Everyone, to some extent, is vain.
I'm not saying we're all drowning in our reflections like mini Narcissi. There's a scale of vanity, much like there is a scale for the Piri-Piri sauce at Nando's. Some people are low down on the scale: perhaps they take a little while in the bathroom before a night out, or they will happily take a compliment. That's your kind of everyday, Lemon-and-Herb self-appreciation (we're sticking with the Nando's analogy.) Other people can't pass any shiny surface without gravitating towards it and making sex faces at themselves. Obviously that's the kind of Piri-self-love that causes hot flashes, swelling of the mouth and the runs.
I should begin my story by stressing that it's OK to be happy with yourself: there's nothing wrong with a little pride, in moderation.
I've never much liked my body, especially during the days of unflattering school uniforms. Just when I'd become used to it, puberty hit me like a truck. All my favourite outfits betrayed me as my figure changed, and they had to be exchanged. On top of that, I had a few health issues that required physio and medication. Coupled with good old-fashioned playground bullying, I began to dislike a great deal of my body. My only constant was my hair.
It was thick, long and a treacly brown. Over the years, I'd dyed it pink, purple, blue, green, red and a horrible straw blonde when I'd accidentally fallen asleep with lightener in it. Although I'd used and abused it, it faithfully grew back.
I don’t know about you, but I like follow a daily routine: I get up, wash my hair, have breakfast and plan my day. Except one recent morning, when I went to dry my hair, something odd happened. My hairdryer malfunctioned, and set fire to my head.
I fled to the bathroom, flinging the nearest thing (a cardigan) over my head. I crouched on the bathroom floor until I heard the sizzling stop. As I stood up to look in the mirror, little black flakes that were once my fringe fluttered down like dreadful snow.
Ever heard the phrase "...And then I lost it"? That's exactly what I did. I panicked. I tried phoning my Dad and getting a colleague instead, then I tried Brawny (who was at work) in desperation, before finally speaking to my brother, and probably not making much sense.
Afterwards, I decided I'd better check myself over just in case adrenaline was hiding any pain. My head seemed fine, but the fringe and entire right side had matted together. I tried to brush it through but to my horror the hair just crumbled into nothing. I grabbed the scissors and began hacking off any dead, blackened bits.
It turned out that my answerphone message had made so little sense that Brawny had come home early from work. As he checked me over, Mum rang – Xel had filled her in. Together, the three of us took an emergency trip to my hairdresser’s.
While the hairdresser did her very best to turn my mangled mane into a fashionable crop-cut, I avoided the mirror. Along with my hair, my sense of self had been badly damaged. Though it’d been all the colours of the rainbow, I’d never had hair this short. Admittedly, I had considered hacking it all off in the name of charity (instead I opted to mangle my name so it now resembles an explosion at Webster’s printing press). Would it have felt so bad if I’d decided to cut it? Maybe not, but there’s a difference between “Hmm, shall I cut my hair?” and “Holy shitcaskets, my head is ON FIRE.”
Snap forward a few weeks and I’m in a wig boutique, trying on a bevy of different styles with my glossy posse: Mum, my second mum Joy and Rachel, who I’ve known for years (and have had a secret hair envy of ever since Brownies). I find a gorgeous auburn wig which looks just like a longer version of my old hair, and I’m waltzing out of the shop with the spring back in my step.
You can pretend to be as self-assured and non-superficial as you like, but when something changes so suddenly and so out of your control, you can’t predict how you’ll react. I know I’d still love Brawny if it’d been his hair that caught fire, but it would’ve taken a few days to get used to the new look. Thankfully it was just hair, which grows back over time - I’ve been in relationships where someone’s personality has gradually changed, and the end result was much more shocking than any kind of change in appearance.
Maybe losing a chunk of hair was actually a blessing in disguise. Though I’m now used to my crop, I’ve been trying on wedding dresses* with my wig on, but that’s simply because having temporarily longer hair has made me reconsider my style options – I’d previously wanted to keep my short bob right up until W-Day and I’ve now decided to opt for a versatile longer ‘do. I’d never have thought of that if I hadn’t suddenly found the need to wear a wig.
It has been said that “character is what you are in the dark”. Nobody can help making judgements based on appearance – I’d been afraid that having less hair would make me less feminine, yet I still like flowers, baking, and wearing dresses. I’m the same person I was before I started drying my hair that day; I just come in slightly different packaging now. Why should I have worried about being treated differently?
I wouldn’t recommend burning something off to learn the value of this lesson, but maybe it’s a good idea to survey the spicy scale of vanity now and again just to find out where you are. I will be doing so every time I look in the mirror, and figuring out if I need to adjust my palate accordingly.
Oh, and just for kicks, here’s a little chart of how my looks changed.