(*Originally posted on Facebook, March 22, 2017)
I received such overwhelmingly positive reactions to my hair that I feel the need to speak about why I was moved to tears by those lovely comments, multiple times. If you’d like, come along and let me tell you why for the past few years, I have always cut my hair when it gets long enough to put up in a bun.
The Summer of 1999, the Philippines:
My little family was on a ship bound for Bacolod City from Metro Manila, my mother, my brother, and I. I remember looking at Manila getting smaller as we sailed further out, wondering where my bioDad was and why he didn’t say goodbye that day. Many years later, I would hear conflicting things from my parents: my Mom says he knew what time we were leaving but he never showed up, my bioDad says he missed it because of the famed Manila traffic. I mean, hey, they’re both right. But as a little kid, all I remember is that he didn’t make it on time to say goodbye.
My family and I were in the ship’s economy class, which at the time consisted of a hall of bunk beds spaced a few feet apart on one of the ship’s upper decks. I remember loving those accommodations because you could see and hear the ocean constantly, and I could look down into the water and daydream. One of our fellow passengers told me that the patches of darker water that we occasionally spotted in the lighter green sea meant that those parts were deeper than others, and I could never make sense of that.
My hair on that trip was already long – from old photos, it looks as if it draped a few inches below my shoulders – and I was blissfully unaware that my arrival in the city I would eventually call home heralded a twelve-year period in my life when that hair would go uncut. Why would I be thinking of my hair back then, you know? I was nine, moving from Manila to a city located in Western Visayas, starting a new school that June. There were other things to think about, other things to be excited for.
It was hot but breezy, and the pier was chaotic and bustling. My family finally arrived at Bacolod City after a three-day trip by a passenger ship.
A few weeks later, when we were settled in at my aunt’s place, my Mom left for Hong Kong to continue her work as a nanny for a wealthy family, and my brother and I, ages 5 and 9 respectively, were left in the care of our aunt with the agreement that she would take care of us. In return, my Mom would send money to cover living expenses, tuition fees, and some extra leftover.
My tita and her family were religious, their lives deeply embedded in the fabric of the church. Their particular brand of Christianity is called Pentecostalism. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s a sect of Christianity where women are not allowed to cut their hair, amongst other restrictions, and Acts 2:38 was the defining Bible verse of the organization. I was never asked if I wanted to attend this church. I was made to, by dint of being young, and more importantly, because I was living under her roof – and so, by her and the church she worshipped at, my life was shaped and moulded.
::Please keep in mind that I am speaking to my own experience. Your encounter with religion might have been different – and I certainly know people who are happy in it, who find comfort in the community, and who are good people. I am not writing this to defame or criticize religious beliefs or practices, but to speak about how my upbringing has led to my complicated relationship with my hair.::
So for years, from when I was 9 to when I was 21, I was made to grow my hair out as a sign of obedience to God’s will. I often kept it pulled back in a bun. But as I got older, and began to read more, I began to notice that I was part of a community that didn’t encourage critical thinking beyond parsing what Bible stories meant, nor did the people in charge take critique easily. One of my favourite little anecdotes to illustrate this is how my pastor used “humans use 10% of their brain” in his preaching one Sunday, and when I went to speak to him after the service (I was a student nurse at the time) about how that’s just not true biologically, he shrugged it off and said, in a very lofty tone, “if we all used 100% of our brains, we would have accomplished more as a church.”
I need you to understand this from my perspective – for the entirety of my youth, I belonged to a church of fewer than 100 people. My life, both socially and spiritually, was caught up in a net of restrictions, of disapproval, of people who were distrustful of my love of books that weren’t biblical.
Simultaneously, for twelve years, I was in a household where the matriarch doled out emotional and psychological abuse almost on the daily. I was repeatedly told I would get pregnant early and never become successful, in a voice intentionally raised so that the next-door neighbours heard it. The situation exploded to the point that the church elders attempted to stage an intervention – and the pastor did not believe me when I expressed how bad my aunt was behind closed doors. Perhaps it had to do with the rumours she had spread amongst the congregation saying that I was a liar and not to be trusted. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that she and the pastor were close friends, and he was among the first people she would gift things to whenever my mother send home balikbayan boxes. But my aunt, dear reader, was manipulative in ways I can’t even begin to describe, and perhaps in ways I can’t really imagine. All I know is that I felt so alone and so helpless. I began to question how godly my pastor really was, and how genuine his relationship with God could be, if he couldn’t even tell that I was telling the truth.
This is not to say that there weren’t good people in that church. I know there were at least four to six people who believed me. But all of them were women – who did not really have positions of authority within that church’s hierarchy – and while some of them were willing to listen, none of them stood up for myself and my younger brother.
It was hell.
I hope you see where I’m going with this.
The Winter of 2017, Toronto:
When I turned twenty-three, I decided, this is it. I’m in Canada now, and I have no reason to keep this charade going. I am going to cut my hair. I am going to cut it, and it is going to feel so good. I am going to feel so free. And so I did. I cut it to shoulder length, having it cut shorter and shorter every few months until I finally took the plunge and got a super short pixie in March 2017.
There is a photo on my Instagram account somewhere that shows me with my head tilted to one side, my hair tied up in a bun. I’m in my McDonald’s crew uniform in that photo, and I took it while I was on break. It’s captioned, “This is the last week I’ll be wearing a bun.”
Hair, for me, is never just about my hair. My hair is a symbol: of a past life that I loved and lost, of emotional abuse by an authority figure, of being in a church where life was controlled in more ways than just spiritually. I tried living what was their biblical interpretation of an “acceptable” woman – non-confrontational, submissive, not too ambitious. It is a problematic environment when the highest position a man can aspire to is a pastor, and a woman, a pastor’s wife.
My twenties have been a whirlwind of self-discovery. It’s still happening. I’m still changing. For the better, I hope. But right now, as a young woman of twenty-six – I’ve made conscious decisions to change, drastically. I am ambitious, and as the people who know me will say, I am so fucking stubborn. I have a tendency to choose life paths I know are going to be difficult adventures. It’s been great fun, this whole figuring-out-who-I-am thing, especially with the love and guidance of friends and family.
And I will never wear a bun again.