Clothes have been inconsistent for me – they hid, played, cheered up, celebrated, hoped, disintegrated, were beautiful or silly. My hair has – had – been a constant.
I was always Sara, with the really long hair and the teeth (ah, the teeth. They’re another story). I grew up with very long hair, cared for by my lovely mum. Mum brushed and plaited it while I complained at the hardness of the low, wooden stool with its white paint peeling off in layers, its onion-smooth seat worn away by my school-uniformed bottom. Mum would part my hair first with a knitting needle, the curiously nice scrape against the scalp. As we were very poor, she trimmed it after her patient, meticulous brushing and aligning. She spent hours, repeatedly, treating it and combing it with a nit comb. When I was at Secondary School, she would, when she could, save enough for me to have it trimmed by ‘The Monster’, the hairdresser in Notting Hill, near our home, whose green hair and piercings had made me cry when I was a little girl. When I was about sixteen, he made me stand up for the duration of my haircut, to punish me for having such long hair – all the way down to my bum – and tried to talk me into cutting it. I wouldn’t: my mum loved it, and it was integral to how I saw myself.
He wasn’t the last hairdresser to try that. I hairdresser-hopped for years, waiting for one who wouldn’t challenge my self-image. Is that over-serious? My tongue is in my cheek, but it was annoying, and more than annoying, too. Grown-ups I was paying to maintain my choices about how I looked to the world, how I felt about myself, were echoing the calls at the all-girls school I went to. ‘Sara. Cut your hair.’ No!
I did go through a phase of colouring my hair. When I left England at eighteen, I had waist-length, blonde-highlighted hair. This made me somewhat exotic in Thailand. The trouble was, as my dark, brunette hair grew through, and my highlights bleached blonder in the sun, I had pretty extreme roots. After three months, having decided I was going to stay for six months, I got highlights done in a Thai salon in the North. The foils were loose, so that the very roots I wanted to change were untouched by dye. I pointed this out to the hairdresser, and he simply painted highlight solution, or bleach, onto my roots, willy nilly. I came out looking like a tortoiseshell cat: splodges of red and gold on my dark roots, the underneath of my highlights no longer dark blonde but bright red, the highlights, yellow.
In the Ko Samet sun, it all got brighter, brassier and more pronounced. My six months turned into eighteen, during which I visited England to see my mum. Soon after arriving back in London, I was trying to reorient myself, taking the tube as I had done to school. In the curved plastic of the windows, I saw myself reflected, underlaid by the London Underground signs on the platforms. In the convex top of a door, I noticed how patchwork my hair colour had become at the roots, and on getting off the train, went straight to the posh hairdressers on Holland Park Avenue. I’d never had my hair done there. I asked them to give me one hair colour – dark brown, like my natural colour, from what I remembered of it. They explained they’d have to go really dark to knock out the spectrum of tones.
I looked forward to surprising my mum that evening. When she got home, she didn’t notice. I flicked and flashed my stole of shiny, dark brown hair, asked what clothes and make up suited my new hair colour, and was met with a quizzical eyebrow. Eventually, I told my mum I’d dyed my hair back brown.
‘Argh,’ she said. ‘Sorry, Sara. I didn’t notice because you just look like you as I picture you. You always had long, brown hair.’
It turned a rich, bright purple-red within a matter of weeks, a bit like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s hair. Not what I wanted: I went back and dyed it dark again. This time the colourist put so much dye in it it deadened all colour and thatched the hair, made it stiff. Around this time, I developed severe acne – on my forehead it appeared as a stucco wall, bobbly and embedded, the same colour as my skin; on my chin and throat, up to my ears, boils, large, red and pink boils. I had a cheese fest, and gained weight. I lost my tan. The hairs on my legs grew thicker and coarser. It was Endometriosis, but I didn’t know that yet.
When I went back to Bangkok, friends said: ‘What have you done, Sara?’
I bought serum for my hair. This made it tamer but not quite straight and smooth as it had been pre-dye-dye-dye. When I had it blown out straight, I looked like me in my first Thai six months – the weight was improving, my skin was better. I spoke to a couple of my Thai girlfriends and they recommended I buy a straightening treatment.
My friend YB, her brother’s girlfriend and I were in a supermarket and found the treatment: a chemical that was for use by professional hairdressers only. Both YB and BG – both Thai with long, straight, black hair – had used it on their hair, and had great results. It was the run-up to a hot date in Bangkok: perfect time for straight hair.
Near midnight, I washed my hair, following the instructions. NOT FOR DYED HAIR, it said, so I thought: I’ll use extra of the deep conditioner. I rubbed the chemical through my hair, let it take effect, then washed it all out, conditioned for fifteen minutes, and was so tired by the end of the process that I went to bed with damp hair. In the morning, when I got up for work, my hair was hot, still holding water. My hair was so hot it was heating that water. I started to blow dry it, beginning at the front so if I ran out of time, I could just put the back in a bun.
As it dried, it looked as if someone had taken a match to my hair. The front layers were normal for about three inches, then they split and swizzled into strands that ended in nothing, in ghosts of where another several inches of hair had been.
