5 Life Changing Lessons I Learned from a High School Haircut


metal scissors on blue background to depict lessons i learned from a high school haircut“Sarah is brave,” whispered the girl at the back of my high school math class.

I’d never considered myself brave or particularly courageous. In my head, those adjectives were reserved for people who rescued kittens from burning buildings and other fictional personas like Indiana Jones.

But having one of my peers call me brave simply because of my choice of hairstyles?

I let that idea simmer in the deepest parts of my teenage brain. In high school, I chose to stop using chemicals to straighten my hair. I simply let it grow from my head the way it naturally grew from birth.

The way it naturally grew from birth.

And I needed bravery to do that?

To let my hair grow the way it naturally grew from birth?

It baffled me in some ways, but I did understand why my classmate would consider my hairstyle choice to be an act of bravery.

When we don’t fall in line with cultural norms, we run the risk of social punishment, either in the form of bullying, alienation, rejection, or something worse.

My hair in its natural state defied cultural norms, especially for women.

It was short and nappy.

Some women might get away with one or the other, but daring to don a do that was both short and nappy at the same time was sure to get a girl ostracized.

But it’s what I wanted.

And that’s what this post, no, this entire blog is about–living the life you really want.

So, in many ways, this post is bigger than anyone’s afro. It’s about hair, but it could just as easily be about any natural inclination you have, however mundane, that goes against the social grain. We all know that friend who pretends to hate/love something just because “everyone else” hates/loves it. (Yes, I like the Twilight movies, and I don’t care how many “cool” kids claim to hate them.)

We all (you and me and everyone) long to do things that might break some unspoken (or spoken) rule.

“Every man in this family is either a doctor or a lawyer.”

“Real men don’t dance.”

“Good women stick with their husbands no matter what.”

“Pretty girls have long, silky, straight hair.”

“When you submit your will to someone else’s opinion, a part of you dies.” ―Lauryn Hill.

I got my fair share of teasing, insults, and well-intentioned disapproval because of my hair throughout high school and beyond, but I’d decided that my freedom felt way better than the acceptance of others who were too afraid to break free themselves.

And from that high school experience, here are five lessons I’ve learned that I hope will encourage you to change hairstyles, change careers, or do whatever’s on your heart.

1. A little social punishment won’t hurt as much as the pain of knowing that you’re not free to be yourself and live the life you really want.

2. Whatever decision you make, people will get over it. If they don’t, then get over them. “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

3. Some people who haven’t found the courage to do a certain thing will try to put down those who have.

4. Courage develops over a lifetime, but only if you work at it.

5. Being yourself is a lot more fun and a lot less work than trying to be someone else.

What did high school teach you about courage?

I Think I Need a Barber But This As A Man’s World

I prefer short natural hair. Very short.

Unfortunately, that means I’m dependent on someone else to cut my hair because I haven’t learned how to do it myself.

I’ve often turned to the universal experts on my kind of hair–black barbershops, but it’s clear that barbershop culture is not ready to embrace women like me.

In Hair Story, the most comprehensive account of black hair I’ve ever read, the authors Anna D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps explain that there is indeed a culture built around black hair:

“The many aspects of human adaptation–including language, technology, traditions, values, and social organization–are all identifiable components of the culture of Black hair in America.” p. 134

The first time I went to a barbershop for a haircut, it was a culture shock. I felt like an utter outsider.

I didn’t know that there’s a certain way to request services in a barbershop, so I sat down and waited to be greeted or acknowledged, you know, like: “Hi. How’re you doing? What can we do for you today?” I just sat there feeling and looking out of place.

When I finally got in the chair, I didn’t know the proper lingo or understand the technology for describing the haircut I wanted. Brush length or comb length? A number 3 or a number 2? I didn’t know there were different kinds of fades. I had a picture of a beautiful model that I tore out of a magazine, and that was the best I could do.

Whereas the average man has long since been initiated into barbershop culture from the time he was a few years old, I had no such acculturation. When I was a young girl, I spent hours in beauty salons and never ventured into a barbershop unless I was with my mother to wait for my brother. Back then I could never even imagine that I might be in a barber’s chair someday.

Beyond my personal ignorance of barbershop culture, there’s something else at play, something deeper and more troubling.

From small towns in Mississippi to big cities in California, I read a distinct aversion in barbers when it comes to cutting this woman’s hair, and I think there are four main reasons why the aversion exists.

1) When barber’s see me, they don’t see a loyal customer that yields the highest profit margin.

This explains why I get handed to the newcomer without many clients of his own yet, or I get passed off to the guy no one else likes very much.

But worse than that is getting the barber who rushes through the process of cutting my hair so that they can get back to their “real” clientele or back to sweeping floors. Those barbers disengage. They sort of do what they want, never cut my hair short enough, and don’t even let me evaluate the look before they’re ripping the cape from around my neck.

Unfortunately, with such crappy customer service, they never give me the chance to become a loyal customer. Like I said before, I love short hair, so I would actually come back if my experience was at least decent, if I at least felt respected.

