It’s another long one from me, I’m afraid. The good news is, if you search for the words “clippers” or “buzzed” or “shears,” you can skip straight to the action.
All Janey DeAngelo wanted for her upcoming sixteenth birthday was pink hair.
Her family didn’t have a lot of money. She was okay with that. Both of Janey’s parents were teachers and she was proud of them for the work they did, even if vacation meant road trips to New Mexico instead of flights to Manhattan, every “new” phone was actually at least two years old, and the family lived in a house where everyone had to share the same bathroom. So she knew that she wouldn’t be getting a car of her own to mark this milestone birthday. There would be no sweet sixteen blowout bash.
Still, she felt like she had to do something big to mark the occasion. Something that would make a statement. And one day while playing with a Snapchat filter that allowed her to take selfies that featured different hair colors, she realized that one of the biggest statements she could possibly make would be dying her waist-long, jet-black hair a cotton candy pink.
The next morning, about four months ahead of her June birthday, Janey broached the topic with her parents on their way to school. From his seat behind the wheel, her father, who had started going bald by the time he was twenty and now sported what his students called the “Italian Patrick Stewart” look, deferred the question to her mother. “I don’t know, my love,” her mom said. “Your hair is in such good condition, and that much bleach could ruin it. Plus, we’re talking about several hundred dollars for the initial dye job, not to mention the amount of upkeep it’s going to require. Those fantasy colors don’t last very long.” Janey’s mom knew what she was talking about. Ever since girls started showing up in her classroom with pink and purple and blue and green hair, she’d taken note of how quickly the vibrant colors would start to fade. She could probably spring for the initial salon visit if it really was the only thing Janey wanted for her birthday, but she couldn’t imagine how she’d cover all the return trips once the color started to fade.
“Please, mom? I’ll do my research about how to keep my hair healthy and even how to maintain the color at home so I’ll only have to go back to the salon when my roots get noticeable. There’s this colored conditioning mask I know some of the girls use to keep their color bright, and the bonus is that it also prevents their hair from getting too damaged from the bleach.”
“I’ll tell you what, Janey,” her mother answered. “If you show me you can save up for everything you’ll need for upkeep—the new hair products and that mask you’re talking about and also visits to the salon every few months to get your roots touched up—then yes, you can have pink hair for your sixteenth birthday present.”
“Oh my god! Yes! Marco was just telling me that his dad needs needs another hostess at the restaurant and asked if I was interested. If it’s okay with you that I’ll be working a few nights a week, that would let me earn enough to save up for exactly what you’re talking about.”
Janey’s dad shot her mom a quick look out of the corner of his eye and gave a slight nod. “Okay,” her mom said. “If you’re willing to hold up your end of the deal, I’ll hold up mine.”
Janey started at Marco’s family’s restaurant the following week. As a hostess, she didn’t get tips, but Marco’s father paid her fairly and within a few weeks it was clear she’d be able to hold up her end of the deal she made with her parents, no problem. Every paycheck went into her savings account so there wasn’t any chance she’d inadvertently dip into her hair maintenance fund, even a little, when she was going out with her friends on the weekend.
Toward the end of the school year, Janey’s mother received good news. She had applied for a position as vice principal at a private school a few miles away from the public high school where he and Janey’s father both taught, and Janey attended classes, and she’d gotten the position. Not only did it mean a significant salary increase, it also meant that Janey could attend the school tuition-free, if she wanted.
Her parents left the decision up to her. As much as she hated the idea of leaving her friends for the last two years of high school, she knew that transferring to her mom’s new school would better position her when it came time to apply for colleges. Besides, her dad would still be at the old school and it wasn’t like she was leaving town, so she knew she’d have plenty of opportunity to see her old friends. And, she’d still have all summer to hang out with them before the school year started.
Janey’s birthday fell two weeks before the end of the spring semester, and she kind of liked the idea of making her big hair change at this time of transition. She’d be leaving her old school looking like an entirely different person than when she’d started, and entering her new school transformed.
She didn’t know what to expect when she first arrived at the salon she and her mother had decided on together. Sure, she’d had a consultation a few weeks earlier, but that was really just so the stylist, Maria, would know what she was working with in order to provide a cost estimate to Janey and her mom. But having never colored her hair before, she had no idea what the process would entail or even how long she’d be there. It was certainly a surprise to her to realize how long it would take her hair to get light enough to dye pink. She sat and sat and sat, first while Maria carefully applied bleach to small sections of her long, black hair and covered it with by strips of foil, and then for the bleach to do its thing and lift her natural color. She’d been at the salon more than an hour before she was finally led over to the shampoo area to have the the bleach rinsed out.
Her hair had been swathed in a towel after it was rinsed, so she didn’t have any idea what color her hair was until she sat back down and the stylist unwrapped her hair. She was surprised by what she saw. Her hair wasn’t blonde, per se, more of a yellow-white color. And the texture seemed to have changed, too. Normally, even when her hair was wet, it still fell smooth and shiny down her back. But now it looked oddly tousled, as if instead of having just washed her hair she had walked through a wind tunnel. As Maria began to comb through her hair’s length, Janey felt it give more resistance than usual. “Sorry,” she said to the stylist, “my hair doesn’t usually tangle like this.”
