Face to Face

Face to Face

Catherine Johnson

For years, shaving my head had been the easiest thing to not do. I fantasized about what it would feel like to run my palm against a soft field of peach fuzz. To feel the air brush my scalp, the weight of my hair removed. To look in the mirror and be confronted by my eyes, without the window dressings. I ached with envy at the Sigourney Weavers and Sinead O’Connors, worrying that my fair features — my blonde hair, blonde eyebrows, hazel eyes and pink skin — didn’t have the gumption to “pull it off.” Because even more than wishing for relief from the daily dilemma of ​what to do with it,​ I wanted to shave my head because of the kind of person that would make me. Risky. Defiant. A shaved head was an aesthetic of independence. A rebuttal of docile femininity. Women who shaved their heads weren’t asking for approval or validation. They lived on their own terms.

But there were always reasons why I “shouldn’t” shave my head, why it wasn’t the right time — from partners who grimaced when I mentioned it, to the prospect of navigating the reactions of friends and colleagues, not to mention my mother’s inevitable horror. But then I decided to embark on a period of untethered travel, and these excuses started to crumble. I was thirty teetering on thirty-one, and I felt myself slipping into a malaise. I loved my life, then in Washington, DC, but I’d slipped into a too-comfortable routine and felt more beholden to social obligations than my aspirations. So I left. My job, my friends, a relationship. I sold almost everything I owned and lived nomadically for about a year before landing at my parents’ house for a few months, where I planned to work until I had enough money to keep traveling.

I’ve always associated haircuts with major life changes. When I initially moved from California to DC seven years prior, my sister cut off my wavy, elbow-length hair. Originally I wanted it ​really​ short — spiky, androgynous short — but I didn’t have the guts. I settled for a cute bob. Now my hair was taunting my funny bones again, and I was desperate to go all the way. But I kept stalling. I clung to my hair like a safety blanket. When I got to my parents’ house, I couldn’t bring myself to shave my head in front of my mother. She still lamented the fact that I’d given up make-up and high heels.

Six months later, though, I started planning a trip to India. A friend of mine went to Mysore every year to practice Ashtanga yoga, and his experience sounded like exactly what I wanted: disorienting, intense, challenging. I decided to spend a month there, then another two weeks traveling around Southern India alone. I resisted the idea that I was looking for some kind of cliché transformation. I bristled when people asked me if I was going to “eat, pray, love”— as if I was expecting India to fill a void, to make me a new person. The spiritual quest narrative is impossible to avoid when you say you’re going to India, and for yoga of all things, but I dodged these assumptions. “I’m not looking for anything,” I’d tell people. But I was. And whatever change I was looking for would start with a haircut.

My mother was not thrilled about India. It was yet another life decision that she didn’t seem to understand, like why I broke up with my partner in DC instead of marrying him. She may have been more upset than me. I was distraught — it was the first break-up that wasn’t an overdue ending to a bad situation. He was a​ good guy.​ A ​great on paper ​guy. The separation was painful, but I knew it was necessary. My mother, however, was unconvinced. All she’d ever wanted was to get married and have a family, and she couldn’t grasp why I didn’t want the same. I imagined she felt I was throwing away something she’d wanted so badly at my age, something she waited so long (too long, according to her) to have. To Mom, my trip to India was another postponement of adulthood, made all the more suspicious by the yoga. Even though I’d been practicing yoga for years, she still acted as if it was some pseudo-cult. I could tell she didn’t “approve” because when I talked about it she responded by not really responding at all. “OK,” was the best she could muster. Or silence.

She was also worried about my safety — understandably so. I was nearly discouraged myself by the warnings and stories of what women have faced while travelling there alone, and what Indian women face growing up there, like the common occurrence of “eve teasing,” a form of sexual harassment in which women are publicly groped by men driving by on motor-bikes.

“I want you to call home everyday,” Mom said.

“No, I’m not doing that.”

“I want you to email everyday.”

“I’ll email every ​other​ day,” I said. “If I can.”

As my departure date crept closer, Mom surprised me with gifts: a travel vest with a dizzying number of secret pockets and zippered pouches to deter thieves; a water bottle and battery-operated water purifier with a complicated system of color-coded lights; and a portable solar panel to ensure I always had electricity to charge my laptop and cell phone. I saw that this was her way of being supportive. I vowed to equip myself with all of these things (except the solar panel) and, when she and my father deposited me at SeaTac on a mid-July morning, her typically long pre-separation hug was especially tight. She sputtered additional safety precautions and keep-in-touch requests. I consented, saying whatever she needed to hear in order to let me go.

