**Author’s Note: You are about to embark on a journey speckled with a gratuitous amount of selfies throughout. You have been warned.**
I shaved my head. Why? says the speech bubble above yours. Let me start with the moment I learned about a retreat in Thailand where you could ordain as a monk, or a nun, for a month. Thirty days in meditation, eating one meal a day, shut away from the daily distractions forever baiting my mind. Sounded like a paradise, though thirty days was a daunting number considering the longest I’ve ever been to a retreat for is ten. And for many of those you’d probably have caught me scratching mental lines into the walls like a convict, impatiently counting down to day zero when my ‘ordeal’ would be over.
There’s also the small fact you don’t see a lot of nuns starring in a Pantene commercial. In order to ordain you need to first shave off all of your hair. This includes what’s on top of your head and your eyebrows. Whoa, hold up. Did you just say shave?
I’ve never been a stranger to haircuts. Not just to your average, “Oh did you get a haircut?” but more of a “Oh damn girl, what did you do?!” type of thing. In my second year of high school I got scouted to do hair modelling. This meant I got the express privilege of sitting in a salon chair while someone else used my head as a blank canvas. And whoever heard of a canvas with opinions? So while everyone else was dealing with the cruel and unusual punishment that is being in high school, I joined in the fray with all of my hair chopped off. “No darling, you look great! So chic,” said the stylist, when my face betrayed my inner dialogue decidedly not agreeing with him. My best friend gave it to me straighter. “Oh damn girl, what did you do?!”
At a delicate time when fitting in to the mould felt like a matter of life or death, looking decidedly different was not the strategy I would have willingly chosen (hair modelling aside – that’s on me for being a teenage masochist). It was decided for me the moment my parents immigrated from China to Canada, turning me into a Chinese-Canadian (and what this means, I still couldn’t tell ya).
I grew up in suburbia, hung out with mostly white kids in my mostly white neighbourhood. As a teenager, there was no merit to being different, so I tried to shed the skin of my ethnicity like it was something I could grow out of. Yet everyone could see right through my ruse, much to my chagrin. Being teased for being Asian became my personal cross to bear.
Now to my present adult mind I can’t really fathom the big deal behind the use of an adjective, but boy, remember when simply wearing glasses could get you singled out? Kids don’t need creativity to be cruel. I tried escaping notice, dodging any references to my Asian-ness like Neo dodging bullets. Math? I hate it. Mandarin? Pretended not to understand it (sorry for all those terrible phone calls, Mom).
What I desperately wanted was something to hide behind. And one day the universe heard my prayers and threw me a bone. When other people gave thanks to their gods, I sent blessings to my eyeliner. And it worked. Suddenly people began to see me as attractive. Every morning I could paint on the perfect mask, thinking if people saw me as “pretty” they wouldn’t see me as Asian, or at least point it out so loudly. Funny how I simply swapped one type of description for another. My race for my face. Only one form of payment is acceptable, and I chose compliments.
When I arrived to university this all changed. Life opened up in a whole new way. I’d burst out of my little suburban bubble where sameness was equivalent to greatness. In this new environment I found peers that were international from all different backgrounds, each with a competing tale to tell. All of a sudden the thing I had learned to be ashamed of my whole life became, while not a gold star of achievement, at least a talking point at parties. You were born in China? Wow cool, I wish I could speak Mandarin. I’m actually thinking about taking it as an elective next year. I was shocked! A whole belief system, just like that, turned on its head. If there is one thing I can take away from uni is the confirmation that the world is a weird ass place.
So by this point, I buried the hatchet with being Asian. There were enough other Asians around anyways that, rather than a sore thumb, I could kick back comfortably amongst the fingers. Being pretty, though, was another matter. I was now addicted to makeup, and would not even consider leaving the house without it. One time my then boyfriend caught me off guard by showing up at my door unexpectedly when I had no makeup on, sending me into a full. blown. panic. I sneak crawled around pretending I wasn’t home, not daring even to breathe while desperately wishing myself out of existence. The panic I felt was a matter of life or death appropriate, and being cut off from my mascara definitely did not fit that criteria.
All my value and self-worth was tied up exclusively in with how I looked. And this swung back and forth all over the place. If I thought I looked good my ego could take me to the moon.
And anytime that mercury prophet came back with bad news, if I’d been sitting on top of a mountain one minute before, that whole mountain would be dug out right from under me the next. It was exhausting. There is a lot of work that goes into being a girl. So many of us are hyper-organized and great planners because you don’t understand the amount of logistics that goes behind looking “on” all the time. Your hair doesn’t just highlight or straighten itself. Your nails don’t helpfully stop growing after you’ve gotten them done perfectly right. We are not spending all that time in the bathroom twiddling our thumbs. Being a woman is a full time occupation, dammit.
And in my life I accepted this simply as fact. You are what the world sees you as. So I lived to toe that standard. Wrapping up all of my own self-love and self-worth in a convenient, easy to digest package. Look good = feel good. Look bad = feel bad. The end. My weight dictated my mood. My skin dictated if I would go outside. Do I look someone in the eye today? Do I act like I’m superior and can do whatever I want?
Since I started meditating, I have felt some of these insecurities start to crack. There are times when I can love myself for no good reason. There are times when my mind stands over my desk with a long list of grievances, ready to start the negative tirade it always gives but I just smile up at it, and give it love back. The shocked look on its face always makes me laugh. I can be lovable even when I throw shade on myself. Huh, who would have thought. This new practice of love, while rewarding, has so far been more theoretical. Sure I can survive on days without makeup now, but my mascara is never too far away. But that’s as far as I want to go to test myself. Right?
Back to the present day. Coronavirus steadily closing borders, and my opening to Thailand no longer exists. The retreat is cancelled, human movement outside of the home is cancelled, but life, stubbornly, goes on. Right now in Japan I am lucky enough that we are not under mandatory lockdown. Moreover, I am living in the countryside, where an already declining population means I can easily avoid contact by disappearing into the bountiful mountains all around. I count my blessings every day. Though my retreat into a temple was no longer a possibility, the idea of shaving my head stayed with me. I am clearly attached to my hair, to the confidence it gives me, to the identity I associate with it. Can I ask myself to let that go, to find out who I am underneath?
On the first day of April, I went into the only barbershop in the village and asked the barber to help me shave it all off. With true Japanese stoicism, he batted not an eye as he wrapped me in a cloth cover and prepared his clippers. Afterwards, I joked with him that I must have been the first woman ever in his shop to ask for a shave, to which he replied I was the first woman in his shop, period. Glad I gave him a good story to tell to his kids.
Now, I feel free. People’s reactions so far have spanned the spectrum, from kind, loving words to shock and disappointment (“Why? You used to be so beautiful.”) I hear it all, but none of it has affected me really. There’s a small joy that beats at the bottom of my chest, and every time I catch sight of my reflection now it gives another jolt of approval. I am not what I look like. I am just me. And I like myself for it.