“Oh, it’s not you,” Maria explained. “It’s the bleach. Your hair cuticle is open right now, so it roughs up your hair texture and it sticks together, kind of like velcro. Don’t worry. After we do the color we’ll wash your hair with a special product that helps to close the cuticle and it will feel more or less like you’re used to.”
Janey had been imagining a soft, pastel pink when she originally had the idea to dye her hair, but at her consult Maria warned her that pastel colors faded far faster than more vibrant shades…and besides, if she chose a brighter color, it would eventually fade into a pastel anyway. So they’d landed on a bright, saturated pink color instead—not a neon shade of pink, but not far off. Now, Janey was watching as Maria carefully applied the color they had chosen at her consult to Janey’s head in much the same careful way the bleach had been, then concealed again with strips of foil. Then, there was more waiting. Another wash. Another towel wrapped around Janey’s long hair. And finally, back at Maria’s station, the color was revealed.
“Aaah!” Janey shrieked. “I love it!”
“Just wait until I finish,” Maria said, grabbing a comb and her shears. Janey had initially insisted, when she made her appointment, that she didn’t want her hair cut, only colored. But the receptionist booking her appointment, and then later Maria herself, explained that if she had any split ends at all before her hair was dyed, they’d be exacerbated by the treatment and would be more noticeable. So Janey agreed to the most minuscule of trims, and true to her word, that’s exactly what the stylist gave her, sectioning Janey’s hair and carefully trimming a quarter of an inch off of each layer she unclipped. But just as Maria was putting her shears and comb down, Janey surprised her.
“I’ve been thinking,” the newly sixteen-year-old girl said. “How would I look with bangs?”
“Does that mean you want me to give you bangs?” Maria asked, surprised that this girl who had earlier been afraid to part with even an inch of hair would be willing to lose nearly three feet, even if it was only a small section.
“Um…yeah. I think so. Yes. Definitely.”
Without another word or even any consultation about what type of bangs Janey was thinking, Maria turned the girl’s chair so her side was facing the mirror, then took a thick triangular section of Janey’s hair and combed it forward, over her eyes. Before she started cutting, Maria clipped the rest of Janey’s hair back to make sure none of the rest of the length would fall accidental victim to her shears. Placing her comb once again in what would very shortly be Janey’s bangs, Maria began to take small upward-pointing snips into the hair at the level of Janey’s eyebrows. Two-and-a-half foot strands of pink hair drifted slowly toward Janey’s lap and then fell to the floor. Her left eye was revealed first, but all Janey could see in front of her was Maria, sitting on a stool facing her and carefully crafting her new, blunt bangs. Soon enough, Janey became aware that she could see through her right eye again, and moments after that, the stylist put down her shears and comb and picked up her blowdryer and a round brush.
It took more than half an hour to dry all of Janey’s thick, long, newly pink hair and style it with the brush into loose, beachy waves. Finally, Maria was finished. She spun Janey back to face the mirror and the teenager beamed at her reflection. The pink-haired girl with blunt bangs staring back at her looked like exactly the person she wanted to be as she started her seventeenth trip around the sun and prepared to transition schools. “It’s perfect,” she said to the stylist.
Janey hadn’t told anyone at school or at work about what she was planning so when she showed up at both places the following day, she was met with looks of surprise followed by an endless stream of compliments. Even Marco’s dad, who was always so formal in his suit and tie as he strolled around the restaurant mingling with customers, praised her new look.
Time flew to the end of the school year. Janey took on extra shifts at the restaurant, and when she wasn’t working she spent every moment she could with her friends. She took extra care to protect her hair if any of those hangs involved going to the pool, not wanting her color to fade prematurely due to the chlorine or the sun. The color did fade gradually, as she’d been told it would, eventually hitting the light pink she had originally envisioned. By the time that began to fade to a sort of whitish-blonde, her roots were visible enough that it was time to revisit the stylist, who carefully bleached her roots again—it took so much less time than when she’d bleached her full head—and subsequently applied color to Janey’s hair.
Janey had realized, as her color faded, that lovely as the softer pink was, she’d really enjoyed the brighter pink and thought the more saturated color better complemented her skin tone, so she was excited to go back to a brighter shade. But she felt like mixing things up a bit and this time she and the stylist chose a fuchsia color that was still in the pink family but had definite purple tones to it. “Purples fade faster than pinks,” Maria had warned Janey before she left, “and because there’s a lot of purple in this color, you’re going to want to come see me before you’re due for another bleaching, or else you can maintain your color at home.”
Janey had been able to afford this visit because of her restaurant earnings, but she didn’t want to pay for any more visits than were strictly necessary, so she told Maria she’d handle her in-between coloring and see her in a few months when it was time to bleach her roots again. She left the salon and received even more compliments than she had when she’d first dyed her hair.
