Growing up, I was one of the boys. Two brothers and a house full of their rowdy friends made short work of my behavioral femininity. So I was one of them, but I never looked like them. I had long, thick, curly hair—and that made all the difference.

I would wear baggy old tees and hand-me-down boxers, eschewing makeup and the color pink, while my hair faithfully brushed my mid-spine. I would make the requisite aggressive bro-ey jokes and snark around with the guys, using my deep I-can-keep-up-with-you voice, but my French braids and ponytails and messy buns left me with one foot in the social zone of female. My modus operandi was girlish boyishness, and my hair was the glossy crux of that perfect paradox.

Hair, of course, is a potent symbol of health and an indicator of reproductive desirability. Good hair? Good genes? Good offspring? To our monkey brains those are one and the same, but this evolutionary signaling is mostly subconscious. On a conscious level, we actively make hairstyle choices that externalize our identities. Likewise, my hair has mediated how I perform and claim my heterosexual womanhood—and this connection is deeply ingrained. Although my hair can change on a dime, it is not so easy to change my self-image. 

After my freshman year of college, I was in a jacuzzi with a boy. While I sat shoulders-deep in the bubbles, rather indecently garbed, this guy deemed it the perfect moment to ask why I had cut my hair short. Mind you, my hair was not actually short at the time – it fell below my shoulders. But, sure, I was no Rapunzel, and maybe this boy was accustomed to hot-tubbing with Rapunzel. Whatever the reason for his query, I promptly replied that I tended to get haircuts because of some personal crisis. In that instance, I had chosen to cut a few inches off my hair instead of ditching college and moving back to Cape Town. 

When haircuts are a choice, they can lend a sense of empowerment. It’s a way to take control by making a tangible and observable change, and it can be surprising how much they matter. Yet, as I’ve learned, a change in one’s hair is not always a choice.

A few months after that chat with Rapunzel’s ex-boyfriend, I got sick. Really, awfully, critically sick. In the hospital ward I was the only patient with hair. The way my mother tells it, my long and messy hair drew the incredulous eyes of anxious parents whose children were fully bald thanks to chemotherapy. My mom would drag a hairbrush through my tangles while we waited for the doctors, trying to make me look somewhat presentable. The nurses would wash my hair with a botanical shampoo that left me smelling like a Provençal herb garden. “It’s great she still has her hair,” they would whisper. “It looks so healthy.” And sure enough, I never went bald. The hair thing was more of a slow burn for me. 

When I got out of the hospital, I dove head-first back into life. The life-threatening illness seemed to be behind me, and I was desperate to move past that experience and re-embody the person I had been before I got sick. I wasn’t allowed to return to Princeton until the following year due to the leave policy, so I moved to Manhattan. Between my internship and classes at NYU, it felt like I was nearly normal again. I was gloriously healthy, and I could easily hide the surgical scars. But I couldn’t hide what was happening to my hair.

Post-hospital, I reconvened with hot tub boy. I remember waking up beside him and seeing some long hairs on the pillow, an early sign of my impending hair loss. I didn’t want him to see that any of my hair had fallen out. It wasn’t pretty—which I, object of attraction, was supposed to be—and it felt like a lapse in my womanhood. We’re not supposed to lose our hair. I mean, Rapunzel’s hair didn’t fall out, even when a prince literally used it as a rope. The bar is high.

In the months that followed, my hair thinned increasingly and noticeably. Under the showerhead my fingers would be woven with fallen strands. I apologized to my roommate for the clogged drains, dumped castor oil and Vitamin E onto my scalp, and wore all the cute beanies and headbands. Trying to hide it just made me feel worse. Even though I was physically healthy, my thinning hair felt like a painful continuation of my recent hospitalization. With every strand that fell, I lost the hope of ignoring what I had experienced, the hope of leaving behind the trauma of near-death and emerging unscathed. Whatever was going on in my body—maybe past inflammation had weakened my hair follicles, maybe lingering side-effects of medicine—my hair was gradually jumping ship. And I couldn’t stop it. 

