Ponytails

Anna Oberg

I step out into the snow, big white flakes that won’t stick to the cobblestone for an hour or so. Nolan waves, leaves. I cross the courtyard, wondering what I’ll look like when he picks me up. My appointment at the salon is midmorning—right about the time the third cup of coffee kicks in to remind me three is one too many. I wish I could run around the block. My palms sweat as I follow the stylist, K, upstairs to discuss what I want done. It’s just a haircut I tell myself, wiping my hands on my pants. The thought isn’t comforting. 

I have with me the printed instructions for anyone wanting to donate hair. They are explicit—the hair must be sectioned off into at least four separate ponytails, and each section must be more than ten inches long. 

It’ll grow back, I tell myself. This isn’t comforting either. 

***

I’m ambivalent when it comes to my hair. I love the way people look at my waist-length blonde locks. I like the attention—desire it, maybe. But, I’m curious to know how they will look at me when it’s gone. 

I tell myself to approach the idea of giving up my hair with a light curiosity, not fraught with overwhelming angst about the future of the known world. But, I wonder: will Nolan still find me attractive? Will I feel older? Will I look older with shorter hair? 

When it comes down to it, it’s a haircut. I’m donating ten inches, maybe a foot. It will grow back. Perhaps a child with cancer or an adult with premature hair loss can use it. Perhaps, it’s like my most recent essay I abandon halfway through after stalling for two months, or my job at the bookstore that I can’t hack but stay with too long. Things not right for me. Maybe this is what I’m meant to be finding out—ways to relinquish the things I’ve held for too long. 

***

As I sit in the salon chair, gazing in the mirror, I feel the urge to dig myself out. I’m buried—under the demands of motherhood, work, and my own unwillingness to just let go. Let myself be. Let the heaviness of the last two years move off me. The truth is, my hair is just one more item on a list of things driving me crazy: the old dishwasher, the squeaky dryer, the dog’s muddy footprints on the kitchen floor, the howling wind, my own creative stalling. The winter doldrums. This goddamn pandemic. What if I let go of my hair and see what else shifts? 

I’m at a point where I feel out of sync with my own steps. Whatever’s over, I’m walking away from, but I still hear the echo. And whatever I’m walking into—well, who knows. The question hasn’t even left my mouth yet. It’s the great unknown. But, I can feel my creativity rising up. Something—some idea, some fury—is about to take hold. 

***

Professionally, I’m a photographer, and around once a week or so I take portraits of myself—long hair flowing, sitting in the light. Posed. Suggestive of who I understand myself to be.

I say this is my practice, and it is. I want to get good at headshots, my favorite type of photograph to take. But, there’s something deeper, too. Part of my impulse to photograph myself is driven by the urge to know who I am externally, the way I do inside. I have a vivid imagination, but I need to connect to my body, my appearance. I wonder what it will be like to photograph myself with shorter hair.

K takes out the shears and rummages for the tiny rubber bands. She leaves momentarily to find a measuring tape. When she returns, she sections off my hair. Then, it’s time for the first cut. 

“Are you ready?” K asks. 

***

The week before, I browse hairstyle sites on the Internet for a picture of someone who has the cut I want. “Are you sure?” I ask myself every so often. The main thing holding me back is my mom will so heartily approve. 

For years, my mother has been asking in her passive way, “Don’t you want to cut your hair?” There’s some hard and fast rule about no hair past the collarbone. A woman approaching middle age with long hair is making an egregious social error. Or maybe it’s just a thing she made up—I’ve never been able to parse out the legitimacy of her edicts. 

I don’t know a way around this: when I donate the ponytails K snips off, my mother wins. The bold truth: a piece of me has kept my hair so long for so long, simply because she wants me to cut it. 

And yet, as I move through my days mulling it over, I’m not sure I care about her opinion anymore. I’m certainly not cutting it because someone somewhere in the dim and recent past made some arbitrary rule about how I style my fucking hair. I’m cutting my hair because I want to see myself differently. I want a new window into who I am. 

***

At the salon, I remember why I’m there. My hair gets stuck behind my shoulders, between my back and the chair. I can’t move my head forward. It has become my captivity. 

“Yes, I’m ready. Let’s do it,” I tell K. 

She holds up the first ponytail, gathered in a tiny, clear rubber band—the kind that almost looks like one I used on my braces a million years ago. There is a snipping sound, and K holds up the hair for me to see in the mirror. 

“No turning back,” she says. 