This time, as Janey’s color began to fade, she ordered one of the color-depositing hair masks she’d told her mom about, and which were advertised to her seemingly nonstop since she’d first colored her hair. It was so much cheaper than a salon visit, and seemed easy enough to handle on her own. The day it arrived, Janey spent entirely too long in the family’s only bathroom, but emerged later with once-again vibrant hair, perhaps a bit more purple than it had been when she left the salon but close enough.
The hair mask became weekly routine for Janey, usually on Sunday nights when she didn’t have to work. She had also discovered that because the hair mask color faded faster than salon dye, she could order different colors and experiment a bit. She couldn’t leave the pink-purple family (she had ordered a sample of a blue mask and tried it on a small section of her hair once, then walked around with an unsightly green streak in her hair for a few weeks until it faded), but she’d gotten pretty good at blending the two colors to different hues so that every week’s treatment produced at least a subtle difference. The last Sunday of the summer—the day before she was set to start at her new school—Janey decided to go pure pink, not blending any purple into the mask at all. The result was the brightest shade she’d worn yet, a fully saturated hot pink that would surely make her stand out amongst her new classmates.
Janey’s mom had already been working for a few weeks by that point, getting her office set up and preparing for a new school year at a new school. She’d reported back that the school was a bit more formal than she’d expected from her interview process but that all the faculty and administrators had been so nice and welcoming. In fact, the principal, Dr. Tompkins, had insisted that she would personally welcome Janey on her first day at the school, too: Janey and her mother were invited to join him for tea in his private office an hour before the start of the first period.
Janey and her mom dropped her father off at Janey’s old school—the school where he still taught—and continued on to their new campus. Janey had seen the school before, a few years ago when her family attended a carnival held on its grounds, but this was the first time she was seeing it on a regular school day, the first time she was seeing it as a student. She was impressed by the beauty of its rolling lawns and towering trees and well maintained, but clearly very old, stone buildings. There weren’t many students on campus yet, because it was so early, and Janey couldn’t wait to experience the school as it filled up with her peers.
Janey’s mother pulled up behind one of the stone buildings and parked in a spot that sported a sign bearing her name. “Nice perk, Mom!” Janey said, getting out of the car and smoothing the skirt of her new uniform. She wanted to make a good first impression on her mom’s new boss.
“If you think this parking spot is impressive, wait till you see my office!” her mother replied, beckoning Janey to enter the building. They walked down an ornately detailed hall filled with old photographs of the school and its students and came upon a door that, like the parking spot, also bore Janey’s mother’s name. Behind it lay the vice principal’s office, replete with wood paneling and high ceilings and leaded glass windows. It couldn’t have been more different from the administrative offices at Janey’s old school, which were windowless and grey and lit by fluorescent bulbs.
“Wow, Mom. This is beautiful!” Janey exclaimed, beginning to inspect the titles in the bookcase that lined one wall.
Her mother beamed. “I know. It’s unbelievable. But you can poke around my books later. It’s time for tea with the principal.”
Janey followed her mom out of the vice principal’s office and down the hall a few yards to a door labeled with the Mr. Tompkin’s name. Janey’s mother knocked, and a voice from within called out: “Enter!”
The principal’s office was even more impressive than the vice principal’s had been. Twice as big, with huge arched windows filled with stained glass, and an entire wall with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a library ladder on a rail. “Come in!” Mr. Tompkins shouted. “Come in!” He stood and extended a hand. He was younger than Janey expected, with kind eyes and the faintest hint of a British accent. “You must be Janey. It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
The trio passed most of the next forty-five minutes engaged in pleasant conversation. The principal asked Janey a lot of questions about herself and seemed sincerely interested in her answers. With about fifteen minutes to the start of first period, though, his tone grew more serious. “Janey, there is one thing I want to talk to you about, and please bear in mind that this is established school policy coming from our board of directors, not a rule I arbitrarily decided to enforce.”
Janey was startled by the shift in tone. “Oh…okay.”
“It’s just…your hair. Our school dress code states that all students must wear their hair in its ‘natural’ color. And unless I’m mistaken, your hair didn’t grow out of your head that beautiful shade of pink.” Mr.Tompkins chuckled to try to ease the tension. “We’ve looked the other way when a student has gotten highlights or decided to go a little lighter or a little darker, but this is quite different.”
Janey’s mom interjected. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Tompkins. Our old school had a similar policy on the books, but it was never enforced. I never imagined it would be a problem here.”
“I wish it weren’t, Mrs. DeAngelo,” responded the principal, “but there are a lot of closed minds on our board of directors, and I can’t imagine what they’ll say if they see any student, let alone the vice principal’s daughter, walking around campus with hot pink hair.” He turned back to Janey. “I’m not expecting any board visits this week, so I’m going to give you a little leniency for the next few days. But by next Monday, I need you to be on campus with a hair color that looks like it could plausibly be the one you were born with. Okay?”
Janey nodded sadly. She didn’t expect to be able to keep her hair pink forever, but it hadn’t even been four months. She wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to it yet. Still, the principal was right. It wouldn’t make her mom look very good if she was walking around campus in flagrant violation of the school’s rules. “Okay,” she finally said.
