By Halle Murcek
“It’s literally just hair."
I think that’s where it all began. There were so many ways I wanted to rebel against my parents because it was what all the cool kids were doing, even in college. There would be that moment you’d come home for vacation, and your parents would expect you to look exactly like the same child they left six months previous to fend for herself in the “real world.” But that’s never how it actually turns out, is it?
Let’s back up and start with my hair. It’s brown. Not brunette. Not chocolate. Not auburn. Not chestnut. It is brown. Like the color of bark on a random tree. Somewhere between middle school, junior high, and high school my hair went from shoulder length to almost below my armpits. When I discovered the flat iron, it was essentially decided I would never cut my hair again.
I was always getting compliments on how beautiful my hair was, long, luxurious. It held curl well, had a natural wave to it that I got from my mother, that I could wear beachy in the summer humidity, and then straighten into an impossibly long sheet of buttery locks. I was the girl whose hair other people wanted to braid and play with. Strangers would stop me while I scanned grocery store aisles. “Don’t ever change your hair. Never cut it.” As it if it were something sacred, strangers and acquaintances would tell me it would be a devastating thing to cut my hair, that people killed for hair like mine, would pay thousands of dollars for hair like mine. Looking back now, part of me wonders if I guilt-tripped myself into keeping my hair as long as I did for those exact reasons, the compliments, the sheer praise. As if I would somehow turn into a bad person if I changed it in any way.
Part of me believed that if I changed my hair, people would forget about me all together. My hair was my identity — I felt, as cliché as it sounds, like Rapunzel. I was a shy girl through most of my teenage years, and it followed me to college as well. My body changed rapidly in these years too: I grew, thinned out, then bulked up. After struggling with body image issues, my hair became something that shrouded me. I let it fall in my face and around my shoulders. It became a mask. Then a cape. It was something that hadn’t changed on my body for the longest amount of time.
It was close to the end of summer and I had just had my seasonal “trim” with my hairdresser back at home (I only trusted her). When I came home that night, I made the choice. It was time. I folded my hair under itself and pinned it so it fell just under my chin, a fake bob, and looked in the mirror. It only took me five minutes to pick up the phone and book another appointment for the end of the week. I knew when I first decided to cut off all of my hair that I would, without question, donate it. “People would do anything for hair like yours," echoed in my head. Why let it go to waste? I wanted to help someone, and if I could give them a piece of me, this was the way to do it.
There were countless times growing up, before I left to go to the hairdresser, that my father would say “just not too short.” I decided he didn’t need to know until after I had done it. My mother went with me. “Just as long as it’s what you want to do. Remember, there’s no going back.”
“Mom, it’s hair. It will grow back if I don’t like it.” But I knew I was also reassuring myself.
The first time, I cut about 12 inches off, which put my hair just above my shoulders. People didn’t recognize me at first. And when they did, it was something like pure shock. I don’t think anyone actually believed I would do it. When I went back to college, I don’t remember anyone making a big fuss about it, but the people who knew me knew it was significant. I had done it not just because I was bored but also because I was shedding, becoming my own person. There was a part of me that I left behind in cutting off my hair. I could feel my face. The heaviness I used to walk around with was patiently detaching itself. I felt confident about tossing around my hair, flicking it off of my shoulders. Part of me felt people could see me, finally see me.
Once it started, I couldn’t stop. It took me a good solid year to really let it become part of me. Then, I hit the ground running. Soon it was so short I was nearly hitting pixie status. I didn’t use the same hairdressers. I tried out a different one each time, each doing their own interpretation of my short hair.
And my parents hated it. There was one point when I went from a long bob to a boyish shag. My father didn’t have to say much. “It’s just so short. You just don’t look like yourself anymore.” But what was myself? I decided I didn’t care. I dyed it dark, nearly black, after I graduated from college and moved to Detroit. I was on my 4th tattoo and second nose ring. I dressed somewhere between grunge and hipster. I wore quite a bit of eyeliner. There was a point where my hair had gotten so thin and close to my scalp I would get cold. But Detroit loved it. I wore red lipstick and silk, backless tops when I went out, and people told me I was bold and beautiful for wearing my hair that way. I felt chic, like I could move to New York and blend in at any point.
