It Grows Back

by Lindsay Miller

“Oh my God, I can’t watch,” says Tim, covering his face with his hands.

“Are you ready?” Derek asks from behind me.

I squeeze my hands into fists, nails digging into my palms. My heart is pounding, but when I speak, my voice is low and controlled. “Do it.”

I am fifteen years old, standing in the hall outside my math classroom, and my hair is straight and soft and — for this last glorious moment — comes down to my hips. Having long hair is central to my identity, the way that a hairstyle can only really be in adolescence. It’s the one thing that, despite my mortifying acne, occasionally makes me feel pretty. And it’s about to be gone. For a moment, I hear the insufferable voice of Amy March in my head: “Your one beauty!” Fuck you, Amy, I tell her silently. This is going to be great.

Five days earlier, two girls — let’s call them Candace and Rachel, because those are their names — came up to me in this same hallway and asked, “If someone paid you, would you shave your head?”

Now, I love my hair. I love brushing it until it shimmers and wearing it loose, in a long curtain around my shoulders. But I am also a little punk-rock kid. I love purple lipstick and black nail polish. I cut holes in my tights and wear mismatched shoelaces in my secondhand Doc Martens. I like looking weird and singing in public, and, may the God of Good Taste forgive me, going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I adore being the center of attention, and the thought of going from Janis to Sinead in one fell swoop makes my drama-sense tingle with anticipation. And so I only thought about it for a second before I said, “Sure.”

“For how much money?”

I am a sophomore in high school. I have just gotten my first job. Any money at all is an astonishing luxury. “A hundred dollars.”

“So,” said Candace, “if we can come up with a hundred dollars by Monday, will you let us shave your head?”

Again, and without thinking about it, I said “Sure.”

Very close to my right ear, I hear the metal-on-metal rasp of Derek’s scissors beginning to close. This is it. There’s no turning back now.

For the last few days, Rachel and Candace have been going all over the school with a glass jar labeled “Shave Lindsay’s Head Fund.” Everyone I know has thrown in their spare change. The vice principal contributed five dollars, and so did the Writing Club. It’s a small school, and there is not much going on this week; the Last Days of My Hair is a big deal. My friend Tim, in a desperate attempt to dissuade me from severing my one claim to prettiness, has even attempted to collect donations for a rival organization consisting of himself, the Don’t Shave Lindsay’s Head Fund. But he hasn’t gotten very far. Apparently, “give me your money and nothing interesting will happen!” doesn’t make for an appealing pitch.

I spent the weekend agonizing over whether I could actually go through with this, even though I know that no power short of spontaneous human combustion would cause me to back out. It is a point of pride for me, at this age, that I never say no to a dare, and this — this is like a dare on steroids. Plus, there’s money involved. As far as I’m concerned, my future was set in stone the moment I said “Sure.”

But now I’m nervous. What if I look horrible? What if the guy I’ve just started dating doesn’t like it? Of much greater importance, what if the girl I have a fiery, all-consuming crush on doesn’t like it? (At fifteen, there are certain things I haven’t entirely realized about myself.) What if, as soon as the deed is done, I wish I could take it back? My stomach is a pit of icy dread. For days, I have responded to the expected “Are you sure?”s with a flippant “It’s only hair!” Only my best friend knows just how sure I’m not.

This morning I came to school with my hair in a braid and a big, not-quite-sincere smile on my face. Now I’m holding a jar full of crumpled one- and five-dollar bills, and Derek is holding a pair of scissors purloined from the math teacher, and the time to hesitate is through.

I expected this to happen in one clean, quick slice, over in an instant, my hair lying on the floor before I even have time to flinch. But, as it turns out, it takes some time for well-worn classroom scissors to gnaw their way through the heavy rope of my braid. “Hang on a second,” says Derek. I realize that I am holding my breath, and that if I continue to do so until the cut is complete, I might pass out. I exhale loudly. My head feels strange — lighter on the side that has already been cut, heavier on the side that hasn’t.

“And … done!” Finally, with one last snip, the weight falls away from my head. I run my hands through my remaining hair, which hangs around my face in an uneven pageboy.

“Okay,” I say. “Almost finished. Now, who has the clippers?”

There is a moment of silence, during which the half-dozen friends who have formed a circle around Derek and me look at each other expectantly, waiting for someone to speak. It occurs to me that I should have asked this question before allowing my braid to be cut off.

“No one has clippers?” I ask desperately, already knowing the answer. “A razor?” Rachel looks sheepish. “You guys didn’t bring anything with which to shave my head?” (Actually, I probably say “to shave my head with,” but I’m the one telling the story and if that doesn’t give me the right to retroactively correct my own grammar then I don’t know what does.) “So what am I supposed to do?”