Janey was lucky: when she called Maria to explain her predicament, the stylist said she could come into the salon a little early that Saturday morning and take Janey back to a more natural color then. She was thinking she could probably get away with something closer to chestnut than her natural black, so that was the plan. Friday night, she hung out with some of her old friends and had them take several highly-stylized photos of her with her pink hair so she’d have them to remember the color by, and also for reference next time she was allowed to dye her hair a “fun” color. When she got home, she swiped through all the photos, impressed by how good her hair looked even though it had been nearly two months since her last appointment. She’d gotten pretty good at the color mask application; if it weren’t for the hint of black growing in at her roots, she thought, she might look as if she’d just left the salon. Ah well, she thought to herself. College was only two years away and she could do anything she wanted then.
When she parked her parents’ car at the salon the next morning, Janey gave herself one last little sad look in the rearview mirror before getting out of her car and approaching the door. Maria was in the lobby ready to greet her. “Oh wow!” the stylist exclaimed. “I see you’ve gotten pretty skilled at maintaining your color.”
Janey blushed slightly at the compliment, then got sad all over again. If even Maria thought her hair looked great, it really was a shame she had to change it. “Thanks,” she said, following the stylist back to her station. “I got one of those color-depositing masks. They seemed less risky than a box dye.”
“Oh. Ohhhhhh,” the stylist replied, processing what Janey told her. “Which brand were you using?”
“ColorUp. You know, that brand that’s all over social media?”
Maria nodded. “Uh huh. And how often were you using it?”
“Okay…so…I don’t want to alarm you because it might not be a big deal, but I’ve been having issues lately with my clients who use ColorUp products frequently. Even though the color seems like it’s fading after a couple of days the hair cuticle is still absorbing quite a bit of it, and it doesn’t always want to lift when we try to remove the color. For whatever reason, a lot of the colors just wind up lifting to orange, and because I can’t lift their hair all the way we’re limited as to what we can do with it, color-wise. But those are usually people who’ve been using these products for years. You’re probably fine.”
Like an alchemist, Maria mixed a combination of liquids and pastes together and, once satisfied, coated every strand of Janey’s hair with the concoction. After what she deemed an appropriate amount of time, she guided Janey to the sink and began to rinse her hair for what seemed like a very long time. “Hm,” she finally said.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Janey said.
“So…your hair is orange. I can try lifting the color again but I’m hesitant because it could damage your hair too much and we’d have to cut off a lot of length.”
“Where does that leave us?”
“Well…I don’t think that chestnut color we talked about will work here—the orange is going to make it look brassy. We can try more of reddish shade, which might work, but won’t exactly look natural. Or we can see what happens if we try to take you back to your natural black—but know that it might wind up looking a little green.”
“Well, hair that’s slightly too red will probably go over better than hair that’s a little green,” Janey said. “So I guess auburn it is.”
When Janey left the salon later, her waist-length hair was still an unnatural shade—this time, a deep magenta that could almost pass as brown in dark rooms but that definitely telegraphed a purplish-red as soon as she stepped into the sun. At least this time it was a color she’d seen older, professional women sport. She didn’t really like it, and she didn’t like that she had to spend her money on it. Still, she hoped she’d get away with it. She didn’t know what other choice she had.
On Monday, after third period, Mr. Tompkins ducked his head into her classroom. “Sorry,” he apologized to her math teacher. “Can I just steal Janey for a minute?”
Janey followed the principal out of the classroom and down the hall to an empty music rehearsal room. “I don’t want to keep you away from your class for very long, so I’ll be quick about this. One of our board members was on campus this morning, dropping off his grandson, who’s a student here. You and your mom walked past and I pointed her out as our new vice principal and you out as her daughter and he asked me if I always let the children of administrators violate dress code policy with ‘non-standard’ hair color. I said that I thought you were fine, that the color wasn’t even that far off from my secretary’s, but the next thing I know my phone is ringing off the hook and word has gotten back to the rest of the board. I know you’ve already changed your hair but it seems like it’s not going to be enough, and unfortunately I can’t give you another week to handle this. Do you think you can do something about it tonight?”
Janey wasn’t entirely surprised by this but she was disappointed. “I’ll figure something out,” she said.
“Thank you, Janey. And I’m sorry about this. Don’t tell any of the board, but my wife actually has some pink streaks in her hair. I think she looks smashing and I thought you looked awesome and I wish there were some other way. But this is going to start to affect your mom’s standing with the board if it’s not taken care of.”
“It’s okay,” Janey said. “It’s not your fault.”
She returned to class, but she had trouble focusing the rest of the day. She knew she couldn’t get another last-minute appointment at her salon, and even if she could, she was running low on hair funds and wouldn’t get her next paycheck from the restaurant until the end of the week. On the way home, Janey explained the predicament to her mom. “I know,” her mother said. “Mr. Tompkins told me. Believe me, if I’d been there a little longer and had more clout, I’d be raising hell. But it’s way too early to make powerful enemies. We’ll just go to Target, buy some dye that’s close to your original color, and cover everything up, okay?”
“Maria said my hair might turn green if we tried to die it back to black.”
“Yeah, but that was before you’d dyed it this color, right? I’m sure it’ll be fine now that there’s a darker color already covering he orange.”