Eventually, enough was enough. I headed to a salon in Chelsea and directed the stylist to cut it all off. As he snipped, he told me he had gone through chemo and was no stranger to hair loss. He said he dated someone during treatment—when they had sex, his hair would fall out if his partner so much as touched his head. To cover for this, he would cry out in mock-pain, as if his partner had accidentally plucked out the strands. At first, I was surprised by this man’s openness, but mostly I just felt relieved. He, unlike everyone else in my life, understood and acknowledged what I was dealing with. Our shared struggle granted instant intimacy, and his brazen honesty was an inspiration.

And so, he chopped what remained of my hair. I left the salon that night with my scalp and neck and ears exposed to the unforgiving city wind. My hair had never been shorter than shoulder length, but now it was shorter than a pixie cut, almost a buzz. I did not feel empowered by this haircut because it wasn’t a proactive move—it was entirely reactive. I didn’t want it. It wasn’t me.

My best friend told me I looked “gamine,” and Google told me that meant “attractively boyish, elflike.” But I was hardly channeling Twiggy or Audrey Hepburn—all the lipstick and pearls in the world couldn’t restore the femininity that I felt I had lost. I had to steel myself before I went out in public, frustrated that people would see me as someone other than myself. Luckily, hair grows faster than confidence.

I soon realized that my long hair had been a kind of shield against the realities of my recent health crisis, allowing me to pretend I was the same person as before my hospitalization. Now, without something long, thick, and glossy to twist around my finger, I was devastatingly vulnerable. Every time I looked in the mirror, my cropped hair reminded me that I had suffered, had experienced something that none of my peers could comprehend. 

Several months after this unhappy haircut, I met someone new. When we hooked up for the first time, he said his friend had asked why he was into “the girl with the short hair.” He told me he thought my short hair was sexy, and he loved when people “do something different.” This was, of course, just a bumbled attempt at flattery. But I was hurt that he felt compelled to justify the attractiveness of my appearance at all, much less by overtly positioning me outside of normal beauty standards. I didn’t want to be justified, and I didn’t want to “do something different.” I just wanted to look and feel like me. Yet I must admit that I’m grateful to this guy—he wanted me at a time when I did not want myself, when I needed to be reminded of my desirability. The validation wasn’t life-changing, but it helped.

As my hair grew past my ears and a virus ravaged our world, I had vivid dreams. But not about the pandemic. I dreamt of my hair, and of the girl who looked like me. This ingrained image—Juju pre-hospital and pre-pixie—came alive in my unconscious mind, reminding me of what I had lost. No matter the unrelated content of the dream, my hair would always be long. Then, each time I woke up, it would be short. Again and again, the same feeling as I opened my eyes, disappointed with my reality and with myself for caring so much about my stupid, stupid hair, of all things. 

But I do care. I care even now, exactly one year since I got that haircut. I can’t claim to have grown nearly as much as my hair has, but I’ve figured some things out. For one, I’ve learned that my gender identity is contingent upon these strands of keratin. Awareness of this regrettable fact gives me an edge against the cultural forces that have shaped me.

More importantly, I have realized how much I yearn to be understood. One of the most difficult elements in my experience of illness was the impossibility of explaining what I had gone through. Incomprehensibility is much more isolating than pain. In relationships, our appearance is just a small part of how we communicate ourselves to others. Gender presentation (much less a haircut) cannot convey the whole of one’s self, especially as each person continually evolves. The only chance of understanding lies in finding people who care enough to patiently watch, listen, and believe. 

My hair will certainly keep changing. Maybe I’ll cut it again, but not soon. Sometimes my hair will be frizzy, sometimes curly, sometimes slack. And someday it will turn gray, if I’m lucky. 

I will also continue to change. Maybe I’ll stop trying so hard to make myself conveniently comprehensible. Sometimes I will be alone, sometimes surrounded by love. And someday I will learn to define myself rather than letting my experience and appearance define me. No matter what grows or does not grow from my scalp, I know that I will always be a big, terrible, beautiful tangle. Bad hair days and all.