“I have clippers,” says Candace. “I just left them at home. I can bring them tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?” I am almost crying, remembering the pep talk I had to give myself this morning to work up the nerve to go through with this. I can’t believe I’m going to have to do it all over again tomorrow. Not to mention — “You want me to walk around with this raggedy-ass hair all day?”

“I’m really sorry,” she says, “but I don’t know what else we can do.”

I actually do sit through my next two classes with my scruffy DIY hair hanging in clumps, shooting death glares at anyone foolish enough to look directly at my shame. Then, during my free period, I run into my friend Dan in the hall, and take a moment to fill him in on the day I’m having.

“Well, this is my free period too,” he says, “and I have some clippers at home. I could go get them.”

“Seriously?” At this point, I am completely over my fear of shaving my head. I don’t care if it looks ridiculous. Anything is better than the hot mess currently straggling down around my chin.

“They’re dog clippers,” he says. “But they’ve never been used.”

Anything is better. “That sounds great.”

It seems like it takes him only seconds to go to his house and return with the unopened box containing the clippers. We find an empty classroom, and spread a blanket under a chair (I have no idea where we came up with that blanket) for easier clean-up. Then I sit down and squeeze my eyes shut while Dan searches for an electrical outlet. At some point, we’ve accumulated an audience again — a gaggle of girls watching, solemn and silent, as the buzzing blades descend.

The gentle vibration against my scalp is oddly soothing. I’ve wound a small section of bangs around my index finger, keeping it out of the razor’s reach, because I think that a little shock of hair in front will be totally punk rock or something. It feels like this part takes less time than cutting off my braid did. A few quick strokes back and forth, a little extra attention around the tops of my ears, and we’re done.

As I’m shaking stray hairs from my T-shirt, my writing teacher, whose classroom we’ve commandeered, walks in. She looks at Dan, then at me, then back at Dan. “Did you just shave her head?” she asks. He nods. She rolls her eyes skyward in an oh-you-kids gesture, then turns around and leaves. (Possible alternate title: The Best Time I Attended A Ridiculously Permissive High School?)

I cannot stop running my hands over the velvety stubble covering my skull. I can feel every tiny shift in the air currents around me, and I’m indoors. My entire head is suddenly a sensor. It would be fair to say that this is super weird.

“Can I see how it looks?” I manage to ask. This is the big question. Am I hideous? Do I look like an alien? Do I look like a dude? (The smart money is on “no, because of the DD boobs,” but I’m still concerned.) Someone produces a little compact mirror, but since I can only see two inches of myself at once, it’s hard to form an overall opinion of my beauty or lack thereof; I can merely confirm that, yes, my hair does appear to be gone. Also, that I still have eyes.

The mirror above the sink in the girls’ bathroom is more forthcoming, but I have to stare at it for several moments, turning and looking at myself from various angles, before I can trust my own interpretation of what I’m seeing. Finally, it dawns on me, and with some hesitance I admit: I look awesome.

In the future, I will shave my head many more times, and also the heads of several friends (by request, never as a surprise), and almost every time I’ve seen anyone confront their newly-hairless visage, they go through this same process. First it’s so strange and unfamiliar that you have trouble recognizing the face as your own. Then, as the disorientation wears off, you start to notice things you’ve never noticed about yourself before. Your features are more prominent, more striking. Your eyes are suddenly enormous. They are the brightest shade of whatever color they are you’ve ever seen. Your cheekbones are higher, your jaw more defined. You’re still you, but several shades more intensely.

In this moment, it’s a revelation. I love the way I look. It’s sort of hardcore, sort of androgynous, surprising but also oddly correct. I also now know something about myself that I never did before: I have a perfect skull. It is seriously flawless. It’s the roundest, smoothest, least bumpy head-bone known to mankind. I imagine people turning to stare as I walk down the sidewalk, whispering to each other: “Man, I wish I had a skull like hers.”

Later, countless people will tell me how amazing I look with no hair. Many more will say that it’s a shame, because I used to be so pretty, and I will remember these comments much more clearly and for years longer than the positive ones. One gay male friend will tell me that I look like an “uberdyke,” then try to steal my boyfriend. Certain older relatives will shake their heads sadly and make pointed comments about my lack of discipline, within earshot of my parents. A truly astonishing number of people will come up to me and, without asking, rub my fuzzy head (for God’s sake, never do this). A cashier will call me “sir,” apparently meaning it as an insult. And the first time the guy I’m dating sees me like this, he will smile and say, “That’s going to be fun to get used to.”

But right now, I don’t even care what people are going to think. I am standing here staring into the bathroom mirror, and this might be the longest time I’ve ever looked at myself without wincing and turning away. I’m fascinated by this version of me who looks cooler, braver, tougher than I’ve ever been. It occurs to me that I have never before really seen my own face.

Lindsay Miller also writes an advice column.

Illustrations by Anna Topuriya, a freelance illustrator and a co-founder of the art and design site Hunters Hunt.