“I hope so,” Janey said to her mom. “Because I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s not.”
Back at home, while Janey’s father prepared dinner, her mom helped her follow the instructions for the boxed hair dye they’d picked up on their way home. Janey’s mom was no stranger to at-home hair dye kits, having been covering up her own greys for ten years now, so she felt confident that she could steward her daughter through this process.
When the timer went off to indicate Janey could rinse the dye out of her hair, her mother had her lean her head over the edge of the tub while she took the shower attachment down and rinsed Janey’s hair under cool water. Finally, when the water was running clear, Janey’s mom took a step back and looked at her daughter. “Okay. Looks like black to me. I think we’re good now. Get your hair dried and then come have dinner.”
Janey observed herself in the mirror after her mother left the room. She looked so much like the old, dark-haired Janey, the fifteen-year-old Janey, the public school Janey. The only difference was that now she had bangs, which Maria had trimmed after finishing Janey’s color. She missed her pink hair. Still, she was glad the black dye seemed to have taken.
Only…maybe it hadn’t. As she blowdried her hair, it became obvious that it was not truly black, as it had looked while still wet, but rather a deep forest green. This was just what Maria had warned her could happen. Janey’s hair was still dark, very dark. Maybe she could get away with it? But no. Not if the last color wasn’t good enough. There was no way this would fly. Not only that, but her hair seemed rough and prickly to the touch. It was not drying smooth and glossy like she was used to. Clearly, all the chemicals Janey’s hair had been exposed to over the last few days had done a number on her long locks. So now her hair was green and it was damaged. And there were twelve hours left till the next school day. There was no way she’d be able to get a hair appointment anywhere between now and then.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door. She opened it a crack, not wanting either of her parents to see her hair in its current state. It was her dad. “Hey kiddo,” he said, “dinner’s ready when you are.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Janey replied. “Be out soon.” He turned, and as she watched his bald head recede down the hallway, suddenly Janey was struck with an idea. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. But it was the only thing she could think of at this point. She began to rummage around in the bathroom cabinet until she found what she needed: her father’s clipper set.
Janey’s father had been cutting his own hair as long as she could remember. When she was a kid, she’d sometimes sit on the edge of the bathtub and talk to him while he took the clippers to his head and erased any hint of the sparse hair that had grown in since the last time. She’d seen it happen enough, but she’d never actually used the clippers. Should she call her dad in for help? Or maybe her mom?
No, she decided. Better to just get it over with quickly. She plugged the clippers in and selected a guard with a number two embossed on it. She didn’t know what that meant, exactly, as her dad never used a guard. But the women’s bikini trimmer she’d bought last year before a pool party also came with guards, so she knew that the guards would keep the clippers from shaving her down as short as her father. She still wanted some hint of hair left. Hoping that her parents wouldn’t hear it from down the hall, Janey switched the guarded clippers on.
She stood there for a moment, studying her reflection in the mirror, the humming clippers held aloft in her right hand. Was this really necessary? Was the green actually all that noticeable? Maybe it was subtle enough that she could get away with just cutting off the most damaged parts of her hair? She could totally pull off a bob, right? She turned her head from side to side, trying to imagine her hair stopping at her chin rather than cascading down her back. But as the bathroom lights shone on her hair, she knew it wouldn’t be enough. Her hair was noticeably green, even well above where a bobbed style would end, and she was out of options.
Janey brought the clippers up to her forehead just under her bangs, squeezed her eyes shut, and moved her hand backward. She felt a clump of hair hit her nose and opened her eyes. Her reflection bore one undeniable truth: there was no turning back now. A two-inch-wide path of dark stubble running from her forehead to her crown made that clear enough.
Janey took a deep breath and returned the clippers to her forehead. This time she kept her eyes open as she pushed them back, widening their path across the top of her head. Her bangs were almost obliterated—only a small section of them remained over her left eye. Janey decided to eliminate them completely with her next pass. She moved the clippers toward the left, pushing the guard under what little remained of her heavy fringe, and moved them back toward her crown.
Looking in the mirror again, Janey began to laugh, because if she didn’t laugh she knew she’d start to cry. Most of the top of her head had been mown down to near-nothingness, but the sides and back still featured greenish-black hair falling to her waist. She looked ridiculous. What else could she do but continue?
Working faster now, eager to be done with the whole thing, Janey brought the clippers to her right temple and began to clear the side of her head. The area around her ear was tough, but she remembered that her dad had always held his ear down when he got to that spot; once she did the same, the hairs trapped there were easily freed.
Janey was beginning to get an idea of what she would look like when this was all finished. Her head was so much smaller than she was expecting, but at least it didn’t seem to be lumpy. Her neck looked long. Her cheekbone looked higher. Her ear sat against her head—she was glad it didn’t stick out, like her grandfather’s ears did. This was going to take a lot of getting used to, and Janey was going to mourn her long hair for a while, but at least maybe she’d at least look okay?
