How My Dad Taught Me to Be Fearless With My Hair

My dad doesn’t look like the typical dad you hear about on TV shows or in Hallmark cards. I’ve never seen him wear a Polo shirt, Dockers, or one of those cell phone belt clip things. Instead, he dresses much like he did when he went to Woodstock in 1969: with lots of denim (sometimes double-dipping jeans with chambray tops à la a Canadian tuxedo), Western prints, and a paisley tie if he has to get formal. For most of my life, I’ve associated my dad with one specific feature: his chest-length hair, which he often secured in a ponytail.

I was born in 1995 – the era of bushy, Tom Selleck mustaches and John Stamos mullets. Until I was 8 years old, my dad wore both styles (excellently, I might add). Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but back then, I had no political consciousness. (I was a third grader from the boonies of New Hampshire who only watched the evening news because I had a fairly inappropriate crush on Peter Jennings.) The reason I really remember Operation Iraqi Freedom is because it inspired my dad to grow out his hair. He said he wouldn’t cut his ponytail until the war was over.

This was the second time my dad had made such a declaration. The first was in the late ’60s, when he grew it out as a form of silent protest against the Vietnam War in college. His jet-black ends jutted out like a lion’s mane; if he came of age in the Instagram generation, he definitely could have been a supplement influencer. (Biotin, sponsor him). The Vietnam War ended in 1975, and it outlasted my dad’s long hair. Eventually he cut it on a whim to please his father before a family member’s funeral.

Thirty years later and the length was back, and it became his most recognizable feature. At some points, my dad’s hair was longer than mine, and he was the one who taught me how to style my own. He’d patiently brush out the wet knots on my head come bedtime (a routine I deeply despised) while we spoke about important topics, like which Ghostbuster was the cutest (vintage Dan Aykroyd, obviously) and how fractions objectively suck but I still needed to do my math homework. We’d steal each other’s hair ties.

My dad’s jet-black hair jutted out like a lion’s mane; if he came of age in the Instagram generation he definitely could have been a supplement influencer

On a beautiful Spring day in 2011, when I was a junior in high school, my father opened his work computer (he was in human resources) to find an email with an Excel spreadsheet attached. It listed 300 names of employees he had to lay off. What’s worse, the doc sent to him was unedited – and his name was on the list, too. With grace beyond my teenage comprehension, he continued to work that week, giving 100% and not cutting any corners, knowing he’d be unemployed by Friday. Not even a Ghostbuster could be so heroic. Undeterred – or perhaps inspired – by the trauma of losing your livelihood when you have a family to support, my dad bounced back into the job search with the enthusiasm of a Summer camp counselor. His first order of business? Cutting off his ponytail, which he said may not be “corporate enough” to wear on interviews.

I dreaded the day of his hair appointment, but my dad treated the excursion as casually as us going to pick up a pizza. As I sat in the passenger’s seat of our Toyota Camry complaining about how the chop would render him unrecognizable, he shrugged. “It’s just hair,” he said, flicking on his car blinker as we turned into the salon parking lot. “It always grows back.”

At the salon, I watched as my dad chatted up his hairstylist Alex, laughing through conversation as strands of hair fell onto the salon floor, and I felt surprisingly at ease. The deed had been done, but the world was still spinning – no seismic earthquake had thrown me off my chair, or changed the fact that we’d still go home and have dinner like any other night. After the cut, he joked about his new look; how he could finally feel the breeze on the back of his head. The ponytail was gone, but my dad remained unchanged.

Days later, he aced an interview and landed a brand-new job – and he’s been happily working there for seven years. While these days he opts for short hair out of preference, I’ve since followed his impulsive approach to styling: My hair has been dyed six times, layered, cut, highlighted, balayaged, Overtoned, and thrown in pigtails or a messy bun. Back in high school, before my dad decided to grow his out, I would stringently heat style my hair. I wouldn’t even run to the grocery store without doing some sort of curl. Now, I go to weddings in a three-day-old blowout without so much as a thought.

A few weeks ago, when I impulsively asked my hairstylist for bangs and a shag because I wanted to look like Zendaya, I quickly learned that I am not, in fact, Zendaya – and the cut on me presented more like a mullet, staring back at me in the salon mirror. I immediately missed my lob, which felt more romantic and ethereal in that moment than the harsh, layered, neck-length look I had now. But that day, as I stepped out onto the SoHo street, I resolved to learn how to blow out my new style, stood a little taller, and smiled. Like my dad said, it always grows back.

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