There was a time in my life when I was very committed to a lie. And to commit yourself to deception like that is to wrap yourself up in it. Like a burrito that’s packed just a bit too full and tight, this will end in tears. When I was 17 years old, I had a girlfriend. This is not a humblebrag but more a statement of fact. She was the first one I ever had where I used that word to describe the nature of our relationship. I was also in the throws of “well, I guess I better learn to be a man”. This was not going well. I couldn’t grow a beard; I wasn’t conventionally handsome nor was all I all that aware of how to properly present myself. I was an awkward, introverted child growing up and that ensured as I moved into these adolescent teen years it would be compounding interest on my awkwardness. And so, like all young male presenting people with anger problems, I became obsessed with the intricate nature of my look. Surprisingly, a lot of this focused on my hair.
I know, looking back on it, I think it’s stupid too. But it was important to me that my hair, the one thing I was able to manipulate and control, looked good. At all times and/or cost. Now, when I was 17, it was the year 1999, and in the year 1999, men of my age and demographic (read: skate pop-punk listening ne’er-do-wells) liked a very specific and awful hairstyle: the heavily gelled spiked look. Think the lead singer of Sum41, before he married and then divorced April Lavigne. This was me, although luckily all photo evidence of that time period has been lost. I was always intensely focused on making it look good from all angles. If it was off in any way, shape or form (this hairstyle was founded on the idea of shape and form, immovably so) I would not be able to stop thinking about it. It would haunt me. “Your hair is all fucked up, everyone is looking at you. You look stupid, you look like shit”. Nowadays I call this inner voice Dysphoria, but I lacked such levels of understanding at the time. This all came to a head one spring day. I was to meet the girlfriend I referenced earlier at our local Dairy Queen, presumably to enjoy some hot eats, or at the very least, cool treats. I told her I was going to shower and then I would be there. 20 minutes I told her, I showered fast. The less time spent naked with myself, the better. Funny thing about warning signs, you can never see them on yourself.
And so I showered. I dried myself off. I pulled a bottle of translucent blue Dippity-Do from the cupboard and evenly applied it to my short dark hair. I styled it as I always did, my hair still too wet for the product to really work. I was too punk rock and entirely clueless to understand how hair products work best, you see. And I couldn’t get it just right. It looked okay from the front, but not from the right side. The left side was a little off as well. I washed it out and tried again. Still not right. I started to lose my patience. Rinse, pat dry, gel. Repeat. Anger was welling up inside me. How come when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see the person I expected to. I know what I’m supposed to look like, but I wasn’t achieving it. My frustration levels grew with each subsequent Groundhog Day-esque reliving of this cheap gelled nightmare. My girlfriend called my landline and enquired as to my whereabouts. I told her I was almost ready. I wasn’t getting put together for her, or for anyone else mind you, although I told myself I was. I was furious because I wasn’t seeing myself, regardless of how hard I tried, I was never there.
I punched a hole in the wall.
Think about that display of anger for a second, and then remember this all stems from the fact that I was unable to over-gel my hair to look effectively ridiculous. Eventually, after much yelling at myself and punching and throwing and more yelling, I relented and just went to meet her. I wore a purple-ish baseball hat that I owned but famously never wore. There were questions, most notably: why the hell was I so late (I had spent an hour and a half locked in my bathroom) and why was I wearing this awful purple corduroy hat that I have never shown any interest in wearing before. I told her about my frustrations with not being able to get my hair looking just right. It sounded just as ludicrous to me when I was saying it aloud as it does to read, write or ever think about it now. Years later, when I was 21, I would tell her that I was going to be a woman. She would be the first in a series of partners I would use this line on. She didn’t take to this particular piece of news and had some choice words for me. One starts with an F and rhymes with Maggot.