She moved on to the left side, pushing the clippers through all the hair that remained, folding her ear down like she had on the right. Janey was now the not-so-proud possessor of the world’s worst mullet, the hair nearly gone on the top and sides of her head but still flowing down her back. She remembered that her father had always said the back of his head was the hardest part, and after trying and failing to maneuver her arms into a comfortable position from which she could attack the last of her long hair, she decided to take a different approach.
Janey switched the clippers off and set them down on the edge of the sink, then found the pair of haircutting shears that came with her father’s clipper set. As far as she knew, they’d never been used—at least, certainly not by her father. She gathered all the hair that remained attached to her head into a ponytail and began hacking away at it with the shears, reducing as much length as she comfortably and safely could. She was surprised by how much hair was still on her head, or rather how much hair was still coming off of it. She’d already gotten rid of a good three-quarters of her hair, and yet there was still quite a bit hitting the floor.
Finally satisfied there was nothing left for her to attack with the shears, Janey put them down and again picked up the clippers. It was still challenging to position herself properly, but eventually she found a good angle for her arm and the clippers soon found all the hair she had left. Within a few minutes, the back of her head and her nape matched the rest.
Janey switched the clippers off and looked at herself in the mirror. She was not bald, not exactly, but there was little enough hair left on her head that she could see her scalp. As she had suspected when she was about halfway done, she didn’t look bad. In fact, had she been looking at anyone else in that moment instead of her own reflection, Janey might have even thought she was lovely. But she missed her hair already. How long would it be before she could put it in a ponytail again, let alone before it would tumble to her waist?
Janey brought her hands to her head, fully expecting what she found there to be coarse, like her discarded hair had been. Instead, she found it to be amazingly soft, like suede or velvet. She rubbed her hands back and forth a few times and felt a charge of electricity shoot through her body. That…was something she was going to have to explore later. For now, it was time for dinner—and to show her parents what she’d had to do.
Janey and her mom pulled up to the school an hour early again, just as they had on the first day of the semester. After Janey had entered the dining room the evening before and gave her parents the shock of their life, her mom sent a text to Mr. Tompkins, explaining what had happened. He replied that he felt absolutely awful about it, and asked if they could come in early the following day so he could personally apologize to Janey.
“That’s odd,” Janey’s mom said as they parked. “There are a lot of cars here for this time of day.”
Before getting out of the car, Janey stole a glance at herself in the mirror. Her hair was its natural color, all right, buzzed down to where only the natural color of her grown-out black roots remained. But how would everyone at this old-fashioned private school school react to a girl with a buzzcut? She got out of the car and followed her mom inside, perhaps a little slower than she had the week before.
The two did not make a pit stop in the vice principal’s office this time, instead proceeding all the way to the principal’s door.
“Enter!” he shouted from within.
Janey and her mom entered, surprised to see not only Mr. Tompkins but seven other men with him, all several years older than he and all formally dressed. It was obvious that these men were at least a partial representation of the board. “Gentlemen,” Mr. Tompkins said, “I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure yet of meeting our new vice principal, Mrs. DeAngelo.” He introduced her, and then pointed at each man, providing their names as he did so. “And this is the vice principal’s daughter, Janey.”
Janey noticed a few of the men do a double take as they observed her hair, or more precisely her lack thereof. Good, she thought. I hope it does make them uncomfortable.
Mr. Tompkins ushered Janey forward, whispering into her ear as she passed. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, Janey. I hope you don’t think that’s what this is about.” He turned back to the board. “You might notice that Janey is sporting a rather unconventional hairstyle for our students here. This is because yesterday, one of your fellow board members—one who, I might add, couldn’t be bothered to come here this morning—saw Janey entering the building with Mrs. DeAngelo and commented negatively about the color of her hair, citing it as a dress code violation. And then he communicated to all of you, and the rest of the board, that our new vice principal’s daughter seemed to think the rules of the school did not apply to her, and all of you called me. I spent the morning fielding your secondhand complaints rather than doing the job you have hired me to do, which is primarily to maintain a safe learning environment for our students.
“Now, I don’t have any photos of what Janey’s hair looked like yesterday, but suffice it to say that the color was not far off from what I know at least three of your wives wear. Nothing all that strange or unusual about it, even if it wasn’t a so-called “natural” color. Still, because of your input, I advised Janey that her hair color was a violation of dress code and that she would have to change it before she arrived back on campus today. According to her mother, Janey did try, but the layering of different hair colors resulted in her hair turning green. And, out of options and afraid of further violating the dress code, Janey did this.
“I’ve asked Janey and Mrs. DeAngelo to come in early today so that I could officially apologize to them for my role in this. As principal, my utmost responsibility is to my students and yesterday, I failed to adequately protect one of them. So,” Mr. Tompkins said, turning back to Janey, “I am truly, deeply sorry that I let the board pressure me into making you change your hair color, which in turn led to a haircut that I can only imagine you didn’t want. I should have stood up for you.”
The principal turned back to the assembled members of the board. “I want to be clear: your decision to prioritize some stodgy old rule over a student’s social-emotional wellbeing is what led to this. This is abuse. You didn’t lay a hand on her, but it’s still abuse, and I’m not going to stand for it any longer. This is an extreme example, but it’s not the only time the board has gone out of their way to enforce a rule at a student’s expense. I never stood up to you before. I’m standing up to you now.
