Why I chopped off my hair during the pandemic to try to reinvent myself

By Chanize Thorpe

Cutting my long locs in the wake of COVID-19 led to a discovery of a new grade of hair and a fear my short style wouldn’t be accepted in the dating world.

For two decades I had permanent dreadlocs—a style that can usually only be removed by cutting off the majority of one’s hair. Seeking a change and knowing I couldn’t maintain my locs during the COVID-19 pandemic, I lopped it all off. The result was both elation and terror looking at my new ‘do. Omg, what have I done? was the big question. That was followed by the harrowing thought that I’d be considered unattractive to people who like long hair. 

As a 48-year-old African-American woman, I’ve had a lifelong struggle with my hair. When I was a young girl, I had to endure hot-combing to “tame” my thick head bush. It was a process that was popular for little Black girls back in the day—one that many grew to hate. The sizzling comb was heated on the stove and applied to our “nappy” hair, as we suffered through sitting very still, the smell of scorching hair, and nervousness when the hot comb came close to your ear or forehead. (I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been burned by a hot comb.) The idea was to straighten it out, based on the belief that straight hair made you look more “presentable” to the world. 

Relaxers in my teens were a nightmare of chemicals designed to break down what seemed like a bird’s nest. I used to go to a salon called Black Hair Is, in Harlem—on a Saturday, you’d see dozens of women getting the “creamy crack” applied to their scalp. At 25, I chose to grow dreadlocs, a natural style requiring minimal maintenance, as I was tired of the effort required by relaxers. It felt like I was in the salon every two weeks. I decided that Mother Nature obviously wanted me to do something different: go natural. It seemed I had finally found the perfect style for me.

However, 22 years later, after traumatic events, including a bitter divorce, I ached for a change. I believed my hair was holding in decades of bad energy, so I decided to make the Big Chop. I cut my shoulder-length hair off with only an inch of virgin hair left and had it styled into a little afro. I wanted to start again and build healthier roots for my scalp and more importantly, my soul.

I found my stylist, Andre Tinnie, a natural hair expert based in Brooklyn, NY, about ten years earlier when my previous stylist had started doing more weaves and didn’t have time to see me. Several people in my Facebook dreadloc group had recommended him. Andre has performed his fair share of life-altering cuts. “My clients normally feel a sense of relief, liberation, and that a burden has been lifted off their shoulders,” he says. Some had different reactions. “They had total regret at first, then after a few weeks they embraced the change.” In true fashion, when sitting in a hairdresser’s chair, a form of therapy happens.

I went to the salon. Andre knew what I was going to do, so he made sure I was his only client for a number of hours. He sat me in the chair and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. I looked in the mirror for a minute, took a deep breath, and said yes. He turned the chair away from the mirror and started cutting. My stylist didn’t let the hair fall to the floor, though, and put the locs in a bag. After he finished cutting, he took me to the sink and applied dye to my hair. I still didn’t know what I looked like. I think he didn’t want me to see until he finished. 

When he turned the chair to the mirror, I gasped and some tears fell, but it looked better than I thought it would. I gave him a big hug when I left. I couldn’t stop looking at myself in store windows; on the subway, I wondered if people could tell what I had just done. I kept looking at the bag of hair and couldn’t believe how long it was. When I got home, my friend shrieked that she loved it. I shed a few more tears, but I was smiling too.

I’m still trying to adjust to my new short hair and a curl pattern I never knew I had (4c); I didn’t love it at first, because it was such a dramatic change. After having had hair past my shoulders, it’s quite an adjustment to now have a small afro. Managing without my stylist during the pandemic has been difficult to say the least. I don’t feel comfortable making the two-hour trek to see him, which would require me to either drive and struggle to find parking in New York City, or take mass transportation several times, wear a mask, and fight off the panic of being in an enclosed space. Right now I feel vanity isn’t that important. Besides, it’s not like I’m going anywhere special any time soon. 

So I’m maintaining my pandemic haircut by myself and belong to a hair styling group to get advice and ideas on different techniques that were foreign to me before I made the chop. It’s refreshing to see so many Black women showing how beautiful short and natural hair can be. I feel there’s also more acceptance in the media, more people who have embraced natural hair and look amazing.

But I wasn’t expecting the amount of criticism I received from family and people I dated. They lamented my lack of long locs with surprised comments of “Why did you do that?” It made me feel like my hair was something people associated me with, and I didn’t like that. The most hurtful comment from a male family member was: “You look like a man.” 

After I made the chop, I posted a picture on social media and said, “New year, new ‘do.” Most of the responses were positive. There were a few “Omg” comments, and “Where’d your hair go?” was a common question. The “Why?” remarks came mostly from men, and I said that I wanted a new start but didn’t get defensive. I believe a lot of men feel women should have long hair; it’s almost as if they fetishize it. When family members criticized me, it stung a little, but I didn’t give them the satisfaction of getting angry and instead just changed the subject. Ultimately, I didn’t regret my choice. 

My stylist has had plenty of discussions with women who were afraid their partner wouldn’t be attractive to them anymore after cutting off their coiffure. I can relate to that feeling. Even though we were divorced, my ex-husband felt the need to share his thoughts on my change—though I never asked him for his opinion. I had straight hair when we met. When I’d told him what I was going to do, he wasn’t pleased. His comments made me wonder if I’d find another partner who would accept me as I am. I was self-conscious when looking for a potential romantic partner in the dating scene; my anxiety worsened when folx would check out my social media pics and videos. 

I’ve realized several things during this pandemic. I’m not alone in feeling the need to reinvent myself, no matter if it’s a haircut, job, or relationship. The decision to make the “Big Chop” was highly personal, and having support has made the transition easier. My best friends, my new partner—who has short hair, like me—and my online hairstyle community have been instrumental in praising my hair and reaffirming that I made the right decision. I now know that I’m not alone in feeling conflicted about my choices, and I’m excited for things to come. It’s getting easier for me to understand that it’s just hair. Hopefully, I’ll get to know more about the person most important on this journey—me.

Chanize Thorpe is a New York-based lifestyle editor and writer. A former Air Force dependent, she has spent over two decades traveling the world, contributing to both national and international publications as well as a variety of websites. Her work has appeared in outlets from Brides Magazine to Shondaland.com. She is the mother of two women and a proud member of the LGBQTIA+ community. 

This essay is an adapted excerpt from The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: Gen X Women on the Brink. Buy the book here!

Illustration by: @loveiswiseillu

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