There were countless times in my life I said I would never be blonde. But one day at my regular monthly appointment, I asked Johnny, my hairdresser who saw me through each change, what he thought about blonde. I left that day with shades of color in my hair that I’d never had before. When I passed by store windows, I felt cleansed somehow. Eventually I became blonde, full fledged. When it was time for me to make the decision to stay in Detroit or pursue graduate school in New York I made one last choice, I would grow my hair long again. This was one of the biggest decisions I had made in my life. I was moving to New York, the place I wanted to live since I was 13 years old, and I was leaving my then boyfriend behind. I had built a life in Detroit and I could have easily stayed, but I needed to move on. And with that, my hair needed to make the change too.
I waited months and months before cutting it, and when I made the trip to the hair salon in my new home, not only did I made it very clear that I was never going to have short hair again, I wanted my brunette back. I was a studious graduate student, focused on her future and I wasn’t being taken seriously because of how I looked. “I’m so glad I actually got to talk to you after class because now I know you’re actually a very intelligent woman,” said one of my classmates one night after workshop. Was he serious? Yes, he was. “You know, you see a blonde, attractive girl who is a little quiet and you just assume she’s either pretty or smart. But now I see that you’re both!” I couldn’t believe that stigma was still out there. So, back to brown I went. Between the comments by my classmates and a boy breaking my heart, I was in transition. I pledged to never cut my hair again and that I would stay brunette forever.
Then I became a SoulCycle instructor. Part of what we do is hugely based on our style. We cultivate personas on the podium, tear up t-shirts, let our makeup run or wear none at all. Some of us are known for wearing our hair down in class and tossing it around, “hairography.” (Karyn and Emily T and Madeline, ladies you rock that.) As I went through training I was notorious for piling my then armpit length hair on top of my head into a tight top-knot like a ballerina. More times than not, the weight of my hair and sweat made it about 5 minutes into class before toppling lopsided. I tried the hairography, but looked more like Cousin It then a sexy spin goddess (and let me tell you it is NOT cute to choke on your own hair). So I started wearing it in a braid over my shoulder. That was my look as I struggled through my first 6 months on the schedule. As I hit some major roadblocks and rough patches trying to find myself as an instructor, I knew what I had to do. It was time for another change. And it was just as spontaneous as the first time. After donating another 12 inches again, I walked into my next class and whipped my sweaty hair around my face, flinging sweat onto the mirror behind me. And I have to tell you, it's one of the most liberating feelings in the world.
Becoming an instructor, not worrying about having makeup on, or what you look like, but really, truly embracing that raw edge of you in that room, it’s become one of the things that has truly made me comfortable in my own skin. As women, we are constantly bombarded with images and advertising that tells us we will never be enough. We have to be this thin, we need this shade of lipstick to make men want to kiss us, our asses are too flat or not round enough, our hair has to be shiny and voluptuous, we have to look this put-together. Heaven forbid we walk outside without a stick of makeup on our face, with yoga pants and a ratty old t-shirt from college. Coming into that room and being with people at their most vulnerable, their most raw, looking in that mirror and seeing yourself sweat and exert something from deep inside you, that is the most beautiful, sexiest version of yourself there is.
One thing I have been telling my classes lately, that I am still working on myself, is to stop trying to fix everything. Let your hair be in your face, let your skin flush different shades of red and pink, let the sweat make dark stains on your shirt. You are a piece of artwork that is always changing and THAT is what is beautiful.
I bleached my hair a few weeks ago. This is the most blonde I have been to-date, and I actually feel the most confident I have in 28 years of my life. My eyes are bigger and brighter, I walk taller, and I no longer tolerate comments like “Oh I figured you were stupid because you’re blonde.” Beauty really is skin deep. And if you don’t shine from the inside first, nothing else matters.
Halle Murcek is a total music geek, and spends every single free moment researching and writing about music. Music has become such a HUGE part of her life, and what she writes about now. She is also a SoulCycle instructor, and you can find her whipping her hair around and banging on the handlebars in Williamsburg and NYC.