Several months ago, I was talking with a friend about being “triggered” – that feeling when someone says something to you that brings up strong emotions surrounding past experiences. Triggers – why we have them and when they occur – are interesting to me. I’m not generally an emotionally reactive person. A steady, analytical earth sign, I usually respond to things rationally. That doesn’t mean I don’t have emotional triggers, but I definitely notice when they occur.
So yesterday, a guy at the gym said something that triggered me about (get ready for this) my hair.
Jessica’s hair: A brief history
Let me back up a minute to provide some context. Nearly two years ago, I had to cut off about 12 inches of my hair.
I’d always had long hair, with the exception of a haircut I insisted on when I was in third grade (I wanted hair like Becca from Life Goes On. But better. With 90s bangs). I’m talking longggg… waist-length, silky, blonde hair.
I always got compliments on my hair, and as I emerged into adolescence and young adulthood, the significance of my hair seemed to become more and more deeply ingrained. I can’t tell you how many times random strangers would reach out to touch my hair, or say something like “Oh, don’t ever cut your hair!”
Long hair has some deep cultural ties with beauty. It is often perceived as a symbol of femininity and sexuality. It is also a lot of work to manage.
About four years ago, I decided I wanted to play with my appearance. I wanted an edgier look. I was tired of looking like the girl next door – that didn’t really reflect who I was on the inside. I ended up with a full sleeve tattoo and spent a year dying that long hair of mine a number of different, bold colors (different shades of red, pink, and purple). I also pierced my philtrum.
During this period, I began thinking about cutting my hair. I no longer seemed to identify with it – that strange emotional attachment to it was gone. It started to feel like an old part of me, a remnant of my sleepy past that no longer existed.
I decided I wanted to go back to being a blonde after a year of coloring my hair. I went to my stylist (without the intention of cutting it) and asked if he thought he could strip out the remaining red and get my hair back to blonde. He was confident he could.
Well, I spent all day at the salon undergoing three different processes. The result was hair with the consistency of chewing gum. I’m not kidding. It was rubbery and clumping off so badly that the stylist wouldn’t even attempt to comb it while it was wet.
It was… a disaster.
I spent the next two days watching my fried hair break off and realized that this was an opportunity to chop it off! Okay, really, there wasn’t an option. I either cut it or it was all going to break off on its own. Two days later, I went to another stylist (needless to say, I didn’t return to the guy who fried my locks) and boom! Chopped!
I loved my new hair. It was so light and easy to style. I still felt beautiful and realized that the length of my hair had nothing to do with whether or not I perceived myself as attractive. Hell yeah, high five to me!
I went to the gym the next day feeling pretty awesome about my new, edgy, Marilyn Monroe-esque look. The first comment about my hair came from a guy I sometimes talked to. “Oh my god, Jessica… what did you do to your hair?” The accompanying look on his face was one of horror. “Where’s your hair?? Why would you cut your hair? It was so beautiful.”
And in a moment, I went from feeling like a modern-day version of Old Hollywood beauty to someone who used to be beautiful… before she chopped off her hair.
For the next couple of months, this sentiment was repeated. Women told me they loved my new cut, and men generally mourned the loss of my locks. I realized that everyone had an opinion about my hair – the question was, why did I care? I decided to embrace my new short hair freedom – I even cut it shorter, trying out an angled bob for a while. Through this silly journey of superficiality, I learned that at the end of the day, the way I felt about myself was entirely up to me.
But then, I was triggered. It came out of nowhere. I went on a few dates with a guy last spring and we were chatting over lunch one afternoon. He had friended me on Facebook and was commenting on old pictures… talking about how beautiful my hair used to be.
Oh god, I thought. Not this hair crap again. I graciously thanked him for the compliment and then he asked me why I would do something so unimaginable as cutting it. Rather than going through the whole story, I simply told him that I cut it because I wanted to.
Then he asked if I would ever grow it out again, explaining that he would “strongly support that.” He added, “I mean, you’re hair is pretty now… but wow, it used to be really beautiful.”
I sat there, looking back at him blankly. Something about having a guy I had just started dating tell me that he would “strongly support” me if I decided to grow my luscious locks back out…triggered me.