In Hair Story a barber explains that full loyalty comes from “the way I treat him and the service we provide.” p. 154

Isn’t the same level of respect required before a woman becomes a loyal customer?

Respect is the reason I stopped accepting discounts. If you charge less because I’m a woman, it might be chivalry, but it could also mean you do lesser quality work because I’m a woman. I pay the same as the guys so that I can expect the same service as the guys. A dollar is a dollar whether it comes from a man’s pocket or a woman’s pocketbook.

2) One of the things men love about the barbershop is the absence of women.

In Hair Story, the authors explain this concept and cite the experiences of various men:

“One of the most satisfying times in my life was going to the barbershop [and] bonding with the other brothers.” p.151

“The Philadelphia Hair Company is the type of establishment where Black men go to get pampered, watch the game, and while away an entire Saturday afternoon in good company.” p. 154

If the owners were ten year olds, barbershops would definitely have “No Girls Allowed” signs out front. This boy’s club atmosphere is most evident in the conversation.

Sports and politics I can handle, but when the conversation, as it always does, veers into the realm of women and relationships, I wonder if my cute cut is even worth it.

Many barber shops have televisions streaming hip hop videos or melodramatic reality TV shows. Though many women are into those things (even I’ve watched a few in the past) I’m now averse to them.

But the barbers don’t just let these shows play in the background. They have to start offering their commentary on the women’s bodies, on the relative worthiness of each female character in comparison to each other and to women in general, on the “reality” of relationship politics, and other distorted ideology.

Perhaps this doesn’t signal that no women are allowed, but it definitely signals that a certain type of woman will not feel comfortable, like any woman who’s sick and tired of the racist and misogynist portrayals of men and women in the media, any woman who laments the continuous brainwashing of both sexes, basically any woman like me.

I won’t go into detail right now about my last two reasons but they are essentially this:

3) Men still expect black women to be at the beauty salon getting perms and weaves to look good for men.
4) Men don’t like to see women cut their hair

I don’t expect barbershop culture to change for me or even for the growing number of women like me. But I do think it’s a relevant experience that’s worth sharing (especially when I get deeper into reasons 3 & 4).

I’ve tried going to unisex salons or female stylists, but my previous post on hair explains why that’s not much better.

Now you tell me what you think!

Do my observations seem ligit, or is it just me?

Should I just suck it up if I want my hair cut?

Are barbershops and hair styles so irrelevant that you don’t know why you bothered to read this post?

Clearly, I have my opinion, but maybe you can sway me.

Go ahead.

Give it a try.

Then come back later when I share more thoughts on reasons 3 & 4.

Peace & Love

Sarah L. Webb

Having Natural Hair vs. Being Natural: Are They Different?

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that “natural” means many different things depending on the context and the person doing the defining. So to help you follow my train of thought, I want to be clear about how I define natural hair. These are my criteria for natural hair:

1) hair that contains no straightening chemicals, or chemicals that loosen the curl (or even tighten it), such as texturizers, relaxers, perms, etc.

2) hair that grows from the head of the person donning it (no wigs, weaves, synthetics, or the like)

Others may define “natural hair” differently, but the two criteria I’ve listed above is how I will use the term “natural hair” throughout this post, and in any other conversations until otherwise noted.

When I first “went natural” I labeled every woman wearing natural hair as a natural woman. Years later, I’m beginning to differentiate between women who merely wear their hair natural and women who are natural in many aspects of their life. I began to notice a lot of women going natural for a while only to revert back to unnatural hair styles when they got bored with or tired of “managing” their natural hair. I noticed women only agreeing to go natural if their hair could “look like that,” referring to a another woman’s style. These phenomena baffled me at first until I realized that not every woman with natural hair has embraced a natural lifestyle.

The woman who merely has natural hair but doesn’t have a natural life style might also wear makeup every day, wear false nails, wear 50% or more of her income in the form of purses and shoes, occasionally switch it up by wearing weaves or wigs, only wear her natural to achieve a certain look, or only go natural if her hair is “good enough.”  For this woman, the natural hair is only a part of her efforts to achieve a particular outward appearance. For this woman, natural hair is just a part of fashion, merely a style that’s cool for a while, something different to try. This is a valid approach to hair, and many woman take this approach.

Taking an equally valid approach, but perhaps less common, is the woman who embraces naturalness for it’s deeper implications. She may like her natural hair for aesthetic reasons, but those aren’t the only reasons. She would probably make comments like “it’s so much easier,”and “I feel so free,” rather than  comments like, “I just don’t know what to do with it.” She’s probably aware of, even want to rebel against, the historical pressure for black women to conform to European standards of beauty (or these days, the “anything but black” standards for beauty). She probably believes that natural hair is healthier. She’ll probably be comfortable going places without makeup. This type of woman is more likely to appreciate all hair textures, rather than elevating one type as “good hair.”

I used to be of the camp that said you had to be natural to be cool, especially when I was in high school. I soon learned that wasn’t correct, for as my observations show, what’s on the head doesn’t always correlate with what’s in the head. Michelle Obama, for example, is one of my favorite women, and no amount of hair straightening will negate how awesome she is, even though I dislike chemically straightened hair.

