"Short Hair Is For Boys!"
—Stephanie K. Yee
Instructor’s Comment: By the time Stephanie wrote this essay for UWP 18, we had studied many professional efforts, including some on personal experience and identity by writers such as Gary Soto and Amy Tan, as well as prize-winning student essays published in previous issues of Prized Writing. Stephanie produced excellent work on the analytical assignments prior to this first-person option late in the term. She also evinced strong interest in principles of style, visiting office hours to discuss these and to elicit feedback on her drafts. It is tempting to say that she was an ideal student, but it was more than that. She assiduously practiced the ethic and habits of a working writer. Although it was a happy development, it was no surprise when she combined reflection and dialogue in a lucid narrative enhancing our understanding of how we come to see ourselves and others as we do.
—Donald Johns, University Writing Program
I remember my first Barbie doll, the “Bubble Angel Barbie.” She had a pair of blue, detachable plastic wings with holes for bubble-making, and a matching blue angel outfit decorated with glitter. In the commercials, she would “fly” merrily in the garden, an assortment of transparent spheres trailing after her in different sizes. What I admired the most about her was her hair, the long, silky blonde threads that I took much care shampooing and blow-drying when they got dirty. How I loved to comb her hair each time after taking her out of her box, braiding and unbraiding her strands, tying and untying the rubber bands, wrapping and unwrapping her ponytail, wishing I could do the same things to mine . . . but I couldn’t. I had short black hair.
I hated my short hair. It wasn’t the fashionable style of Victoria Beckham’s or the sophisticated look of Julie Andrews’s, but the “mushroom cut” that the British boy band, the Beatles, had, though with shorter bangs. Ever since I was born, I have always had masses upon masses of dark, black hair. As my mother tells me, it was the first thing that caught everyone’s eyes in the hospital. With such an unruly mass growing on my head, there was only one thing to do: keep it short. My hair never grew past the tip of my chin, and for several years that did not bother me. For one thing, my mother had an easier time washing my hair; for another, no one teased me in preschool, as there were other girls with short hair. But kindergarten came around, and everything changed when I met Caitlin Yip.
Six years. That is how long the bullying lasted, the incessant teasing and ridicule by the one and only Caitlin Yip. I never understood why she always singled me out during lunchtime, or during small breaks we had. Within the first week of kindergarten, she zeroed in on me like a hawk, and one day she approached me and asked, “Are you a boy?” I cocked my head to the side, puzzled. Did she not see me wearing the dress uniform for girls? Perplexed, I answered in the negative. She sneered and crossed her arms. “Everyone knows all girls have long hair. You have short hair, so you’re a boy!” She began to laugh and point at me. “You’re a boy-oy, you’re a boy-oy,” she merrily sang. Hurt, I retorted, “Mrs. Henderson [our teacher] has short hair too. Is she a boy?” Caitlin shook her head emphatically. “She’s a teacher; that’s different.”
Looking back, I see how Caitlin’s response was indeed ridiculous, for female teachers do not have special privileges to short hairstyles, but at the time, I believed her. I believed everything Caitlin said for the months following that initial encounter because everywhere I looked (at school, in stores, on TV), all the girls had long hair and all the boys had short hair. And every day, I would go home, lock myself in the bathroom, and cry. I would cover my mouth with my hands so that no one would hear the sobs escaping my throat. Why oh why could I not have long hair like my friends, like the other “normal girls” in my class, like my “Bubble Angel Barbie” doll? I would yank fitfully at my hair, believing that if I pulled hard enough, my hair would suddenly grow past my chin, past my shoulders, past my elbows to the tips of my fingers. I did not want to be seen as a boy anymore. I wanted to be seen as a girl—a girl with long hair.
As the days, weeks, and months flew by, Caitlin’s teasing never ceased. She took every opportunity to say something about my hair, and I, at the tender age of five, could not handle her taunts any longer. I turned to my friends, my dear sweet friends who never teased me about my hair, for comfort, but in vain. They often spent the entire lunchtime eating and talking, and although I sat with them, I spent most of my time listening and munching on my sandwich. Cable TV. Chinese School. Those were a couple of topics my friends covered each day and I seldom took part in their conversations. I didn’t have cable TV, so I couldn’t talk about the latest Hey, Arnold! episode. Instead, I was stuck with the good ol’ educational TV station, KQED. Arthur and Antiques Roadshow made up my world. Then there was Chinese school. While my friends met up and walked to their lessons together after school, I went to my own Chinese school—right at home. Once I stepped into the house, English became a foreign language to me as I greeted my mother in Cantonese before helping her with household chores. This was the kind of life I had, and while my friends grew closer through their camaraderie, I sat by myself in my own little world, with nothing to share.
Caitlin noticed this and would whisper and laugh with her friends while keeping her hawk-like gaze on me. One day, I had enough; there was only one thing left to do. While sitting on the corner of the bench I shared with my friends, I gobbled up my lunch as quickly as my stomach would allow before leaving to chase boys around the yard. Why hang out with girls when I no longer felt like a girl? I couldn’t engage in conversations with my friends. I didn’t have long hair like the other girls in my class. Caitlin was right; I was a boy.
Slowly, I started rejecting everything that defined “girlyness” and embraced everything that defined “boyness.” I refused to wear dresses. I refused to wear pink. I despised Hello Kitty. I only wore pants (with the exception of my school uniform). Blue became my favorite color. I began hanging out with my dad, fixing the car, repairing the fence in the yard, checking the water and gas pipes, doing “manly work.” I stopped playing with my Barbie doll.
This went on until one day, near the end of fifth grade, we received our report cards. I was eleven by then, and I had Mrs. Hummeling, one of the meanest teachers in the school. She had a horrible, nasty temper, her loud voice barking at us to stay quiet while we worked. It was hard to imagine that she liked any of us, and even more difficult to picture her smiling . . . until that day. Every quarter, our teacher would hand out our report cards, with comments on the back. As I scanned mine after receiving it, I stumbled upon a word that I could not decipher, so I went up to her and asked. She read, “It’s difficult to get her to smile—when she does, it’s like sunshine.” Then she smiled at me, a wide toothy grin.
I was speechless. Was it really that hard to make me smile? It only takes one muscle (or so I am told). Was I really in such an unhappy and dispirited state? Here was one of the meanest teachers in the school, one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met, and she wanted me, a girl with short hair who chased boys around at lunchtime, to smile more. At that moment, I wanted to cry, cry because I allowed Caitlin’s teasing to control my life, making me a quiet and detached student. I stared at my teacher, who was smiling, and I was shocked to see how kinder and prettier she looked. A smile really can do wonders.
Today, I make smiling a priority. It is so easy, and life looks a whole lot brighter and cheerier. Granted, I still enjoy hanging out with the boys (in fact, most of my friends are male), but I have grown closer to my female friends as well. And my short hair. Ironically, I really miss it. As for my “Bubble Angel Barbie” doll, I eventually grew out of playing with it (I managed to lose both of her angel shoes and break one of her wings over the years), but now and then, I take her out and comb through her long, silky blonde threads, admiring the way it falls gently back down behind her back.