Off the beat: It’s time to cut the judgment

I shaved my head last week. It was kind of an accident. I’ve had long hair my whole life. I’ve spent untold hours combing, washing, brushing, drying, styling and fretting over my hair. Now, it’s barely half an inch long.

I had bleached my hair white-blonde several months ago and had since gotten sick of it. I wanted it all gone. The hairdresser gave me a pixie cut like I asked for, but there was still some blonde left. “Can you make it shorter?” I asked. “Not without shaving it,” she replied. And without really thinking about it, I nodded.

“Wow, you’re brave,” she said as she ran the buzzer over my head. “I like you.” A friend said the same thing to me a few weeks ago after I experimented with a purple dip-dye. “You’re so much more adventurous than me,” she’d said.

Their words caught me off guard: I didn’t cut my hair to make a statement or prove a point. My various hairstyles were not caused by a desire to stand out — rather, they were usually inspired by nothing but sheer boredom. Few assume that such might be the case.

But then again, this isn’t too surprising. Whether you have plain brown hair or a multi-colored mane, your dreads instantly become a reflection of your social standing, personality and identity. Especially at Berkeley, we’re used to seeing hair of every style and color: mohawks and faux-hawks, dreadlocks, afros, buzz cuts, braids, boys with long hair and girls with short hair. With each style, there are plenty of stereotypes and assumptions to follow — even at a school that is commonly perceived as relatively nonjudgmental.

Throughout history, hair has often been seen as a form of expression. From the very beginnings of civilization and in almost every part of the world, hairstyles have served as symbols of class status, religious affiliation, age, marital status, racial identification, political beliefs and attitudes about gender.

As long as hairstyles have served as identifiers for such a range of topics, hair has also long been tied to our sense of beauty — especially for females. From Aphrodite to Angelina Jolie, female icons of beauty have been known for their lustrous hair. Before I shaved my head, one of my guy friends said to me, “I definitely don’t like girls with short hair,” as though that was reason enough for every girl everywhere to cultivate a flowing mane. I know other girls who have cut their hair short only to get comments like, “But boys only like long hair.”

With my decision to cut my hair, which happened to go against the historical, social norm of having long hair, people instantly started asking me about what statement I was trying to make.

“Why did you do it?” People constantly ask. Because it’s so different, a lot of people assume that I must have had some strong reason for shaving my head. I don’t know what answer they expect to hear: that I was protesting traditional views of women, like Sinead O’Connor? Or that I suffered a mental breakdown, like Britney Spears?

The truth is, I am not trying to go against this historical, social norm. I just wanted to cut my hair. I was tired of my old hair. I was tired of paying for bleach. I had a practical need to cut my hair short. But this practical need has now put me in a position of constantly having to explain myself. It’s silly, unnecessary and ignorant to have such assumptions about others. I should not have to justify my hair length or any facet of my appearance to anyone.

Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but worry about what others think of me. Immediately after the haircut, I was shaking with adrenaline. My best friend jokingly commented that I looked like I was in shock. What have I done? What if everyone thinks I look weird? I panicked.

I’d like to believe that much of the turmoil we feel about our appearance is only internal. When I’m having a bad hair day, I try to comfort myself with the thought that few people probably notice. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. People will judge you based on your appearance, even for the traits you have no control over. Height, size, gender. Skin color. It’s not fair, but that’s how the world works.

I’d be lying if I said I never made judgments about strangers based on their appearances. Because although I certainly wish that certain exterior and physical things like one’s hairstyle didn’t carry such heavy judgment from both my peers and strangers, the choices we make about our appearance do reveal part of who we are.

Think back to the last time you got a haircut. Most of your friends and acquaintances probably responded, whether out of politeness or sincerity, “It looks so nice!” Many of the people I’ve seen instead ask me, “Do you like it?”

It’s growing on me.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.