the first time was an act of rebellion. But as soon as it was done, and I felt the delicious prickle of my buzzed hair on the palm of my hand and the caress of the wind on my scalp, I was hooked. When I looked in the mirror that day, my heart sang a beaming, “Yes, that's me. Perfect!” As I walked to the bus stop, I felt light and free. My depression, my history lay on the barbershop floor. I'm sure I swaggered a little as I walked home, my shoulders back, head held high in the breeze.

My close-shaved euphoria was quickly subdued when I got home. My mother was devastated; my father, disgusted. So began my stream of relationships with people who somehow believed my hair had some bearing on how they were seen to be in the world, that my choice of haircut was based upon a deep-seated need to make them miserable.

I told myself I didn't need my mother's approval, and over the years, with enough spiritual and inner work, I believed it.

I told myself I didn't need my mother's approval, and over the years, with enough spiritual and inner work, I believed it. Yet last year, when I returned to England with my flowing curls, there was a part of my heart fulfilled by her fawning approval. It was doubly sweet because to the English, fawning and farting fall into the same category of embarrassment, best avoided, especially in public. Still, when I decided to cut my hair this month, disappointing my parents again was high on the list of reasons not to do it. I heard my sister's voice saying, “It's okay to you, you don't have to live with them.” That’s the same thing she said when I came out on breakfast TV without telling my parents first — who knew so many people were up that early in the morning?

So, again, why as a middle aged woman did I grow my hair?

About three years ago I started working at the first job of my life where I am required to be professional. A job where there is no place for the role of Radical Dyke. I go into people's homes, people who often have homophobic beliefs, families where “gay” is the biggest and most common insult. I go into their homes and interact with their children. I am good at this work, but the old fear of not being good enough, of being found out as a fraud or a fake woke that deep-seated demon of internalized homophobia. I told myself I needed to look less queer, in order to do the job properly, in order to be safe.

There is a spiritual element to this too. Any action which is an expression of the authentic self is by its nature a spiritual action. The Buddhists shave their heads to separate their present from their history. The Rastafari, Sikhs, Sufis and some orthodox Jews grow their hair as part of their spiritual practice. The final stimulus to grow mine was the Sufi teacher who explained why Sufis grow their hair. I wanted to be a good Sufi. I wanted to tie my hair back into a slick ponytail, look like a cross between a Sufi saint and Antonio Banderas. If it wasn’t safe to look like a dyke I would settle for sexy spiritual icon.

I realized the other day, I may be confused about what to do with my hair, but there are people who would be very grateful to receive it. If I shave my head and donate the hair, then miss my curls, I’m young enough to grow them back. It was a brilliant divine inspiration which would give me a socially acceptable explanation for my mother, who volunteers as a hairdresser in her local hospice. I could make cutting my hair about something bigger than either of us.

April 1, 2008 – April Fools
The process of writing this piece made me realize I couldn’t cut my hair until I investigated the source of the pain and made peace with my curls. I spent the weekend using EFT[3] and affirmations to heal these new layers of shadow around gender, homophobia, authenticity and spiritual alignment. By the end of the weekend I could look in the mirror and smile, not cringe. I could accept that the curls did not represent the authentic Boye, but they didn’t deny her either.

This morning I went to the barber. The barber, a straight woman, was traumatized by the idea of cutting off my locks. “But it’s so curly and beautiful. It’s so soft.” I’m happy to report the donation idea eased her suffering and seemed to lessen my sin.

This afternoon, I love my hair. When I look in the mirror seeing my shorthaired self, I see the Goddess looking back at me. When I look in the mirror I’m grinning. I’M BACK! In fact it’s as if the long hair thing happened only in dreamtime. My girlfriend keeps staring at me as if she thinks I’m cute — I feel cute again. The kids, well, half of them loved it and the other half are just not wired with sensitive social skills. The parents didn’t scream dyke and throw me from their house, so I suspect that’s OK too.

As I strutted around today I realized how much my long hair had made me blend into the crowd. How much I’d missed being stared at in restaurants, being called “Sir,” and catching the panicked look on the face of the old blue-haired lady met at the threshold of a public bathroom. Although I accept my hair was beautiful, beautiful is not a word I relate to myself. I am cute, handsome and maybe even adorable, but not beautiful. With my long hair I somehow defaulted into a mainstream female identity I have never related to. An identity I neither sought nor accepted.

I like having ambiguous gender. I know who I am as a woman when I look like a dyke. I know what the Goddess looks like, on both the inside and the outside. I know who I am when I embody the spirit of Beltane. When I see in the mirror the masculine and the feminine manifest in me, I remember my gift to the world is my willingness to live an authentic life; my willingness to be me.

Footnotes

  1. BBC science fiction series, which I grew up with and which is still running today — http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/
  2. “bovver — trouble, usually fighting. Also bovver boots — large lace-up boots worn by thugs (especially skinheads) and bovver boys — boys that cause the bovver mate!” http://www.londonslang.com/db/b/
  3. “Based on impressive new discoveries regarding the body's subtle energies, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) has proven successful in thousands of clinical cases. It applies to just about every emotional, health and performance issue you can name and it often works where nothing else will.” http://www.emofree.com/

Graphics Credits

  • self portraits, courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.
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