We didn’t have a lot of rules when I was growing up. My mom liked to let us make our own decisions, and this philosophy expanded to the realm of haircuts. My brother had a rattail until he was ten. My hair, if you can believe it, was even worse.
When I was around five, I decided that I was sick of my bobbed hair hiding my pretty earrings. Most girls my age didn’t have their ears pierced yet, and I liked to show off. Growing my hair long enough that I could tie it up in a ponytail would have been a good solution. An even simpler and more elegant fix would be to simply tuck my hair behind my ears. But, as a five-year-old with very little knowledge of the world outside my family's half of the duplex we called home, neither of these options occurred to me.
What did occur to me, and what I asked my mom for directly, was to cut the hair above my ears short, to show off my earrings, while allowing the hair at the back of my head to stay long. That’s right, at age five, I essentially invented the mullet.
Parallel evolution, the phenomenon by which species from disparate lines independently develop similar traits (such as the dorsal fin seen on both sharks and dolphins) has no stronger supporting case than the fact that, in the early ‘90s, Billy Ray Cyrus and a five-year-old girl in Toledo both independently decided to get the same haircut.
When I asked for a mullet–not by name, of course, but all the same–my mom didn’t hesitate. “The girl makes her own decisions!” she proudly proclaimed to the hairdresser. I had a mullet for the next two years.
This boyish look was made all the more butch by the fact that a large portion of my wardrobe was comprised of hand-me-downs from my brother. Passing me on the street, strangers saw a child of indeterminate gender sporting a mullet, boy’s painters jeans, a buffalo plaid flannel shirt, and a dinosaur sweater. Upon closer inspection, they noticed the pearl studs shining iridescently from earlobes revealed by such a practical haircut. My gender confirmed, they no doubt smiled to themselves thinking, This new generation is so self-aware. That sweet little girl already knows she’s a lesbian. How wonderful. She’s going to grow up and wear Birkenstocks.
My mullet met its long-overdue end when, at the age of seven, I decided to grow out all my hair as long as it could grow. Influenced no doubt by my best friend Josephine, an eight-year-old natural blonde who wore belly shirts and had hair so long she could sit on it, I asked my mom for her advice.
Unfortunately, she was a true believer in the old wive’s tale that trimming your hair makes it grow faster. And so, with the best of intentions, she brought me along to my brother’s hair appointments, and I got a “trim” (which, let’s be honest, usually amounts to nearly a full inch off the ends) every 6-8 weeks.
While the hair above my ears was allowed room to grow out and blend into the rest of my do, these frequent trims left my hair chronically above the shoulders. “My hair just doesn’t grow fast,” I explained to people who questioned why I had short hair if I wanted long hair so badly.
Around that time, the highlight of each month (apart from the frequent salon trips, of course) was the arrival of American Girl magazine. After carefully cutting out the paper doll included in each issue, I would turn to my favorite feature, Heart to Heart, which consisted of short bits of commentary from several readers on a single topic.
One month, the topic was “being different,” and I decided to write my own commentary. Having missed the submission deadline, I settled for the idea of composing my commentary on my dad’s word processor (the machine, not the software) and pasting it into my copy of the magazine, along with a current headshot, of course.
On the topic of “being different,” girls had written about everything from race, to disabilities, to being the new kid in school, but I, with the characteristic self-importance typical of seven year olds, knew My Hair Problem was just as serious as cultural insensitivity or paraplegia. My commentary went as follows.
I have short hair. When other girls see it, they sometimes ask, “Why do you have short hair?” I tell them, “My hair just doesn’t grown fast,” but they don’t understand. They think I want to have short hair. But I don’t. I hate it. My friend Kristen had long hair, but she wanted to have short hair, but her mom wouldn’t let her get it cut short. One day, Kristen accidentally got her mom’s round brush stuck in her hair. She just wrapped up all her hair in the round brush. She said she thought that was how you curled your hair. My mom thinks Kristen did it on purpose, and I guess she’s right because Kristen’s mom had to cut the brush out of Kristen’s hair, and now Kristen has short hair.
Here I inserted a hand-drawn illustration of Kristen making a painful face and tugging at the brush buried deep in a tangle of her hair. Staring at the headshot I’d pasted beside the illustration, I sighed and thought, I wish there was something I could do to make my hair grown long.
Little did I know, there was something I could do. Or rather, there was something I could stop doing. It’s pretty simple, if you want your hair to grow, for the love of God, stop cutting your hair. But, I was seven, and I still labored under false delusions that my parents had access to some hidden truth about the world, and that I should always heed their advice.
Eventually, I grew old enough to suspect there might be a connection between the incessant haircuts and the fact that my hair stayed short. I asked my mom to stop taking me for such frequent haircuts, and watched as my hair grew like I never knew it could. That was the first time I can remember thinking that my mom might not always know what’s best.