Picture Day has got to be one of the most hectic times of a child’s life. You have to choose a background (blue, grey, or the classic bookshelf. But if your school hired a fancy company, you had the option for an outdoor backdrop), pick out nice clothes, practice your smile, and most importantly… your hair has to be fabulous. Things worked out well for me, except for 2nd grade. Oh how I hated my hair during that time!
A couple of days before Picture Day, my mom brought me to the salon to get a haircut. I remember specifically telling my mom to let the hair stylist know I just wanted a trim. NOTHING DRASTIC. Now, I know that lady understood English because she agreed. But she was also Asian, so she was going to whatever she wanted (Relax, I’m Asian too. And I know how we get all sensitive about jokes on our people. So if that offended you, I’m kinda sorry.) So as the length of my hair got shorter and shorter, my eyes only got wider. Then, she whipped out the razor. I swear to you, the buzzing sound still rings in my ears. My soul was shaking. Slowly, I feel it hit closer to my neck and cut higher to my head. After the damage was done she told me, “See, it’s even better than you asked for.” I got into the car and cried my eyes out. I looked like Dora the Explorer, un-casted edition. It was mortifying.
But I was not the only one who experienced this pain. In Zitkala-sa’s novel American Indian Stories, she recalls the day the “paleface woman” cut her hair and how much it affected her.
I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward’s! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.
(School Days of An Indian Girl, Section II)
After leaving her homeland and moving East with the missionaries for school, she realized her expectations of what life would be were different. She was a foreigner. But this particular scene is so important to discuss in Zitkala-sa’s story. She says, “Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!” Her long hair is a symbol of strength. It was part of her identity and a direct connection to her roots. As the “paleface woman” cut off her hair, she felt that she had also “lost [her] spirit,” her sole reason of being. The woman did not only change the girl’s physical appearance, but altered her inner self as well. AGAINST HER WILL.
Hair will always grow back. We know this. But it is part of our body, and no one should control our body but ourselves. Whether you want to shave it all off or grow it long, it is your choice. That was why I was so angered by the lady who had cut my hair when I was younger. I chose the kind of way I wanted my hair to look, I trusted that she would respect that, but instead she did what she thought was good for me. No one gave her that right. Not her certificate, not her employer, not my mother, and definitely not me. As a girl, I am attached to my hair. It sounds so silly to say hair gives someone some kind of identity, but it does. Because (on good hair days) I control it and I style it the way I am comfortable with.
Zitkala-sa shows that after all the struggles she went through up to the time she had arrived at the school, her hair being cut off was the final straw. Expectations, rules, and culture was pushed onto her like she had no choice. She was being made into someone who she is not, but didn’t know how to escape it because “[she] was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.” She ended up being one of the warriors captured by the enemy and had their hair shingled. She was made into a “coward.” They broke her.
I cried, just like her. I knew I became different. But I knew it wasn’t natural. To be stripped of choice, especially at a young age, makes you feel so powerless. For someone to take away something you hold so close to your being, makes you feel robbed. As I pass by the little salon and see it now made into a shop, I feel a bit better. It’s like I got my revenge. I might make my experience sound so dramatic, but my emotions were as real as I recall it. That lady left me with a bad hair cut and a picture to always remember it by. But it will still be a memory that is instilled in my mind forever, no matter now much my hair grows now.