What did that even mean? How does one actually “strongly support” the hair growth of another person? What was he going to do, buy me prenatal vitamins? Take me to the salon for conditioning treatments? Go on a high protein diet with me and make sure I got plenty of healthy dietary fat? Talk lovingly to my hair to encourage the follicles to crank out hair at a faster rate?
Sure, I was overthinking it all (hello? It’s me, Jessica). But did it even occur to this guy that maybe I actually liked my hair shorter?
I think what I found so triggering about the comment was simply the rudeness of it. But also, there was this underlying sentiment (real or perceived, it doesn’t really matter) that somehow, I owed it to the world to reclaim the true beauty that was rightfully mine by… growing out my hair.
Now, back to the gym trigger guy
Two days ago, I went to the salon for a color touch-up and trim. My hair was just past my shoulders because I’d not cut it the last couple of visits. It was in that irritating, in-between state where it wasn’t short, but it wasn’t mid-length… it just sort of hung there, annoyingly brushing against my shoulders and having an identity crisis (am I short hair? Am I long hair? What am I…?!). I decided I wanted to trim it back up and had my stylist take two inches off.
Two inches, that’s all. Nothing drastic.
So yesterday, I’m at the gym and the rubber band holding my hair up in a little ponytail snapped. Strange, yes. But surely a set-up for the coming trigger that I’d have the chance to grow from.
I continued my workout with my hair down and was walking across the gym when this guy stopped me. This was a guy who is always trying to chat with me. He’s always leering at me, always trying to catch my eyes. But gym time isn’t social hour for me. Even if this guy was a Brad Pitt look-alike (he isn’t), I’m generally not interested in chatting when I’m trying to train.
He’s stopped me before, this guy, asking to look at my tattoos, asking where I’m from, commenting on my shoes, asking about the type of headphones I use. So it wasn’t a real shocker when he stopped me yesterday. I could feel him staring at me as I walked over to the cables. I kept my eyes averted, so he reached out and grabbed my arm to get my attention. I looked up and he motioned toward his head — you know, gym sign language for “take your headphones off, I want to talk to you.”
I reached up and pulled my headphones off one ear. “Yea?” I asked.
“You did something to your hair, didn’t you? You look different.”
I nodded, careful not to smile or seem engaging. “Yeah, a little trim yesterday.”
He furrowed his brow. “It looks like more than a little trim. It was significant.”
“Not really,” I said. “A couple inches.”
And with that, he crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “All that pretty blonde hair.”
Anddddddddd there it was. The trigger!!
I could feel all the past emotions surrounding this ridiculous topic come bubbling to the surface. My brain was flooded with all the comments and sideways stares from men over the last two years who couldn’t possibly imagine why I’d strip away all my beautiful femininity and cut my glorious hair. Here we go again, I thought. Another random dude who wants to put his 2 cents in regarding how I should look.
I looked at him blankly – probably the same blank stare I gave to the guy last spring who told me he would “strongly support” me if I grew my hair back out. A stare, probably with slightly squinted eyes, that clearly communicated my desire for him to go kick some freaking rocks!
Gym dude then softened his face and uncrossed his arms. In an instant, my go pound sand expression caused him to shift from disappointment about the whopping two inches I’d lopped off my hair to… compassion.
“Oh, it will grow back,” he added, reassuringly.
With that, I simply put my headphone back on my ear and walked away.
Unpacking the Trigger
After this interaction, I had to ask myself why I was reacting. Why had I gotten my panties so twisted over this dude’s comments? The answer was pretty obvious – I was irritated by the unwelcome opinion of yet another man about my appearance.
But here’s where it gets good. I stopped myself from spinning out over it. I recognized how insanely ridiculous my reaction was. Who cared what this guy, or any random guy for that matter, thought about my hair? As I considered it, the concept was absurd. Was I trying to attract him? No. Did I have any intention of modifying my appearance based on a stranger’s opinion? No. Was I happy with how I looked? Yes.
And with that, I laughed to myself about the silliness of my knee-jerk reaction and closed the chapter on my hair chronicles. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how I feel about myself. My level of confidence or self-assuredness isn’t the product of the praise or criticism of others.
It never should be, for any of us.
These days, my self-appraisal comes from somewhere far deeper than the surface of my appearance. And I think that is pretty awesome.