As I embarked on the 45-hour journey to Mysore (through Vancouver, London, Mumbai and Bangalore), I still had hair. I didn’t know when or where I would shave my head, only that I needed to do it ​soon​. Should I do it in an airport during a layover, I wondered? But it was expensive in Vancouver and there wasn’t enough time in London. Should I do it the first morning in Mysore? But I didn’t know where to go. Could I just walk into any barber shop? Should I go to a salon?

When I finally arrived, this task was temporarily superseded by just trying to get my bearings. I had a list of logistics to figure out, including registering at the yoga shala (studio), finding a room to rent, and procuring items I had been advised to purchase there (yoga mat, sim card). Gokulum, the neighborhood in Mysore where I was staying, was not nearly as overwhelming as the city center, and far less so than Delhi, but it was chaotic nonetheless. There was so much to watch out for — the road for traffic (motor-bikes, rickshaws, vehicles), the roadside for excrement (dog, cow, human), your own person (pockets, pouches, purses). I felt relatively safe, but after I saw a woman robbed by two men on a motor-bike one evening when I was walking home just after dusk, I vowed to re-heed the advice I’d already been given and never go out alone after sunset again. Eventually my jet lag faded, I made a few acquaintances, and settled into my new routine: 6 a.m. practices, six days a week. I found India to be exactly what I was told it would be, which is to say ​all the things.​ Rich and poor; dirty and beautiful; always moving and painfully lethargic. One is constantly required to confront and hold opposing ideas simultaneously. It was the challenge I hoped would make me stronger, more resilient.

And yet days passed and I still had hair. In the heat and humidity I couldn’t tolerate keeping it down, so it hung on the back of my head in a frazzled messy bun. I resented it more and more. It was a reminder of my failure to act. My failure to say “fuck it.” To be that woman. I had made it thousands of miles around the world, but I couldn’t complete this one simple task.

After one of my first practices at the shala, I sat outside, soaked with sweat and exhaustion, greedily slurping water from a coconut, when another woman caught my attention. She looked to be early twenty-something, with fair skin, dynamic brown eyebrows, bright eyes — and a short buzz cut. “I’m really jealous of your hair,” I bleated at her, surprised by my own forwardness. Jenna was from Florida and she had recently cut off her waist-long dreadlocks at a barbershop a few blocks away. “It’s the first or second right off the main road,” she said. “Then look for a giant picture of Zac Efron in the window.”

That afternoon, excited and encouraged, I headed toward Zac Efron. I didn’t actually know what Zac Efron looked like, but I assumed he was a pretty white boy I’d recognize. Nervous yet determined, I walked down the main road — side-stepping scraggly dogs panting in the sun, past fruit vendors toting miniature bananas and purple speckled eggplants, women selling flowers to offer at the Ganesha Temple — and turned onto the first side street, my eyes scanning each building. Nothing. I doubled back up the second street and there it was: Zac Efron’s face, almost larger than the adjacent door to the Kavana Mens Parlour, a soft pink storefront with a pale blue roll-up shutter.

Inside the small, sparse barbershop there was barely enough space for two chairs and a small bench. The barber motioned for me to sit as he finished with the men before me. He didn’t speak English, so I told him what I wanted by placing my thumb and index finger a half inch from my scalp. He looked hesitant, maybe bewildered, but smiled and went to it, cutting off one handful of hair at a time with scissors and carefully laying each batch on the counter in front of me, and finishing the job with an electric razor. I held my breath as the shape of my skull emerged. After years of wanting this, and months fretting over it, the whole thing took 15 minutes and cost 100 ($1.57). Walking away from Zac Efron, I felt giddy. I couldn’t stop looking at my reflection in parked cars and storefronts windows. The breeze greeted my scalp and running my hand over the soft lawn was utterly delightful.

When I got back to the house where I was staying, I sat in front of the mirror and honestly wasn’t sure if I “liked” what I saw. There was nothing fierce or sexy about it. I was no Natalie Portman, no Demi Moore. I was actually rather shocked — but fascinated. Fascinated by the dramatic curves of my head that I’d never seen before. By the divots that were my temples. By the sweeping plain of my forehead. And by that which is inescapable when you have no hair: my eyes, with all their soft hungering. I was taken aback by this nakedness staring back at me from the glass, but grateful for the chance to sit and meet my own gaze.

I waited a week before sharing my haircut on social media. I wanted to tell Mom first so she didn’t learn about it on Facebook. I’d kept my promise to keep in touch and we’d been communicating ever since I arrived. There was relatively consistent wi-fi at my house, although I could count on it going down for a few hours following the late morning monsoon rain. I’d write to her in the afternoons and she’d write back as soon as she woke up the next morning.

I wrote her an email: ​Hi Mom! I just wanted to let you know that I shaved my head. Don’t worry, I didn’t join a cult or anything 🙂 It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. Love you and miss you, Catherine.