Looking back on this now, knowing what I do now, this was an early case of total dysphoria. I was so completely disconnected from the idea of my own body that I couldn’t rectify it, no matter how hard I pushed, or how much I yelled at it to create a solution. I couldn’t fix it because I lacked the knowledge and emotional maturity to understand what it was I was trying to fix. My hair would prove to be a thing I would focus on a lot as I aged. In the post-gel period of my life I adopted many looks, from “shaggy mop that was never combed” to “setting #4 on this shaving set to cut it down to about 1/8””. See a pattern emerging? This is what I call my total neglect period. Hey, I’m manly, I would say. I don’t care about product and hair and whatnot. I’m easy, I’m cool. I was putting in zero effort and getting zero back in return. Total neglect of the heart. In my 30’s, I would return to my caring about my looks ways for a while. I learned to comb my hair for the first time at 31. I had no role models to guide my path for me, I learned to style myself on my own. I was able to grow a fine beard at this point, and with some guidance from my girlfriend at the time, I was able to carve out a look for myself that I thought would define me as a man. I began to get agitated again. The more I cared, or tried to, the more I looked in the mirror. The more I looked in the mirror, the more the reflection back at me felt false. This is not to say I didn’t like myself, there were flashes of “oh this looks good”, but I see that now as being more an attraction to the person reflected back at me than an acceptance of myself. I was still not seeing myself. Those anger levels rose again. I became fixated on myself in unhealthy ways, but overcompensated by wildly vacillating between pretending my style was effortless and being vocal about being fashion-forward. We call this Deflecting.
I am aware that I was told that I was a handsome male. I never saw myself like that. I would hear that and search for answers in the mirror. I had done everything, I had the haircut; short on the side, long on top, combed back and on an angle. I had a nice full beard, a hint of grey on both my face and on top of my head. I was tall, reasonably muscular and well dressed. By all intents and purposes I was a handsome male, but to me it was always hearsay. I was still never able to see the reflection I heard about looking back at me. The hair was always wrong.
I don’t know if this is a shared problem amongst other trans folks. My dysphoria started on the top half of my body. In the months preceding my coming out for the 4th and final time, I was listening to the classic Springsteen jam Dancing In The Dark a lot. “Check my look in the mirror, want to change my clothes, my hair, my face” the boss told me. I felt that, I understood that concept without being able to vocalize it. I once tried to grow my hair long, when I was living with my partner and was playing the part of “Handsome Boyfriend #4” I told her and everyone around me that I was just curious what I would look like. What I was doing was trying to say “I’m in a jam and i’m trying to get out of it. I have something to express that I don’t have words for, but the hair aspect of it feels important”. It looked, to put it bluntly, like absolute shit. As a male, I could not pull off long hair. But I had hoped it would grow into these long locks I could style and look at in the mirror when I was awake, long before my girlfriend woke up and I was alone with my transgender porn and secret Pinterest boards. I wanted to be able to try and find myself and still maintain my defences. I would try apps on my phone, I learned photoshop. I wanted to see long hair no-beard me. I wanted to unearth myself like so many long buried treasures. Something thought long gone but always just underneath.
I would never tell this particular partner I was a woman underneath it all, but this is when that voice got louder again. A few years later I would come out. Now, 2 years beyond that, I am lucky enough to have one thing that means more to me than I can tell. I have a hairstyle that truly feels like mine.
I have, at time of writing, chin length hair, cut in a blunt bob style, with shaggy bangs. It is dyed a kind of grey-silver colour. I want it to be lighter than this even, platinum blonde/white. But it’s a work in progress with my hair stylist. But despite it all, despite dysphoric feelings about my face, about my torso and slow growing breasts, I have my hair. The one thing I could pin on a board and say, ‘this is who I want to be’ and could unlock. It went along with how I’ve always seen myself and am now able to live. And it’s nice, when I look in the mirror and the reflection finally feels like mine. I used to loathe sitting in a barber’s chair, now I know I’ll spend a few hours there and look forward to it, as I know at the end comes euphoria, elation. Excitement. “This is me” I can say, and it’s true. There’s no anger or frustration, I don’t require tricks to unlock myself, I’m already there.