When I was little, I really wanted butt-length hair — hair like Ariel’s in The Little Mermaid or Estella’s from Great Expectations. I thought it was the essence of prettiness. Maybe you had the same dream. Maybe Amy March’s cries of “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty!” haunt you every time you get a haircut. But I’m here to tell you that Amy was a savage and that in real life, having butt-length hair is like being haunted by a ghost whose star sign is Leo: You don’t want to give it any extra attention, but you don’t have any choice in the matter.
My mom was my dream’s No. 1 hater. She grew up in the rigid Taiwanese school system, which enforced hair lengths and uniforms, and to her, it was improper for little girls to have hair longer than shoulder length. She also dreaded having to detangle my hair knots and had no interest in playing with my hair or giving me the ribbon braids or elaborate fishtail braids I begged for. When I was a teen, she told me the more hair you get cut during a haircut, the better value it is. Why have the hairstylist “dust” your ends when you could really make him work for his money and give you a Little Orphan Annie haircut?
My mom had less oversight over my beauty decisions as I got older, yet my long-hair dreams were still difficult to achieve. When I worked in the financial-consulting world, long hair wasn’t seen as professional. There are no female CEOs with long hair, unless they work in philanthropy (like Laurene Powell Jobs). Really, long hair is a professional asset only if you’re in entertainment, like Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj, and even their butt-length hair is a temporary style whim thanks to extensions and weaves. To actually grow long, beautiful hair from your head, you have to cultivate it. Every inch must be literally conditioned. It takes real effort, making it a powerful signifier of impracticality, extra-ness, and leisure. It’s a status symbol, but what it says is “I have incredible amounts of free time.”
So even when I finally left the corporate world to pursue writing, I never had a period of time when my hair could grow unencumbered. Then came the pandemic, and I stayed home and stopped getting haircuts.
I didn’t really think about my forgotten childhood dreams until I noticed a weird tickle on my back one day. Was it the beginning of an allergic reaction? A friendly ghost in my new apartment? No, it was my hair, which now officially reached my tailbone. I was appalled but secretly thrilled. I was a modern-day Empress Sisi, the Austrian royal famed for her abundant hair. I had done it, and without having to eat gummy vitamins like candy or choke down hundreds of giant hair pills.
For the first few months, I loved it. My hair was a cape. My hair was a nonprehensile tail. I could flick my hair, like an indolent, spoiled cat flicking its tail, to make a point. Brushing my hair felt like a spa experience. Pulling apart split ends during Zoom calls became my new hobby. On my Instagram, people started telling me I looked like Rapunzel or a mermaid, even though I was becoming concerned that I looked more like a sister-wife.
But my hair was turning into an additional, spectral being whose sole responsibility and care fell to me, and being neither rich nor a woman of leisure, I wasn’t sure I could properly care for a dependent (or two, if you include my skin, which I indulgently spoil as part of my job). During the loneliness of lockdown, it felt soothing to pet myself sometimes. But I wasn’t always the best hair mom. Once, I got a chunk caught in the zipper of my coat and had to cut it out, and I swear I could feel the hair ghost getting sulky. It snarled at me one day when I turned too quickly and got caught on my friend’s zippered book bag. Another time, I got trapped in a hoodie because I thought a tangle was an arm opening. The hair ghost’s response to that: “Smooth.”
And the ghost was a bad sleeper. Every night, I had to fan out my hair and make sure it was settled, or else I would roll onto it and wake up with a sore scalp. Hair ghost said, “Have you seen Kylie Jenner’s hair closet? I wish I was there.”
It also started to fight back. If I did jumping jacks, the ends would smack me in the face, whiplash style. My head felt as if it were a thousand degrees hotter whenever I sweated. I spent most of the summer Citi Biking, and my hair was like a wet towel by the time I arrived at a destination. I also had to wash my hair practically every day or else it had a veritable odor. The more I tried to forget about my hair, the more it cried out for attention. I baked an olive-oil cake and found a strand in it (so much for sharing it with friends). I scanned a check to do a bank deposit and had to do it again because I found a hair in the picture. I had to Swiffer after every workout because of how much hair was left on the floor.
Surely, there are worse problems to have during a pandemic. But although I technically had the free time to care about my hair, I didn’t have the mental space to worry about it. So a few weeks ago, I cut it off to a shoulder-grazing style.
“You know what I jokingly call superlong hair?” asked my hairstylist, Dhiran Mistry at David Mallett, as he snipped. “Toilet-bowl length.” I felt a flash of relief: Thank the hair gods, my ends have never dipped into a toilet.
It made me a little sad seeing my hair drop to the floor to be swept away. But I also kept envisioning the Ghostbusters using their Neutrona Wands to gently bring my dramatic hair ghost into their ghost trap. In the end, unlike Slimer, it went quietly.
I’ve had to endure all the “I’ve told you so” comments from my mother, but it does feel good to remove one small, petty worry from an extensive list and clean up fewer hair balls. Plus, I know hair grows. If I want, I can have long hair again in a year or so. But maybe this time, I’d be better suited to a bra-length hair ghost — maybe one who’s more of a Libra.