The first story we hear

When I was a little girl I had short hair. Really short hair, cut like a boy; the kind you can’t put up in any kind of pigtails. Quite a lot of the time I was dressed like a boy as well, in oh-so-practical brown corduroy trousers, tan-striped jumpers and sturdy work boots or lace-up shoes. Granted, when I was very small I had to wear surgical boots and elastic twisters on a harness thing to straighten my turned-in feet, and the orthapaedic surgeon who supervised my development was the one who said I couldn’t wear party shoes like the other little girls, and the GP who treated my eczema was the one who said I couldn’t wear nylon stockings, and when it’s cold out and you’ve got big ugly boots to wear then trousers are the most practical thing to keep warm in; but it was the hair that clinched it for me. Only boys have short hair like that. I can still remember the shame I felt overhearing the words “look Mummy, that boy’s wearing a dress!”, and being told by older children, whether in spite or in earnest, “This is the girls’. The boys’ toilets are over there”.

I loved my family, and didn’t want to make a fuss, so I sat meekly in a padded chair once every six weeks and had my hair cut boy-short again, smiling tightly at my reflection in the mirror as the hairdresser showed me the back and asked my mother, “is that enough off today?”Inside though I dreamed of hair I could flick or tie or brush with one hundred strokes every morning and night, and I’d sigh, and nod, and wait for the hairdresser to brush the back of my neck so we could go home.

I knew, and I accepted, right from a very early age, that I was different, and that was my lot in life. I knew I wasn’t allowed to be a girlie girl; that pink would never be my color (“it shows all the dirt. So impractical!”), that I’d never dance (how can you go to ballet classes when you can’t wear stockings or put your hair in a bun?), and that whole swathes of beauty and wonder and femininity would never be mine, except as an outside observer.

I had a secret though. Sometimes I’d find old hairbands on the street, and I’d take them home. Once I even found an actual elastic bobble, the kind all the girls wore in their pigtails. It wasn’t that pretty, the plastic beads were just plain see-through plastic with no color, but it was a bobble nonetheless, and it was mine, my very own, and nobody could take it away from me.

I dreamed a dream that one day I’d grow my hair long. No matter what anyone said about me. No matter what I knew about myself. I knew that I’d never have hair like the other girls, but I could still give it my best shot.

This is me in the middle, aged five, with my cousin Janet whom I loved, not the least because she had such beautiful long hair.

This is me in the middle, aged five, with my cousin Janet whom I loved, not the least because she had such beautiful long hair.

I did it eventually. It took me a few years and a couple of false starts, but I started the year in grade ten with hair that, although still not long as such, was all the one length. Like a girl. The following year I got my ears pierced, and beyond that I knew that the sky was the limit, and that I could wear any kind of hair or clothes that I wanted, and nobody had the right to tell me otherwise. And so I did. I don’t have a scanner, so I can’t show you any of the outrageous outfits I wore when I was in my teens and early twenties, although some of you were there, and might probably remember. They were fun times, when the only limits on what I’d wear were budget and warmth. And even then some.

It’s a funny old life though, you know.

I read a blog post the other day. I’d swear black and blue it was by Mary de Muth, although I can’t find it anywhere on her site – it was perhaps a guest post on someone else’s. And perhaps it was someone else entirely, and if it was then I humbly apologise to the author and please let me know so I can link it here. Anyway. The blog was about how the first story we hear about someone or something is the one we accept as truth.  If the first thing you hear about someone is that they’re a liar then it’s hard to accept someone else’s story that they’re honest and true. If the first story you hear about a church is that the people are stand-offish and cliquely, then that’s what you’ll believe, even if you meet someone who tells you about a different experience. Until you can experience something for yourself, it’s the FIRST story that you hear that you believe. Everything else is filtered through that first story. I’m sorry, the author said it better originally. But it struck me as true. If your early childhood experience leads you to feel degraded and worthless, then no matter what anyone says about you after that, you’ll struggle to believe them, because it goes against that first story you heard about yourself.

I was in the bathroom the other day when it occurred to me that there are limits I’ve put on myself as an adult because inside I’m still the girl with the short hair.

I’m the woman who doesn’t go to hairdressers. They’re for people with beautiful hair.

I’m the woman who’d never buy expensive make-up. That’s for “girlie girls” and beautiful people.

I’m the woman who doesn’t wear what everyone else is wearing, because I am different. Not because I want to be, but because that’s MY first story.

I’m the woman who’s okay putting up with old and broken and dirty and mismatched, because pretty stuff is for pretty girls in party dresses, not for girls in brown corduroy trousers with short hair.

We’re in a strange place in life at the moment, and a lot is changing, not the least, me. I am changing. I bought new curtains for my daughter’s bedroom (I won’t tell you what was there before) and they looked so beautiful I nearly cried. My daughter loves them, plain though they may be, and she said “It’s like sleeping in a hotel room!” and that did make me cry, because I suddenly realised that MY first story is now influencing hers. I don’t just have a right to know the truth about myself and walk in that, I have a responsibility to others to do it too.

And so I will, and I am. This Easter holiday, when we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus died and rose again, I’m going to make darn sure that I leave my past behind, and let the real truth be the story that influences my future.