I scrunched the rest into an up-do, hoping it would get better as it dried naturally. At work, on our lunch break, one of the girls looked at my head and said:
‘Sara! What happened?’
My head looked like a burning thatch: as well as drying it out and scorching my hair, the chemical straightener had blown all the red in it to the surface. It was frizzier than ever, and cracklingly stiff.
A hairdresser cut it to just below my shoulders: I can’t remember who or where, I blocked out the experience. Shorter, it was still stiff, red, dry – and shorter. I’d never had nor wished for short hair. I didn’t look like me at all.
For the next year or so, I used leave-in conditioner every day, intensive masks twice a week and had my hair trimmed once a month. It stopped frizzing and started to curl lightly, which hadn’t happened since I was a little girl.
This was around the time we lost our home. I remember in my sleep believing my hair had grown back down to my waist and that I’d come back. I woke up with hair that wasn’t mine, without a home.
Over the next few years, with more regular trims and leave-in conditioner, my hair began to grow again. In my time in Lebanon and Mauritius, it had a sudden spurt and after I got back to the UK, I was able to wear it at the base of my shoulder blades.
On my 25th birthday in October 2006, I had found something like hope in the volunteer community I lived in in East London, a masters degree and brill new job, and I went, boldly, to a new hairdresser, Diego, at Vibes on Brick Lane.
‘I’m 25, Diego, and I’m in a style rut. I’ve had the same hair since forever and I want a change.’
‘What do you want?’ he asked. He was cute.
‘Something sexy and mature; otherwise – really, do whatever you want. Cut it all off if you think that would work.’
Diego combed my hair again, looking: at my hair, my face, in my eyes. He sat down on a little chrome and black leather stool.
‘Ok, what I’m gonna do is,’ he said, ‘We’re gonna grow it all out and then trim it into one chic, blunt length.’
Diego got me, and this process of growing my hair back out, and as long as we could, felt like a return to me.
This week, I cut my hair into a bob. I had been out in Monday’s blizzard. My beautiful baby daughter had insisted we go out, pointing and complaining until I finally got her into her warm clothes and her pram, where she giggled and looked about, happily. For the millionth time since she was born, I scruffed my long, thick hair up into something between a bun, a knot and a ponytail, with the nearest hairband. Once again, I caught sight of someone I didn’t recognise in a dark window.
I had been thinking about cutting my hair since Saturday. My mum died last Summer, when C was four months old, after five years’ surviving with breast and then bowel cancer, and a short time dying. Much of the time, I am happy. Mum and I were close and I understand what death means, that her spirit has not gone. But her body has. Some days, that loss, of touch, of care, is strongly present, and Saturday was one. The thought occurred to cut off my hair. I laughed at myself: for having a Betty Bleu moment; I was sad for myself at having the thought.
But think about it later, I noted. And over the next two days, it became a positive. The scratty woman who could never wear her hair down, who felt disappointed at her appearance, the short hairs haloing the face after the change in hormones contrasting too weirdly with the long, long hair scruffed up and tumbling out of a scrunchie: that wasn’t me. So on Monday, after we got back from the walk through the blizzard, while my daughter – who had just shown that some things need to be entered into, even wild winds and snow – slept, I googled ‘How to cut your own angled bob square face wavy hair’, ignored all the advice, and got the hair scissors out of the drawer.
Standing in front of the bedroom mirror, I tucked up my hair till I thought, ‘Yeah, lady, you a fox.’ (Kind of. Not literally.) Then I parted my long hair into its natural centre parting – roughly, without a knitting needle, for I don’t have that kind of patience – and began with the left side, scissors in my right hand. I cut from the front backwards, in a straight line, with the theory that this would make the front slightly longer than the back. It worked perfectly. Then I took the right side in my right hand, and realised I couldn’t cut from the front backwards as I’m right-handed. So I swapped and cut from the back to the front. This created a layered, bouncy effect, in contrast to the angles of the other side. My daughter woke up. So I shook out my hair, tossed it about, and decided the style was ‘asymmetric mussy long bob’.
Three days later, and a few tidies up at the back thanks to the ever-lovely (and patient) Wolf, sometimes I look in the mirror and see Monica Bellucci as Lisa in L’Appartement, and sometimes I think of the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when James Stewart’s character is told his wife, without him, would be an UNMARRIED LIBRARIAN and he’s all, The Horror! The Horror! Either way, I love my new hair. I feel like me again, although I look so different.
It is a marker of loss. I wouldn’t have cut my hair like this while my mum was alive, it would have hurt her too much. If you read about my wardrobe, this will sound less like co-dependency and more in keeping with the realisation that she tended to know what would suit me and make me feel wonderful and gorgeous and special. It also mirrors the physical loss: the hair is gone forever, and is suddenly, irrevocably untouchable. Not there to play with. Cutting my hair short has been a giant, gentle act of grief.
And it is a celebration of change. I am a mummy: this is my mummy hair. I can wear it loose and it doesn’t catch on slings or nappy bags; its less grab-able. It swooshes again. I see me in sunlit windows as my daughter and I take a walk. I know my mum would be happy to see this in her daughter.
By Sara Nesbitt Gibbons