By “OJ” Jamie for thirdwheelED, cross-posted with permission
Caveat: Long post. Short hair.
Yesterday, I cut my hair. Short. The shortest it’s ever been. I hadn’t necessarily been planning to do this. In fact, when I left to get my hair cut, I told CJ I was just getting a trim. But when I got to the salon, the hairdresser told me to look online for haircuts that I liked. Typically, I hate doing this. I feel like whenever I search for “short curly haircuts” I’ve gotten countless pictures of Meg Ryan’s beautifully shaped golden locks that probably required an absurd amount of time and energy to achieve an “I didn’t even try” look.
I completely understand how getting a haircut might not seem like a big deal. As I’m writing this post, I’m contemplating what it meant for me to impulsively agree to let the hairstylist chop my hair off. I’m engaging in curiosity and exploring the idea that this haircut is related to recovery. So bear with me.
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to get rid of my long hair for a shorter, but still feminine(ish) haircut. I remember telling CJ that I wanted to look “more gay,” whatever that meant to me at the time. I’ve never really considered myself feminine, in the traditional sense. When I was a little kid, I was a typical tomboy. Elementary school consisted of red and white stripped Adidas shorts and a “Girls Rule” soccer shirt. There was one rather short-lived phase in high school where I became hyper-feminine, which in retrospect I think served to counteract my fear (and maybe some denial?) of not wanting to be feminine at all. During this time, I attended my junior and senior prom. I wore a long black dress, my hair was straightened, and honestly, I remember it as the only time I felt “traditionally” beautiful in terms of society’s standards.
But feeling beautiful doesn’t mean comfort, it doesn’t mean acceptance, and it doesn’t mean authenticity. I remember feeling trapped in my body (or perhaps just a tight dress), but I blended in with the rest of the girls in my high school class, and that felt safe to me. Feeling trapped but not necessarily wanting to escape is a bizarre combination and one that makes me think. Since escaping my body is not possible (or at least that’s what my therapist repeatedly tells me), and at that time, exploring gender expression wasn’t on my radar, I think my eating disorder became a way for me to negotiate this complicated dilemma. More on that to come…
My early experiences with gender expression cannot be considered without addressing a larger sociocultural issue. All of us are victims to a hyper-focused media-based culture that contributes to body dissatisfaction and suggests that unrealistic physical attributes are the norm. It’s undeniably difficult to not only discover who you are, but also to subsequently accept who you are. Up until recently, I’ve held this arbitrary image of a woman in my mind and have felt an obligation to make myself look like her in order to be accepted.
As I’m exploring and challenging this right now, I’m trying to come up with my own definition of self-identity. I’m questioning if self-identity is different from one’s own self-image. Identity seems to incorporate both the internal and the external, whereas image seems to be focused on the more superficial, albeit important piece of identity, physical appearance. I also think that self-identity incorporates one’s (perceived) role in the larger external environment, including their community, family, career, goals, etc.
So where/how does gender identity fit into the broader definition of self-identity?
Just to lay some personal definitions out there, to me, gender identity is the personal idea or knowledge of where you fall on the spectrum of male to female. Gender expression, which I believe is very much a large part of self-identity is the physical manifestation of our perceived gender. After much exploration and invaluable conversations with my therapist, I feel confident that right now I identify as a female; however, there’s a disparity between my gender identity and gender expression.
In recovery, I’ve found my gender expression not matching my gender identity. It’s not entirely black and white, though, I’ve learned! For instance, it’s not that I can only express myself as 100% masculine and 100% feminine. Some days I’ve woken up and decided to dress more masculine. I’ve borrowed some of CJ’s clothes to help with this. Other days, I’ve woken up and tried to challenge myself to “look” more feminine. The fact that dressing more “feminine” was always a challenge intrigues me. I’m still torn between whether the challenge exists in the discomfort of presenting myself as feminine, or if it is because my idea of feminine clothing is tighter, appropriately fitting clothes, and to me that is physically uncomfortable. I don’t know. Perhaps both hold some truth.
I’ve also been exploring, with the help of my therapist, why I feel like my gender expression has shifted in recovery. Or you know what, it hasn’t shifted, I’ve just given myself permission to experiment, to be curious. Curiosity and contemplation have been two gifts I’ve received in recovery.
There’s two sides of the coin here as well, both of which I think hold some truth to them. Part of me thinks one of the reasons I became so entrenched in my eating disorder again, was because I felt trapped in my body. I didn’t feel comfortable with how I was portraying myself externally, but was afraid to question what felt acceptable. Honestly, this was not a conscious shut-down. It has only been through eight months of treatment that I’m able to recognize and admit part of what was going on. Additionally, I can’t deny the fact that part of me, the part that is still quite affected by my traumas, has an inherent fear in “appearing feminine.” My mind has somehow associated being feminine with being a target and with being weak (I promise more posts on this in the future).
It’s no surprise that I’ve developed body image issues. Eating disorders, which occur alongside body image issues, are also linked to identity issues. It’s like a vicious little triangle of interaction. In our heavily appearance-based society, there is undue, overt focus on the most visible elements of the body. As someone who is/was afraid to outwardly express herself, it’s no wonder that I used my eating disorder to attempt to physically change the shape of what is visible, as a way to ignore my mind. The saying is such that the mind is powerful, however, people often discredit the power of the body as well (which I guess is controlled by the mind…but still).