I don’t believe different automatically means better or worse, so by differentiating between women’s attitudes about natural hair, I’m not advocating that one attitude is better or worse. I might be implying it, but I’m definitely not advocating it, at least not here in this post, though I might in another post. As I get older (and after reading The Art of Happiness with insights from the Dalai Lama XIV and Howard C. Cutler), I hope that when I do judge, that I do so with compassion, understanding that we are all merely doing the best we know how at any given time.

So if you wear natural hair, why’d you chose to do it? If you would consider natural hair, what would your attitude be? Is it just another hair style? Or does it mean something more to you?

Another S. L. Writes post about hair:

Woman in the Mirror: A Reflection on Short Natural Hair

More about hair from Essence.com and one of my favorite contemporary writers, Demetria L. Lucas:

Viola Davis Wears Natural Hair to the Oscars

Woman in the Mirror: A Reflection on Short Natural Hair

Like hair clogging a drain, the topic of tresses floods the media. I think I’ll put my two snips in anyway.

Speaking of snips, I got my haircut on Christmas eve. No biggie. I’ve been cutting my hair for at least a decade now. Barbers and stylists occasionally click the clippers on with hesitation, perhaps fear. I understand this. How can they know upon first seeing me that I’m NOT one of those women who will tell you to “chop it all off,” only to gasp at the mirror when it’s over, literally cry, and say, “What have you done??? I didn’t mean for you to cut it all off.”

To put my stylists and barbers at ease, I try to use visual representations of what I want. I point to another customer. Flash a magazine photo. Pull out an old image of myself.

This time, despite making a mental note, I forgot to tote an issue of Essence in which women are dawning my dream cut. I had to settle for talking the stylist through the process. I sat in the chair of the already sour looking stylist in a salon that shall remain nameless. I told her, “Cut it all off.” She asked to start off with a #4 (clipper size). I said, “You could probably go down to a 2 or 1. I think the previous stylist used a #1.”

She paused. “A #1 is like a man.”

I nodded.

“Why you wanna do that?”

“That’s how I usually get it.”

Silence. In some reflective surface in the salon I caught a glimpse of the face she gave to a coworker.

At that moment I had to consciously process the situation. Could I really be receiving such poor customer service?

I got my ears lowered. She got an earful. Every woman in the salon commented on how great the cut looked, or bragged about how they used to wear their hair shaved, or how their daughter wears her hair cut even closer than mine.

I know it’s not mainstream for women to wear such short hair, but shame on anyone who calls themselves a stylist and is unaware that many women do, including celebrities famously known for their beauty.

Hair has been as sensitive and controversial an issue as skin color. The sensitivity and controversy have roots embedded deep in patriarchy and colonialism, spreading across continents, races, and generations. Several people have talked about the tension caused by tresses, from Tyra Banks to Chris Rock. Maybe someday I will compose an in-depth piece on attitudes about hair. For now, I just want to share the following.

I had relaxed hair until midway through high school. As a child, I prayed for long, straight, “pretty” hair that cascaded down my back. I had what many black people consider long hair, yet I still wore towels, shirts, or Mardi Gras beads on my head to know the feeling of longer hair. Perms burned me to tears.

When I went all natural at fifteen, I wanted to immerse myself in the natural black hair community (if there is such a thing). I wanted to tell all people to give up trying to conform to the Eurocentric standard of beauty. I had a big, Angela Davis fro. I wore twists, afro puffs, plaits, cornrows, girly hair accessories, and anything that allowed me to play in my wonderful, soft mass of hair.

Now, my hair must be measured in millimeters. It’s my favorite style to date, except for maybe the mohawk. I’m satisfied enough with my hair that I don’t care what styles other women wear. I do hope that more women experience freedom and love when they think about their hair rather than limitations and pain.

I leave this topic, for now, with quotes from Joan Juliet Buck via the Poetical Quotidian on Paul W.H. Kan’s website.

“Hair is time.
Women with short hair always look as if they have somewhere else to go. Women with long hair tend to look as if they belong where they are, especially in California. Short hair takes a short time. Long hair takes a long time. Long hair moves faster than short hair. Long hair tells men that you are all woman, or a real woman, or at the very least a girl. Short hair always makes them wonder…”

“With short hair you suddenly dislike the month of March, when the wind blows down the back of your neck. With short hair you begin to crave pearl necklaces, long earrings, and a variety of sunglasses. And you brush your teeth more often. Short hair removes obvious femininity and replaces it with style…”

“You can’t hide behind short hair. Your nape is exposed…”

“You may look a little androgynous, a little unfinished, a little bare…”

“People who used to look straight at you will love you in profile. Short hair makes others think you have good bones, determination, and an agenda. The shape of your skull is commented on, so are its contents. They can pick you out in a crowd, and you can be recognized from behind, which can be good or bad. But your face is no longer a flat screen surrounded by a curtain: the world sees you in three dimensions.
Chase to the cut.”

I love that.

Peace and Love from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?