Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

From Swords to Scissors

“I used to have really long hair, and people thought I was high on stage, because people associate long hair with drug use. I wish long hair was associated with something other than drug use, like an extreme longing for cake. And then strangers would see a long-haired guy, they’d say “that f***er eats cake! He is on bundt cake!” Mothers saying to their daughters, “don’t bring the cake-eater over here anymore, he smells like flour. Did you see how excited he got when he found out your birthday was fast approaching?” – Mitch Hedberg 

I’m ending the fight. I’m not winning. I’m not losing. I’m eliminating it altogether.

My hairstyle is one I’ve been sporting for some time now. My last haircut was in October of 1997. That means my hair has gone uncut for almost 16 years – more than half my life.

It has been a good run. We’ve had good times. And in all of my adult life I have known myself as the guy with long, curly hair. It is how others have seen me too. On days when I pull my hair back and up, I can tell fewer people recognize me. (The converse is also true: when I had jobs that required me to keep my hair up and back, my coworkers sometimes didn’t recognize me with it down.)

Until someone gets to know you, they are working off of what they can see. Height, weight, gender, race, mannerisms, cleanliness, hair, clothes… The thing that stands out most from the norm is the one which defines you most strongly in people’s minds. It is how the brain works. Justin Timberlake? Fantastically well dressed. The guy from LMFAO? Giant fro. Stevie Wonder? The braids. And someone who isn’t too strongly deviating from the norm on any scale? For better or worse, they are a blank slate. Think Matt Damon’s role in Ocean’s Eleven: be present but totally forgettable.

I’m within the normal bounds of height, weight, gender expression, race, mannerisms, cleanliness, clothes. Yes, people might see me in a context and think of one of those, but they aren’t where I step off the path too far. That is the realm of hair.

I’m sporting curly brown hair that falls to below my shoulder blades. And that has associations. Long hair on a guy is the realm of the druggie burnout. The hippie. The metal-head. These are not terms that apply to me.

I don’t think they necessarily link too well to the hairstyle in general. I’ve met many reasonable men with long hair. I’ve met many metal-heads with standard haircuts. And while traveling, I met my share of escaping druggie-burnouts who would blend completely if they were sober and dressed decently. But that the stereotypes are there is undeniable.

It isn’t why I have the hair. I didn’t grow it out in some desperate attempt to be viewed as parts of these subcultures. I grew it out because I didn’t like it short. I grew it out because I didn’t like the way I looked. I was tired of fighting with curly hair and trying to straighten it.

It was a major transition point in 7th grade, between growing up a nerd so desperately wanting to fly under the radar and embracing who I was and owning it conspicuously. I went away for winter break with a slicked-down side part and came back with a curly fro. And it just grew from there.

I got the awkward length part of growing it out done while I was going through an awkward time of absolutely everything else. Middle school isn’t a good time for anyone; I just piled it on. And now I’m past that, with long hair. And that is part of the barrier to cutting it. I don’t want to have to go through the long, awkward phase again. And for a while that has prevented me from risking the change, that I can’t just switch back if it doesn’t work out.

In high school, the pendulum swing pretty far the other way. I didn’t try to fly under the radar, and I made a point of being conspicuous. I dressed up. I dressed down. I dressed in costume (usually for spirit days but not entirely). I became a cheerleader. I went to rock concerts. I was still not sure who I was, but I knew it wasn’t the total image of the mainstream. And so I embraced the hair as a way of signaling that I wasn’t conforming.

See this hair? This means I’m a free-thinker, I’m a rebel! It was teenage rebellion done by someone who didn’t actually want to go out drinking at 16 or really break the law (other than driving too fast). I’m not going to call it silly or wrong. It helped me define who I was.

But now here I am. I have a pretty good sense of self. I like some pretty mainstream things. I like some pretty avant garde things. There is no one subculture I can jump in with and carry the flag for. And as I’ve learned who I am and gained confidence, I’ve learned more and more that it is okay to not be a card-carrying member of one group. I can be a social member of many. I am me, and that is pretty great. And who this me is can’t be fully expressed through my style in clothing, or through my mannerisms. Or through my hair.

My hair isn’t a statement of rebellion anymore. It has transitioned. Now it’s a statement that I am making out of momentum. It’s the hair I’ve always had. It’s how I imagine myself because it is the only me I’ve ever seen looking back out of the mirror. But if it doesn’t have a meaning beyond long-term association, there’s no good reason to maintain it. And there are certainly reasons to change it.

I’m not a gutter-punk. I’m not going to talk to you at length about the differences between Death Metal and Black Metal. I’m not going to espouse that if everyone just got high all the time, there’d be no war. People see the hair and these are the echoes of prejudice that ring.

When people talk to me they find out that I’m actually intelligent. I’m actually courteous and nice. I’m well-spoken and reasonable. But every person I meet is a potential uphill struggle to counter their first impressions of me based on my appearance. It doesn’t have to be. I can walk in with closer to a blank slate. I might even be able to walk in on a positive physical note. I might find a style that says ‘well-put-together, respectable, free-thining, intelligent guy.’ If I knew what style said that, I’d already have it. But I know that the look I’m sporting isn’t doing me any favors.

So for all of these reasons, the day has come. I am exiting the arena of battle. I am beginning the process of transition. Where it ends, I don’t know. But it is time to start. 

4 comments on “From Swords to Scissors

  1. Chris
    September 4, 2013

    Great post, man. It’s interesting to read this, your younger days so closely mirror mine, the only difference seems to be I kept my hair at fro-level, while you kept yours growing (and I was never a cheerleader). It’s also interesting to read this, as my current thought processes seem to be mirroring yours rather closely, as long as you replace “gutter-punk” with “70’s era anti-social nerd.” Already shaved the goatee-thing off, and I’m considering a shorter haircut too . . .

    But through all of this, I keep wondering to myself if it’s actually me that wants to make this change, or the societal pressure of trying to find a job. Especially as I currently seek jobs that feature a heavy customer-service component. People who know me know that I’m fantastic with customers, but my appearance is a potential turn-off compared to the clean-cut look more frequently sported.

    Well, didn’t mean to hijack the comments, but good luck with your transitional period. Keep me/us posted, looking forward to meeting the “new” you!

    • Itinerantics
      September 4, 2013

      It will be interesting to see you again in a few months to find out what looks we’ve decided to sport. As for whether it is you or whether it is society, I think the two can’t fully be separated. My main motivation to cutting it is my own, but it is based on what people see and how they react. Yes, job prospects are certainly tied in, but as an example of larger societal prejudice. If long hair wasn’t viewed with such a dubious eye, I wouldn’t have as much reason to change it. Then again, I wouldn’t have had as much motivation to grow it in the first place. And if we lived in a bubble where the opinions and views of other people didn’t affect us in any way, I might have just gone with a buzz cut. It would certainly be easier to maintain.

  2. Molly
    September 4, 2013

    Are you going to cut off enough for Locks of love or Beautiful Lengths?

    • Itinerantics
      September 4, 2013

      Unfortunately not. I’ve got some bleaching remnants in there, which disqualifies anything below a certain point, making the remaining length not quite long enough for Locks. And the advice I’ve received from someone who cuts curly hair professionally is that I should take it off in a few different steps, with a week or so between. That way it gives my hair time to adjust to the lighter weight and see how it responds (since I haven’t had it that short in donkey’s years). Also, it gives my psyche time to adjust. If I woke up with short hair tomorrow, I’d have a bit of shell shock.

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This entry was posted on September 3, 2013 by in America, DC, Self Analysis and tagged , , .

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