To focus on body image briefly, the concept in and of itself strikes me as problematic. The way in which we as a society tend to view body image, is as static and fixed. But this type of thinking completely undermines the ever-changing fluid experience of being in our bodies. I think it’s crucial to challenge this motionless view of body image and shift the thinking towards the idea that the body endures multiple revisions and changes throughout the life span. Thus body image itself should be accepted as a more transient notion. In trying to accept this idea, I’m now actually able to see the body as inhabiting more agency, and as having increased ability to interact, rather than the body becoming the object of other people’s actions or voyeurism. This shift is essential for me in terms of being able to view my body as a doer, rather than a mere receiver.
This thought brings me back to my haircut. You didn’t think I’d get there did ya? Well, perhaps this said “Chopping of the Hair” is a way to express this ever-changing, ephemeral notion of gender expression and body image. There might not be a deep, profound meaning, other than the fact that body expression acts in a continuous process and is constantly interacting with, rather than being separate from the mind. For as much as my eating disorder wants it to be true, the mind and the body (and even our media-based culture, as discussed above) are not clearly delineated.
As I’m typing, I’m asking myself several questions about the role my hair could potentially play in my life, since I’ve always just thrown it up in a hair elastic or let its do its wild thang. It’s never been something I’ve given much thought to. Despite feeling pressure to appear “girly” and feminine, I think my curly hair has been an unintentional symbol of defiance. Even though it has only been a day with my new, pretty fly haircut, I feel myself exuding more confidence, I feel myself embracing my queer identity more fully and with more passion. But with everything… not to be a Debby-downer, there are feasible foreseeable complications.
I never want to be visible. When I feel uncomfortably full, I want to disappear. When I feel ashamed or afraid, I want to disappear. Another purpose my eating disorder has served has been a way to get closer to the possibility of disappearing. This is not only problematic in that invisible cloaks only exist in science-fiction or fantasy novels, but it’s also problematic because in the very effort that it takes to try to make myself invisible (e.g., become very thin or cover myself with a blanket in public), I actually make myself MORE visible. Typically, society has at times ignored the presence of the queer community, to the point where the forced feeling of invisibility is becomes entirely negative. When invisibility is oppressively put on someone, it has a silencing, invalidating and ostracizing effect.
So how do I rock my new hair cut without being overtly “visible,” even though looking “queer” has given me more confidence? Or at the very least, how do I negotiate this quandary into a compromise that I feel okay with? It’s not that I’m ashamed of my “queerness,” it’s just that I like to float under the radar. To me visibility = fear = retreating inward to hide. It’s similar to the cycle I discussed in the last mindful Monday post.
But I can’t deny that with this haircut, I’ve allowed myself to present my true self exactly the way I want to. Today I’m rockin a flannel AND a hoodie and by default, my hair.
I don’t feel self-conscious about my appearance as I sit in a coffee shop visibly writing this post. I don’t feel guilty that my “beauty” preferences or gender expression do not necessarily align with conventional “feminine” standards. Nope, there’s no guilt around appearance at my table right now. I didn’t want to eat lunch today because I knew I could get away with it. But I just ordered a piece of quiche. I’m not sure that I even like quiche, but I’m proud of myself for asking for food.
Can I really give hair this much power? Can hair liberate? I have no idea. It feels silly to me. But that’s a definite judgement. I wouldn’t say that I now want to stand out in a crowd, no, the haircut isn’t THAT transformative. But I will say that I feel like right now I can be unapologetically me, as my queer identity is made more visible to the face of others. In having people just notice me, people might have a better understanding of my identity upon first glance. This makes me feel like my identity holds validity, meaning, and importance. Whether or not this is actually valid, I don’t care. If it’s a placebo, great. I’ll take it.
But regardless of other people’s perceptions of my expressed identity, I’m more comfortable with throwing my identity in other people’s faces with my new haircut, because my hair is for ME. While authenticity has been an underlying theme driving my recovery, this is yet another example. So to clarify, emphasize and make clear: while my haircut makes me feel more “queer,” I didn’t actually cut my hair to BE or appear more “queer.” I didn’t change my outward expression as an act of defiance or conformity. Rather, I did it because it felt real in the moment to me, and it feels authentic now, therefore making it the right decision.
In strength and healing,
Have you have gotten an extreme haircut which symbolized something larger about your identity?
What are your thoughts on my haircut? Just kidding… Has recovery allowed you to explore something about your identity that you were afraid to consciously address when you were sick?
Does your gender expression or outward appearance align with your gender identity? If not, what have you found helpful in terms of negotiating this discrepancy?
Jamie B. (OJ) is currently experiencing and documenting the highs and the lows of eating disorder recovery. She and her partner share their dual perspectives on eating disorder recovery through a queer lens on their blog www.thirdwheelED.com. OJ’s writing focuses on the intersectionality of eating disorder recovery as a self-identified queer and lesbian woman. She also documents her eating disorder recovery in conjunction with other mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.