***

As I decide which haircut to get, I text with my photographer friend, R, ask him to take some pictures of me after. I feel like I won’t do it justice at first, and I want to see what I look like through someone else’s eyes. I feel I’ll be too critical of myself and shy away from an honest portrait. I wonder if such a drastic change will make seeing myself more difficult, or if it will excavate me, make me more apparent.  

***

The night before K cuts my hair, I lay awake thinking of ways the new style could be disastrous. I remember the haircut I had just after my oldest son was born. Nolan and I lived in Kentucky then, and I was exhausted: a new mother, yet considering graduate school. The baby kept grabbing fistfuls of my long hair and yanking. It was summer and so humid—and, I remember going to the salon and saying “Cut it all off, for the love of God.” I felt like I could not get free—I let go without a second thought. 

When I ask Nolan if he liked my hair back then, he says no without hesitation. “I don’t like short hair on anyone,” has been his stance for years. “But, I’m sure you’ll look better this time,” he says before he lets me out of the car to meet K at the salon. 

Still, I lay awake worrying. My mother will be gleeful. Nolan will be quiet. The more I think about it, the more I care about what I will be. It is my own goddamn hair. And, that thought edges me closer to myself than I’ve felt in a decade.

***

Something in me associates my long hair with my wildness. I feel like Sampson. Or maybe more like Delilah. The power is in her hands—and, with the power to cut hair comes the power to tame. I don’t want to be tamed—nothing near it. If I give away my hair, I succumb to what everyone else wants me to be. 

Yet, every time someone says, “Your hair is so beautiful!” I want to cut it—just to see if I’m beautiful without it. 

I took a picture of myself in the mountains last summer. My hair is tossed, blown out all around my face in the wind. Uncontrollable, untamed, tangled, wild—how I like to think of myself. Will any of these facets still exist when I cut it away? 

***

I post pictures of my long hair on Instagram. Black and white, posed with a white rose—it’s my goodbye ritual, a send-off so I can welcome what’s next. 

I think about how I will miss my hair. I have a sense of martyrdom donating it—I’m giving something up. I allow myself the grief, because I don’t know where my hair is going. I don’t know the real pain—the story of the person who needs the hair. I don’t think I’d want to give it up if it didn’t mean anything to me, though. Perhaps that’s the point. 

I’m restless. I spend the day before the haircut watching reruns of Ally McBeal, considering what I want to do with my life. This is middle age, I tell myself, thinking about how I look at myself, how I inhabit my own sensitive nature. Thinking about how much I think about what others think of me. 

***

As I sit in the salon chair, K snips six ponytail sections, and I continue to wonder what my mother will say. But, it’s fun watching the transformation. I study my face in the mirror as K shapes my hair into a beautiful mid-length style. It feels light, like I’ve shed more weight than I know.

After the appointment, I return home and take a few pictures of the disenfranchised ponytails flat on a couch cushion. Evidence of a past life. Then, I turn the camera on myself—just a few shots of me smiling, fresh from the salon. I don’t know yet what I think about it, only that when I run my fingers through my hair, it feels so, so short. So gone. 

***

When I post to Facebook the picture of the ponytails on the sofa with the caption “Did a thing today! It was time!”—within ten minutes, my mother comments: “It is called growing up!” 

There are so many things I want to respond, but I take down all my comebacks immediately. I don’t want my haircut tainted by her jab. 

I’ve given her three grandsons, and still I’m not grown in her eyes. Starting my own business hasn’t granted me adult status, nor has graduating with my Master’s while raising two kids under the age of three. Nor has buying a house with Nolan. None of these things count as adult achievements, because I have long hair when I pursue them. Now that I’ve cut it—now she sees me as an adult. It’s a twisted rite of passage I find myself backing through. 

Even in my irritation, something encouraging happens—each accomplishment I list in my head subverts my mother’s comment a little more. Everything I know I’ve done with long hair makes me know how much it never fucking mattered in the first place.

***

The thought occurs to me as I drift off to sleep: her comment is just another thing to let go of. Like the six ponytails inside the Ziplock bag in the manila envelope waiting in my purse to be mailed—her opinion is just another one to relinquish. The more I let go, the younger I feel. And, the younger I feel, the more I like it. Maybe this haircut is my rite of passage, into living out adulthood on my own terms. And maybe these ponytails are proof of something, that I am who I am—finally. 


Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she’s not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long’s Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Mud Season Review, Pidgeonholes, Causeway Lit, The Maine Review, decomp Journal, The Festival Review, and Split Rock Review, among others.

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