“As of today, I will not be enforcing any aspect of the dress code that pertains to hair or makeup, or any aspect that overwhelmingly affects our female students. You can decide to discipline me for this, but I’d encourage you to remember, before you do, that my wife is a journalist and I’m sure she’d love to help one of her colleagues research an article about how a group of old men caused a teenage girl to shave her head.
“Alternatively, you can take the high road, give Janey the apology she’s owed, and remove these provisions from the school dress code so nothing like this ever happens again. The choice is yours.”
Six weeks later, Janey stepped out of her mother’s car in the school parking lot. “Janey! Hi!” she heard a voice behind her say. She turned and saw Blair, a fellow student who was in a few of Janey’s classes. Yesterday, when Janey saw Blair, their hair mousey brown hair was cut into a limp brown bob. But today, they were sporting a very short, spiky, teal colored pixie cut, and absolutely beaming.
“Blair! You look amazing!”
“Thanks, Janey. I never thought I’d be able to do something like this, at least until college. But thanks to you, I finally feel like myself.” They blushed slightly.
Janey ran a hand over her own close-cropped hair, once again a brilliant pink. It had grown a bit since the night she buzzed it all off, but she’d recently gone to a barber shop to have the back and sides shaped up. The bleach and color she’d done on her own at home, figuring that if she screwed it up too badly she could just shave it off and be back to her current length quickly enough. She still missed her long hair, but was looking forward to experimenting with different styles over the years it would take her to regain her previous length. Plus, there was something about those clippers that just…excited her. She wasn’t ready to give them up quite yet. “I didn’t do anything,” she said to Blair. “It was all the principal.”
Blair rubbed their hands on the side of their head, grinning as they did. “No,” they said. “You were a big part of this, too. See you in class!”
Janey had been hearing a lot of this sort of thing lately. To her fellow students, she was the brave young woman who stood up to the school’s board of directors, not the teenager who had shed all her hair in a last-ditch effort to comply with their rules. Still, she was glad her sacrifice had created change. After the meeting in the principal’s office, the board held an emergency meeting. They voted unanimously to extend an apology to Janey, but the vote on revising the dress code was close. Ultimately, out of the twenty-five directors, fourteen—including all seven who had been at the school that day—voted to revise the school’s policies. The remaining eleven grumbled about tradition and respect and what-will-the-other-private-schools-think?
But it was enough. Mr. Tompkins was immediately advised to stop enforcing all hair-related dress code violations, and after about a month, a new policy was formally introduced. The uniform requirements remained unchanged, but students were told the only hairstyles that would be forbidden from that point were the ones that were intentionally meant to distract—a three-foot mohawk that would block the front of the room, for instance, or a shaved design featuring overtly sexual imagery. Policies that disproportionately affected female and nonbinary students and students of color were relaxed somewhat—not as much as the principal had hoped, but it was a good start.
Within weeks, the students—and some teachers—started showing up with decidedly different hairstyles. Fully half the girls, and a few of the guys, in Janey’s class now sported at least a section of colorfully-dyed hair, if not a full head of it. A few of the long-haired girls also got significant hair cuts to go with their new color. One girl whose golden hair had fallen to the middle of her back showed up after a holiday weekend with only the lightest dusting of blonde fuzz remaining on her head. At lunch that day she told Janey she hoped it was okay that she’d “copied” her style. Janey’s history teacher, who always wore her grey hair in a large bun at the nape of her neck began to wear the style higher, revealing the nape undercut she’d been hiding all along, freshly buzzed and dyed a deep aubergine for its official debut at school. On the flip side, several of the boys announced they would no longer be submitting to monthly haircuts in order to comply with the school’s now-defunct dress code. As their hair grew longer, a few of them also experimented with colors. It was as if everyone affiliated with the school—everyone except for a certain eleven board members—finally felt they could express themselves freely.
Janey was selected as the student commencement speaker for her graduating class. From the podium, her signature pink hair, thick and now ending just above her shoulders in a lob—except for the heavy bangs framing her face—stood out against her maroon cap and gown. She talked to her assembled peers and their families about how her position as the accidental figurehead of a movement at her school inspired her to take more direct action, and how seeing Mr. Tompkins stand up for her and the school rally behind her made her want to be an agent of change. Like her parents, she was going to pursue a career in education, not just so she could teach another generation of young minds, but also so she could be a strong advocate for them. As she finished, congratulating her fellow graduates, Janey looked out to the crowd and watched a sea of brightly colored hair of all lengths and styles emerge from underneath tossed mortarboard caps.
Janey tossed her cap in the air, too. When it came back down, she left the stage, beginning to put her cap back on as the crowd exited but pausing briefly first to slide one hand up the back of her neck and into the v-shaped undercut she’d had for the last year, since her hair had started to grown noticeably longer and she realized that she wasn’t ready to say a final farewell to the clippers. A girlfriend had given it to her at a slumber party, and Janey returned the favor by taking the guard off the clippers and using them to sever a straight line through her friend’s hair at the level of the girl’s chin, sending two feet of dyed-green hair cascading to the floor in the process.
