Disability, Gender, Sexuality and Hair

When I moved from my home in Saskatchewan to Toronto to study for my Masters degree, I didn’t cut my hair. This was an act of defiance.

That may seem like an odd thing to say as a straight cisgender woman and yet it’s true.

The gendered world in which we live often says that for women to be beautiful, they should have long hair, so long hair would seem to be more of a capitulation to gender norms than a radical act. There are strong societal ties to how people view women and hair.

Long hair is feminine and beautiful whereas short hair is not, it supposedly veers into androgyny and there is a stereotype that women with short hair are lesbians. These are stereotypes that should absolutely be challenged but it is impossible to argue that society hasn’t internalized them and it changes the way people are treated.

Here’s where it gets complicated for me, I’m disabled. I have very little (if any) fine motor control over my left hand. As a result I have difficulty styling my own hair (If I can do it at all).

Disabled women’s hair is just seen as yet another inconvenience for caregivers and at times we aren’t even given a choice around our hair length and style.

As a young child, my hair was kept very short. I definitely had to rock the mushroom cut that was so common in the early nineties. When I became old enough to voice an opinion on my hairstyle, my mother let me grow it out but with the disclaimer that I was not to expect her to style it for me.

Requests for pony tails or braids were more often than not met with exasperation and refusal. On my own, I could at best pin the bangs out of my face.

My attempts to pull my hair into a pony tail were utter failures. I had to deal with loose long hair in all weather and environments, from walking down the street to hiking up a mountain. My long hair might have been beautiful but it was a source of inconvenience and discomfort.

So it is hardly surprising that at around 12 years old, I cut it all off. I had so little personal experience of girls with short hair, I provided my hairdresser with a photograph of a boy as a guide. The hairdresser spent the entire cut, lamenting the loss of my beautiful blonde hair. The message I received was clear. I was making myself uglier.

I let my hair grow out again. Basically, my youth was a series of hair extremes. I always let it grow really long, would get sick of it then cut it to a short pixie all at once. The hairdresser’s grief over cutting it, repeated each time.

When I cut it short again in high school, I started getting back handed compliments from my peers, “oh Kim, your hair is so cute…but you know boys don’t really like girls with short hair”. So in addition to feeling less attractive, I was also certifiably undesirable as well. So I grew it out again.

At fifteen I traveled with my church’s youth group to a youth gathering in BC. I had long hair and no way of controlling it myself. Some of the other girls were kind enough to put it in a pony tail for me, so that I could be more comfortable in the summer heat. For the first time in my life I started to think that occasionally asking for help wasn’t a complete inconvenience to people around me.

That all ended when we arrived at the gathering site at the University of British Columbia and I suffered a shoulder injury. I was separated from my peers because, they were participating in the conference. I was alone with one of the parent supervisors after having been taken to see the nurse. Fresh off my positive experiences with my peers I asked her to help me put my hair in a pony tail expecting a positive response. Instead she said no. I was disappointed but accepted it. Later she came back and berated me and told me that if I was incapable of doing something so simple for myself than I had no hope of being an independent adult saying she was shocked that I had even asked her. I went back to my dorm room and cried. Yet I kept my long hair throughout the rest of high school. I had however learned that long hair and independence were mutually exclusive.

After high school I participated in a youth volunteer program called Katimavik which had (until the Conservatives defunded it) Canadian youth travel around the country doing volunteer work for nine months. It was the first time I was going to live independent of family. The day before I caught my plane, I went to the salon and cut off all my hair. I didn’t grow it out again until I got back.

The next time I knew that I was going to be traveling for an extended period of time, off to the salon I went.

In my twenties I experienced some severe illness and long periods of unemployment. This stress led to the sensory symptoms of my autism going into overload. Basically as soon as my hair got long enough to cover my ears I couldn’t handle it. As a result, I consciously maintained short hair for a few years. Each time I went to the salon, I risked dealing with sexism and straight out homophobia. I was told “this will make you look like a boy” “what will your mother think?” and the golden standard of gender policing “you know boys don’t like girls with short hair”. I changed hair dressers and salons twice during this time.

After my health stabilized, I grew out my hair again. I kept it long through the rest of my undergraduate degree. During that time I spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of attempts figuring out how to get my hair in a pony tail.

I would try and fail over and over until the cramping in my left hand got so bad that I would be forced to stop. It took years. I did eventually figure it out, though it still takes me several attempts to do it successfully.

So when I moved to Toronto for my MA, even though I knew I would be away for at least a year, I didn’t cut my hair. I kept it long for the duration of the degree. Each morning I would spend several minutes forcing it into a pony tail so that it wouldn’t get in my way. My wrist would cramp but I would struggle on. It got to the point that I hated my hair but couldn’t bring myself to cut it. It felt like giving in.

I didn’t cut it again until I finished my degree and a lack of employment prospects forced me to move back home and be the stereotypical millennial living in their mother’s basement.

This time when I got it cut, I know that I have the hairstyle that I want. I got it because, I like it aesthetically though the convenience and comfort of short hair cannot be denied. This time, I was lucky in my hair dresser, she just double checked that I understood the drastic change and was sure it’s what I wanted. There was no judgement or impromptu funeral for the lost hair.

And yet, despite loving my hair I know that I do not exude femininity. A friend even complimented me on my “beautifully dikey hair”. She’s queer and did genuinely mean that as a compliment and I took it as one but it does serve as a reminder that I am not necessarily visually identifiable as either straight or cis.

Nondisabled feminists fight gender norms because they are both false and limiting. For disabled people though, they are additionally insidious. When we don’t have control over our outward appearance we are by default desexualized. As a teenager it wasn’t about being mistaken for being gay. No one even considered that my hair might be an expression of gender identity. It really was an erasure of my sexuality as a whole. Short hair just exempted me from the dating pool. It cannot be overlooked that the cultural tendency is to view disabled people as universally asexual which serves to remove them from the sexual spectrum altogether. We are not just dealing with gender normativity but ableism as well.

Even though I am happy with my hair probably for the first time in my life because I truly chose it for myself. I cannot help but be frustrated with how gender norms coupled with ableism means that my sexuality is so easy to erase and that I felt the need to suffer discomfort for years in a vain attempt to appear feminine. It is sad that it is so recent that I really started to think about how I wanted to look and not how other people would react to how I look.


Image description: Black and white photo of me (a 29 year old woman) with a disconnected undercut. shaved on the sides and back with top left longer and styled to be standing up.