I entered the world on a Monday, the 26th day of September in 1966. According to my mother, I was born early in the morning, around five o’clock.
The hospital where I made my Grand Entry is located between Missionary Ridge and Downtown Chattanooga in Tennessee. Today it is a sprawling amalgam of old and new buildings with a new Cardiac unit—but the maternity ward no longer exists.
My dad said I looked like a papoose, or for those who aren’t familiar with this word, a little Native American baby. I had dark skin and copious amounts of long, dark hair. My eyes were the color of midnight. Once, when my mom’s parents were still alive and living north of the Tennessee River from Chattanooga off of Browntown Road, I was going through a shoebox full of old photos when my Granny Johnson held one up and said, “Well there you are, the day you were born!” I studied the photo and concluded my dad had been right. If dressed in traditional Cherokee clothing, no one would be able to tell the difference between that baby and a full-blooded Cherokee papoose.
As I grew older, my long, dark brown hair and dark brown eyes remained prominent features. My birth certificate showed I was born to Caucasian parents and I was, too, Caucasian. All of my school records and any health records were recorded the same way.
In 1975, my dad had enlisted in the Army and we were living off base near Fort Benning in Columbus, GA. That same year, Dorothy Hamill was a prominent women’s figure skater. She held the women’s U.S. Championship in Figure Skating from 1974 to 1976, and went on to win the 1976 World and Olympic Championships in her class.
For those old enough to remember (ahem), there was another feature about Dorothy Hamill which garnered her fame: her haircut.
Standing at five foot five inches, Dorothy had medium dark brown hair and pale blue/green eyes (some might call them Hazel) and she was beautiful. Many girls looked up to her as a role model and hero. In essence, we wanted to be like her.
Ms. Hamill made famous the Dorothy Hamill Haircut, a bobbed wedge that was short, perky and sassy. Being a child of the sixties and beginning to flower in the seventies, this was a large departure from the Cher look many of our mothers had imposed upon us.
To know more about Dorothy Hamill, click here:
Add to my desire to be beautiful and talented like Dorothy, I was also insecure and felt envious of all the pretty blonde, blue-eyed girls who seemed to be so popular when I was coming up in school. They had cute little haircuts. Many donned bangs or feathered hair (meant to mimic Farrah Fawcett, but woefully missing the mark). They adorned themselves with earrings and nail polish, blue eye shadow and Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers lip gloss, in a variety of flavors from Cherry, Strawberry and Grape to Dr. Pepper and Hire’s Root Beer. Their moms took them shopping for Izod Lacoste Polo shirts and Bass shoes.
They moved in packs, giggling and whispering together while I peered at them from the safety of my corner near the cinder block building that was the Language Arts wing. The wall was covered in peeling and pale yellow paint.
Since I was a loner and had no clue how to fit in with those girls, I also sat at the lunch table by myself or haunted the halls and playground of our school as I observed the other kids. I imagined other worlds, with nicer kids and better schools, where I was part of the scenes in my head.
You can imagine my shock when a girl named Thelma Lopez plopped down beside me during lunch one day.
“Hi, my name is Thelma.” She said in English with a hint of accent.
Warily, I met her eye and mumbled, “I’m Kim.”
“Why do you sit alone here…Keem?”
I shrugged my shoulders and stared at my lunch tray. A sticky glob of grainy glue, or otherwise known by the lunch ladies as white rice, sat next to a square of green Jell-O adorned with a layer of Cool Whip, both untouched on my lunch tray.
Thelma proceeded to chatter and give me her life story: Her parents were from Puerto Rico, she was the oldest of three and her brothers were annoying, she liked to play with dolls and had a collection of Barbie’s in her bedroom, and many other details I did not wish to know. The bell rang and I made my escape.
After several weeks of persistence on her part, I decided she was okay and began to talk to her about my poems and stories, how much I loved playing Dodgeball because it gave me a chance to hit people without being sent to the Principal’s office, and how much I adored her Dorothy Hamill Haircut.
Thelma’s dark brown eyes glistened with joy. “Oh thank you, Keem! My mommy had to get my Poppy to say yes, you know.”
I shook my head. No, I did not know.
“Si, si. He say girls should never have short hair. Even God say so.”
I stroked my long locks and wondered what my dad would say if I wanted to get a Dorothy Hamill Haircut.
A few days later I asked my mom about it. My mother’s hair was light brown and hung down to the small of her back, all in one length and parted down the middle. She thought it was a great idea if I wanted to cut my hair.