Janey put her cap back on and made her rounds in the assembly hall, hugging friends and thanking teachers. Mr. Tompkins and his wife, whose pink-streaked hair had become more pink and less streaked in the year or so since Janey and her parents had dinner at the Tompkins’ house, gathered her in a group hug, telling her how proud they were. Eventually, Janey made her way to her parents. The DeAngelos hugged their brilliant, beautiful, pink haired daughter, and then the three of them got into the family car and headed home. Janey had a night of graduation parties ahead of her, but first she wanted to go home and change into something more comfortable than the dress and heels she wore under her gown.
In the backseat, Janey returned her hand to her nape, absentmindedly stroking the buzzed hair. She remembered how excited she had been to dye her hair pink the first time, to mark the dual milestones of a big birthday and a new school. And now here she was, celebrating high school graduation, her eighteenth birthday having passed two weeks prior and a move to another state to start college in her near future. She had to do something to commemorate this milestone, too.
Before she even realized it, Janey was home, per dad steering the family car into their driveway. Her parents’ financial situation was much improved since Janey’s mom had started as vice principal at her school, and they had offered to throw Janey a graduation party. But she’d declined their offer—it wasn’t the kind of milestone marker she was looking for.
The new grad walked into her house behind her parents, then made her way to her bedroom to change. Once satisfied with her outfit, she began to pull her hair back into a topknot, to get it off her neck, yes, but also to show off her undercut, something she loved to do. After she finished pinning her hair into place, she got to work straightening her bangs, studying herself in the mirror to make sure they were straight, and then making the decision to pin them back instead so they wouldn’t get drenched in sweat as she party-hopped. With both hands holding her bangs in place, Janey took another close look at her reflection. With her hair pulled back like this, if you focused on her face—really focused on her face—it almost looked as if she had buzzed her hair off again.
And that’s when she knew how to mark the milestones she was celebrating. From the bottom drawer in her dresser, Janey pulled out the set of clippers she’d bought herself so she could keep her undercut maintained at home—her dad had gotten tired of sharing his clippers. Her favorite guard, the number two, was already in place.
Janey returned to her mirror, plugged the clippers in, stared at herself and the pink hair piled atop her head. She swore she’d never go clipper-short all over again. She really was trying to get her hair back to its former luscious length. The undercut should have been enough of a concession. But no. This felt right.
Janey turned the machine on, placed the plastic teeth of the guard under the center of her bangs, and pushed backward. She did not close her eyes this time, but rather stared at the mirror, watching as a quarter inch of stubble—still pink, as she’d touched her roots up only a few days before—emerged from beneath the foot or so of hair that had been concealing it. As she had done the first time she’d buzzed all her hair off, she returned the clippers to her forehead, under her now-separated bangs, and made another pass, leaving more pink fuzz for all the world to see. A third pass removed all trace of her bangs. Subsequent passes cleared her sideburns, her temples, the sides of her head, and the area around her ears. She smiled as she worked, pleased with the young woman she saw emerging in the mirror.
Janey didn’t expect to have the trouble with the back of her head that she’d had with her previous attempt at an at-home buzzcut, partly because half of that area had already been buzzed down as part of her undercut and partly because there was far less length to deal with now than there had been then. She plunged the clippers into the last of the pink lob and moved them back and forth until she didn’t think anything was left.
Clippers still buzzing, Janey placed her left hand on her head. Her intention was to make sure she hadn’t missed any last longer hairs, but the impact sent chills down her spine. As quickly as she dared to move, she finished the job of double-checking her fuzzy head, then kept running the clippers in her right hand back and forth over her hair anyway, while her left hand snuck downward, inside the waistband of the shorts she was wearing and soon thereafter inside of herself. The vibrations on her scalp and the movement of her hand worked in tandem to bring Janey to orgasm—not her first, but definitely her strongest ever.
Satisfied, Janey finally turned off the clippers and slipped her hand out of her shorts. Still in front of her mirror, she looked at herself, focusing on the short, pink buzzcut that sat atop a head that almost exactly two years ago was adorned with waist-length hair in a similar shade. She still envied the length of that girl’s hair, but that’s what she had been: a girl. She was a woman now, eighteen and about to live life on her own, and she felt good about the way she’d chosen to mark this moment in her life.
She’d have the rest of her life to grow her hair out again, if she wanted to. But right now, in this moment, this was how she wanted to look as she ended one chapter of her life and prepared to start another. How she could reclaim that first, unwanted buzzcut, taking it from something she resented to something she wanted. How, perhaps, she’d enter her first classroom as a new teacher in a few year’s time and advocate for her teenage students’ right to express themselves as they wanted, dress code or not. How she wanted to present herself to the world.
Rubbing the sides of her head with both hands, Janey felt another electric charge and wondered if any of her fellow graduates might be curious about exploring that feeling tonight at one of the parties they were attending. And then she remembered the first party on her itinerary: it was being hosted at the home of the board member who had originally singled out Janey’s dress code violation, in honor of his grandson’s graduation.
This next stage of her life was off to a good start already.