A Hairstory: Navigating Hair, Identity, Masculinity and Just Being

Four years ago this month, I woke up in the morning, walked to a mirror, and stared at myself. While looking at my reflection, I told myself this is not who I am. I grabbed my car keys, drove to the nearest hair salon and told one of the stylists to cut my long brown hair. With every strand of falling hair, a weight borne from assuming a heteronormative life seemed to be lifted. Twenty-nine years of my life were disappearing while strands of my hair were falling to the floor, including years of indoctrination. When she finished cutting my hair, I stared at myself in the mirror and for the first time EVER I finally felt liberated, sexy, and beautiful.  

At the time, I was attending UC Santa Cruz and experiencing a culture shock, feeling homesick and yearning for my life back in L.A. One night, a few weeks after I had cut my hair, my homie invited me to go clubbing in Mountain View, CA.  She knew of a spot where most of the folks that attended were brown and the club played Latino music. Of course, I thought going would be a great way for me to feel like I was back in L.A.

When we got there the music was popping!  My homie grabbed my hand and pulled me to the dance floor. The DJ was playing some good rolas and being in a space with people of color felt so good to my heart and soul.  I was so in the moment that I had forgotten about the huge transformation I had made to my physical appearance by cutting my hair.  But that night, in the midst of my happiness and joy, I was forced to confront the reality of what that meant in a violent way.

The majority of the folks dancing were women. One of them bumped into me and I leaned to say sorry.  Her friend pulled her away from me immediately.  Women on the dance floor kept their distance from me as if I was a creeper trying to hit on them.  They were all protecting themselves from me.  I didn’t know how to feel.  I had never experienced anything like this.  I was confused as to why they would have to protect themselves from me if I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I was feeling very vulnerable and confused.  

My friend and I stepped off of the dance floor so she could use the restroom. I waited for her near the dance floor. A handsome young man approached me and asked if he could buy me a drink.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it but I decided to say, “Yes”.  Why would a dude want to buy me a drink?  Did he want to be my friend?  Is he hitting on me?  My first reaction was to act flirty in exchange for the drink as I had been socialized to do.  

When we got to the bar he asked what I wanted and I said, “a beer.”  

He asked, “Why a beer? Don’t you want something else like a mixed drink?  Beer is for men.”  

“Women like beer too,” I said. This whole time I’m not even thinking about my image or how he might be perceiving me.

After a few minutes of telling me about his life he unexpectedly grabs me by the collar of my shirt and starts to pull me back and forth asking me aggressively: “Why do you want to be a man? You want to be a man, then stop acting like a little bitch!”  I had no idea what he meant by that.  

I was in shock! I’m a woman, I thought to myself. He let go of me and then I saw his fist tighten up, ready to punch me. My friend returned just then and pulled me away, and back onto the dance floor.  She hadn’t realized what had just happened.  

For the first time in my life, I felt unsafe as a woman with short hair.  I knew how to ask for help as a feminine presenting woman but now I didn’t have that.  I looked different.  In that moment, I realized that people perceive me as a woman with male attributes.  I no longer fit into one box and was forced into another. I was no longer part of the feminine world that I was once loved.

Many more similar experiences came after that, not physically violent, but spiritually and emotionally violent.   Through the process I grieved the death of the old Carla.  I had to let go of the beautiful feminine attributes that I loved about myself.  I was pushed away from things that made me who I was. I was confused and lost, not knowing how to perform this new masculinity that was pushed upon me and how to let go of what defined me before.

Who was I?  Was I to perform all these stereotypes of what it meant to be a “man”: aggressive, womanizing, tough, insensitive? These experiences forced me to perform negative stereotypes of masculinity that hurt others. It led me to not love myself for who I was and not allow myself just to be me. I hated myself and hated the way I was, even though deep inside it felt right to look masculine.

Every time I stared in the mirror, I was hoping to feel the same way I felt when I had just cut my hair.  It felt right but the rest of me didn’t.  I wasn’t feeling complete and doubted many times if what I had done was the right thing to do. I was making people suffer and I was suffering as well.

That’s when Brown Boi Project came into my life. I interviewed for a job at BBP and got the position.  One of the requirements of the job was to go through the leadership retreat and it completely changed my life!

I became part of a community that had similar experiences. I no longer felt alone.  It taught me how to break the traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity. I learned to be myself and that I didn’t have to be stuck in one gender-conforming box. Gender expression is not fixed and I learned how to break the stereotypes of femininity as being something negative and to accept femininity as part of myself. I learned how to value and honor my femininity while simultaneously embracing my new masculinity and recognizing my privilege as masculine of center.

I was no longer in a box. I was able to regain what made the old Carla and learn how to embrace the new me. It wasn’t about me being either masculine or feminine, it was about just being myself. I no longer let society dictate how I’m supposed to perform my identity. I realized that by letting society define me it was hard for me to be free and authentic. In order to be your authentic self you have to break traditional beliefs of what it means to be feminine and masculine.  

The community that I built at BBP taught me how to be and love my authentic self. It taught me how to view a whole new form of masculinity played out as well as a whole new way of loving myself by embracing both my masculinity and femininity. Regardless of what I went through, the “simple” act of cutting my hair gave me a whole new life, that at the time I didn’t know what to make of.  BBP gave me the tools to be able to make sense of myself and the world around me.  

Carla Zamarripa was born and raised in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles by her Mexican, single mother. After high school, she got a job in a clothing factory where she worked for ten years. After a serious back injury at work, she realized how unhappy she had been and how important it was for her to get an education. She motivated herself to attend community college—eventually transferring to UC Santa Cruz where she double majored in Sociology and Feminist Studies. Her upbringing, based in Los Angeles and in Mexican culture, motivated her to write her thesis and do a field study based on paisa identified, masculine Latin@s. This study aimed to highlight Latin@ masculine identity in relation to Mexican paisa cultural ties and its importance in identifying masculinity through this specific cultural expression. She currently works as the Communication and Development Manager at The Brown Boi Project.

Carla Zamarripa was born and raised in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles by her Mexican, single mother. After high school, she got a job in a clothing factory where she worked for ten years. After a serious back injury at work, she realized how unhappy she had been and how important it was for her to get an education. She motivated herself to attend community college—eventually transferring to UC Santa Cruz where she double majored in Sociology and Feminist Studies. Her upbringing, based in Los Angeles and in Mexican culture, motivated her to write her thesis and do a field study based on paisa identified, masculine Latin@s. This study aimed to highlight Latin@ masculine identity in relation to Mexican paisa cultural ties and its importance in identifying masculinity through this specific cultural expression. She currently works as the Communication and Development Manager at The Brown Boi Project.

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