At supper I gathered my courage and asked my dad about cutting my hair, but immediately regretted it. He cut his blue eyes in my direction and favored me with one of his severe looks and said, “A woman’s hair is her glory.”
I hung my head and picked at my mashed potatoes.
“Why do you want your hair off? He asked.
“Well, Dorothy Hamill; and my new friend wears her hair the same way.”
“Who’s this new friend?”
Dad nodded. “Hmmm. Don’t let girls who ain’t from here fill your head. They ain’t like us.”
“Thelma’s my friend,” I whispered to my bowl of pinto beans.
Hot tears stung my eyes while I ate the rest of my dinner. When I was finished, I asked to be excused and washed the dishes. Afterward, I retreated to my bedroom.
Eventually, after a couple of months of begging, my dad consented to my getting a haircut. I was only permitted to cut it to shoulder length. Disappointed, I took the opportunity to cut it anyway. A year later, after mom and dad separated, I talked him into letting me cut it short in the style of Dorothy Hamill. The hairdresser I used was my grandmother’s, and she had no idea what she was doing. I ended up with short hair that looked more like a boy’s haircut than a girl’s. It was devastating.
Some years later when in high school, I decided I wanted short hair again. Since my parents were divorced and my dad rarely had much to do with us anymore, I told mom I was doing it and she mumbled “Okay” as I walked out the door.
I have since reflected on the numerous times I had grown my hair long and those moments I cut it all back off. What I have concluded is that when I cut my hair off, I also cut off the part of me that was my inherent strength, wisdom, and courage. Without fail, at some subconscious level, I cut my hair off when I felt I wasn’t being heard.
Yes, you read that correctly. I cut my hair because I did not feel heard.
You may be asking why I would do that. The answer is: I am not one hundred percent sure. However, I have some theories.
- As a girl who grew up in the South, where my dad was clearly the head of the house and my mother, as well as my sister and me, were to be seen and not heard, it was inevitable I would find some way to express my thoughts, beliefs and feelings. One could argue that it wasn’t inevitable, but I have come to believe in my forty-nine years on this earth that every human being has the desire to express those things, and most of us are shut down early on. We find a way, healthy or unhealthy, to assert ourselves.
- I would also proffer that my artist brain and heart, the very same uncultivated by my family, were hell-bent on developing anyway.
- Part of me knew in my bones…in my cells…that my power came from being a woman—not a man, nor some version of a woman presented to those whose acceptance and recognition of me depend on my willingness to water down my words and actions in order to make them comfortable. Part of me knew all along that my power came from my inherent, unapologetic existence—as a woman.
- Finally, the part of me that was born a papoose, the Native American part I was descended from and had been tucked away and hidden when my Cherokee ancestors (with other tribes) were forced to live according to the white-European constructs imposed on their societies…SHE knew in order to be taken seriously she had to conform, but her desire to be genuine remained a driving force.
Sadly, no matter how many times I cut my hair, or how much education I earned or how well I learned to express myself via the written word—there remain many who are uncomfortable with my power to wield a pen or to see the truth behind the lie. Voice or no, they don’t want to be confronted with their prejudices or limited views. They don’t want to be challenged. They like their comfy spot in the majority and status quo.
In March of 2014, my husband’s only granddaughter was rushed to the hospital. In April of that same year, only days after my husband and I said our vows on the bridge over The Ocoee River, we learned she had a brain tumor.
Though I do not regret the intent behind my action, I regret cutting my hair. Since that time, my self-concept has been in the blender. When John and I crossed paths, I was writing, singing, playing the guitar, jogging, taking time for myself and my thoughts—at long last—honoring my purpose when no one else was willing to do that for me. Interestingly, I had spent the previous two years growing my hair long after lopping it all off when I lived in Italy. At that time I was instructed to write my life story for therapeutic reasons. I started a blog and several short stories, creative non-fiction pieces and even a novel. The simple act of writing it all down terrified me, especially when I saw it on paper.
I know in my heart I cut my hair each time I reach that precipice, the edge of that void where I struggle to find my own words where I sabotage everything. I find ways to shut back down, or to become more palatable to the masses, when I’m convinced my point-of-view will turn others away.
One day, I hope to finally claim my voice—my inherent strength. I hope my whispers rise to a shout to permeate the skies above me.
Kim Bailey Deal
November 15, 2015