A day passed. Then a few. A week later, Mom still had not responded. Given that my mother spent more time online than I did, given that I had lived with her for six months and knew she began every day hunched over her laptop at the kitchen counter, this silence couldn’t be accidental. I wasn’t surprised that she wasn’t excited by my news, but I was surprised that she couldn’t manage a response. Not even an “OK.” Was she seriously not talking to me because of a haircut?

I emailed her again. ​Hi Mom, Is everything OK? I haven’t heard back from you yet. Love, Catherine.

I was in the changing room after practice one morning, when a woman I hadn’t met asked me, “Did you just come from a Buddhist ashram?” I was naive to think that just because I cut my hair in a foreign country, it would elicit no response. Most of it was positive: women telling me they’d always wanted to do that, but didn’t have the “courage,” or that they were envious and didn’t think they could “pull it off,” the same fears and trepidations I’d had too. A few women told me, “I shaved my head once, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” which was exactly how I felt. I loved the utter simplicity of not having hair, the not thinking about it. I loved that it was something I was scared to do and did anyway.

But I underestimated how much this would mean to my mother, and even more how much her reaction would mean to me. Two weeks after my initial email and follow-up, I’d still received no response. Her silence felt purposeful, punishing. The longer it lasted, the more it seemed that the significance of my hair had usurped that of my safety. After all her fuss and concern over my welfare, her pleads to “keep in touch,” apparently that didn’t matter now that I was bald. I emailed my dad, asking if she was mad. He — the perennial peacekeeper — promptly replied. ​No, no, she’s not mad. She’s just busy.

I tried to put her silence out of mind. After all, I cut my hair for myself, not for her. And the whole point was to eschew others’ validation. But on some mornings at the shala, as I rested on my back after practice, sweat cooling, muscles releasing, my mind wandered. Suddenly I’d find myself in the grips of an imagined, but visceral, argument with my mother in which I defended my decisions. Not just about my hair. That’s where it always started, but it quickly escalated to every other life choice I was apparently still vindicating: not marrying that boyfriend, not wanting children, leaving my job … that time … that time … that time … ! The movement of a neighboring student would pull me back into the room. But I was already on the verge of tears.

When I finally heard from Mom it was nearly a month later, and it was not in response to any of my emails. It was a generic forward to my sisters and me, an email with a series of animal pictures, each accompanied by a caption with the refrain, “May you…” A picture of three baby raccoons peeking out of a storm drain read: “May you always find shelter from any storm.”

There was no message directed to me.

I replied, perhaps too soon: ​Where is the picture that says: “May your mother respond to your emails when you’re halfway around the world?”

To which she did respond: ​I just didn’t know what to say. I love you. Later, I told her that was all she’d needed to say.

I knew that a shaved head did not mean to Mom what it means to me. She likes “classic” feminine aesthetics. Grace Kelly. Princess Diana. She’d loved my hair just the way it was, its never-been-dyed color and natural waves. It was the kind of hair she’d always wanted. Mom has worn her hair short and permed for years, but when I was a child her sandy blonde hair was long, thin, and straight. In one picture of her from that time, she looks at the camera over her shoulder, tan skin, a hint of smile on her lips, and reminds me of a young, wistful Joni Mitchell — simple, understated, beautiful.

I was prepared to be shocked by India. But I was not prepared for the sting of Mom’s silence. How after three decades she still had such power to humble me. I’d naively thought that if I could just get rid of my hair — and for that matter, all the trappings of my life, stripping myself down to essentials — I would no longer crave validation. I would no longer be beholden to the opinions of others. I would tap a mythical wellspring of confidence, immune to the expectations of others. Life purely on my own terms.

My haircut did spur a kind of transformation, but not at all in the way I’d thought. When I emerged from that barbershop, my vulnerabilities were more exposed, not less. The veil was lifted. My relationship with my mom is just one piece in the puzzle of what makes me vulnerable, as I suspect parental relationships are for most people. There is no “getting over” or “beyond” it, nor do I think that’s even desirable anymore. As I will always be her daughter, I will always want her approval. Instead of resisting, of telling myself I “shouldn’t,” I try to hold my desire to please and my desire to reject her simultaneously. Allow those contradictions to coexist. Be curious about them. Observe them like newly visible crevices and creases. Sit with them face to face.

About the Author

Catherine Johnson


Catherine’s work has been published in Oregon Humanities, STORGY, Portland Monthly Magazine, Nowhere Travel Magazine, Elephant Journal, District Lines, and is forthcoming in Scabland Books’ anthology Evergreen: Fairy Tales, Essays & Fables from the Dark Northwest. She blogs at The Bullet and the Butterfly and is a graduate from the MFA program in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Portland State University. Catherine lives and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon.

Edited by Lisa Renee

Image: Alex Holyoake | Unsplash

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