Like most of us, I’m — you know — trying to be more fully… myself. I’ve been at this for most of my 20’s, hence journaling so much I wrote a book about it and have recorded countless conversations with people I admire for their authenticity.
Until recently I existed as a social chameleon, using my empathy to mold into whatever I thought my present company desired. Essentially, I embodied Emily Flynn’s definition of a “cool girl” from Gone Girl for whomever I was with. I assume most people saw right through it, but I may have tricked some.
I still revert to this deep rooted behavior at times, but I’m aware it feels better for me and everyone when I’m fully myself, including all of my weirdness, shadow, and complexities. Last fall I committed even further to existing as my most raw, honest version of myself when I met a new mentor, Lacy Phillips of Free + Native. Lacy says there are just two things all humans want in life: connection and to be seen and loved for who we really are.
In an effort to achieve these two basic human desires that she outlined, I concluded both are impossible to achieve if any aspects of myself were hiding. How could I be loved for who I really was without allowing myself to be seen as who I was?
For me, this was a huge problem because I was hiding my true self in nearly every aspect of my life.
Hiding is my default — I do it in every way that I can. Being seen as I am and not being accepted is my greatest fear, so for most of my life I’ve hid, existing as a homogenous, likable version of myself. Simultaneously, being seen as I am and being loved is my greatest wish. With these two things in conflict my life feels chaotic, but when I let go of the resistance of showing shadow sides and just exist as myself fully, life seems to flow with much more ease.
Throughout my 20’s I’ve steadily gained self-awareness — peeling back layers to reveal my true personality to the world. The more emotionally authentic I became, the more I wanted it to mirror in my external appearance.
This internal openness made me realize I hid my physical appearance, too — in small ways like never leaving the house without makeup or obsessively painting my nails, as well as more invasive ways like dieting. To fit societal ideals I was continuously morphing myself into something I wasn’t.
For years I hid in my body, desperately controlling food and exercise to mold it into something it could never be sustainably. For even more years, I’ve altered the texture of my hair to appear different than it is naturally. This is not a radical act; in fact, most women do. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining your hair and I’m still going to do it occasionally, however, this spring, fed up with the amount of money and time I spent coloring and styling it I decided to extend my newfound authenticity to my locks.
I have naturally wavy, thick hair and figuring out how to wear it has been a struggle since I was a child. It gets frizzy in the humidity and is incredibly unpredictable; therefore, most of my life I’ve hid my natural texture with a plethora of heat tools and products and a very time consuming and expensive styling routine.
My recent urge to toss my blow dryer and let my hair dry naturally didn’t go quite as expected, however.
I imagined I’d instantly feel fresh like Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon and my hair would coil into the natural curls I had as a kid. In reality, my curls were gone and in their place a frizzy, dry, damaged mop. I felt ugly and looking in the mirror was jarring. I realized how much of my identity was tied in my physical appearance — specifically my long [fake] blonde straight hair.
I wanted to quit, book an appointment at the nearest Drybar, and return to hiding behind my hair… but I called my best friend, Simi instead.
A new mother with similar hair texture herself, Simi explained how she’d read somewhere that French women typically keep one aspect of their look “undone” — meaning they might have a perfectly styled outfit yet no makeup, or wear a red lip with unkempt hair.
We decided in that conversation that our hair would be the “undone” aspect of our looks, since for us, hair is the most time consuming part to “do.”
This simple distinction soothed me and kept me on track to stick to my goal of natural hair.
Above all, it made me feel less alone knowing I wasn’t the only woman feeling complicated emotions related to something as seemingly frivolous as hair. I became fascinated in discussing how hair affects our identity as women and how we use it to hide our true nature.
Soon after I stopping using heat on my hair my friend Katy Wright, a 28-year-old stylist’s assistant in New York chopped her long blonde hair from her hips to her ears.
“It had become what made me feel attractive — the “thing” that was special about me, so I chopped it off to see how I’d feel without it,” she said.
When she told women she was contemplating the cut they unequivocally encouraged it, while the men discouraged her.
Their feedback didn’t stop her from making the change and three months later she says she doesn’t feel any less attractive, in fact, she feels more confident and less timid than she did with long hair.
Reactions from men, societal expectations, cultural beauty standards, and fear of misgendering directly impact how most women make choices on how to wear their hair.
For Lindsey Simcik, LA-based actor and the host of the popular Almost 30 Podcast, this started in middle school when she was cast as Peter Pan and chopped her hair for the role. She shined on stage, yet behind the scenes the other kids bullied her short haircut.
“From that moment on, I have always grew my hair long,” she said. “That experience made me believe long hair meant feminine, sexy, confident, and was what guys preferred.”
She took that subconscious belief well into her 30’s until recently when she decided to chop it. She thought it could help her detach from her appearance and would give her the permission to experiment with her look whenever she wanted to — without the need of validation.
“The stylists made sure I hadn’t just broken up with someone and then proceeded to give me the most playful experience I’ve ever had in a salon,” she said. “I feel more like myself than I ever have.”
For Cat Lantigua, host of the NYC-based Chats with Cat the decision to transform her look was a bit more dire. After experiencing a terrible reaction to a chemical relaxer at 17, she realized she no longer could subject herself to hiding her natural hair texture and Afro-Latina cultural identity.
“The process of transitioning from relaxed hair opened up space for me to reevaluate how I defined beauty standards,” she remembers. “Now I can’t imagine myself without my head full of beautiful coily hair!”
While liberating, making these big changes takes courage and readiness. Starting as children we’re fed expectations from parents, society, peers, and the media of how our hair should look.
Swedish chef and stylist, Elenore Bendel Zahn realized recently that the way she’d been coloring her hair wasn’t reflective of who she really was, so she decided to stop highlighting it and returned to her natural color after years of being blonde.
“I was ready to be me, and now when I look in the mirror I see the woman I was finally ready to be and I own all parts of which empower me to grow even more,” she says of returning to her natural hair color.
Like all change, going natural can be jarring, uncomfortable, and will require patience.
Healing years of heat damage takes time, just like un-blocking the emotional layers to embrace my true personality did. I’m now willing to do the work internally and externally — and clearly I’m not alone. It’s worth all the uncomfortable and jarring moments.
As for achieving being seen and loved as I really am? I’m still working on it, but it’s a lot more likely now that I’m no longer hiding.
Katie Dalebout is a writer and host. Her podcast Let It Out which began in 2013, is a long-form interview show covering everything from wellness and spirituality to creativity and relationships. In 2018 she launched Let [a podcast] Out, a digital workshop to help people DIY podcast. She’s also the author of Let It Out (Hay House, 2016) and continues to let out her feelings in her monthly Let It Out Letter. Katie, her feelings, and all of her plants live together in Manhattan.