• Rissa

Essay: Untangled

My hairbrush is a trophy. A purple plastic paddle brush with broken black bristles represents personal victory. Each day, it releases knots and soft waves of brown, now dusted with silver, unfurl down my back.




For years I believed my hair was a weapon. What once was a thing I loved about myself transformed in seconds to the snare that made his ambush possible. A shirt I could have torn. My arm I might have wrestled away. But he wrapped my thick tresses round and round his hand. The man held me by it, forced me to my knees and forced pain upon me. It marked my face, my arms, my torso and further inside my body. The deepest cut, he ripped into my spirit. I raged against myself but there was no escape, long hair preventing me from running.


When he let me go, I did not shower immediately. I didn’t even go home. I went into the first salon I found. Battered and with tears covering my cheeks, I stared into the round mirror as a hesitant stylist shortened my hair to pixie length. I can still see her expression. Uneasy, she kept glancing from me to my hair to the other stylist at a station nearby. They knew why I was there. Few words were exchanged, but I still never doubt they knew, on some level, everything I had been through.


Swinging my feet down from the salon chair I stood in piles of brown hair. My hair. I did not mourn it. I saw the rope he used to hold me. Never again. As I ran my hand over my short hair – you couldn’t even fit your fingers into it, so there was nothing to grab – I swore I would never be beautiful again.


In the days that followed, I gave away dresses and nail polish, tossed out lace and tights. My new uniform was shapeless second-hand jeans and shirts, several sizes too big. As plain as possible. No one would see me now, I knew. My look was sloppy, invisible. I swore I would never be beautiful again.

I retreated. I sought help from people I loved and from professionals. But I lived through days, weeks, months. Time passed. One very unexpected morning, I realized neither my attacker nor the clippers at the salon had taken my beauty. It was with me all along.


At an airport a young mother with a toddler needed to get on the plane with her son, so I volunteered to go on standby. They should be together, I figured. As I settled into a seat to wait, the woman approached and emotionally grasped my hand as her son peeked around her legs.


“Thank you so much! You have no idea how much this means to us,” she said.


Her little boy’s deep brown eyes were shy. I remember how he ducked his face behind his toy boat.


“No problem,” I shrugged and smiled at the child.


She paused, shifting her and her son’s bags on her shoulder.


“I’m sure you know, but you’re so beautiful,” she said and they walked away to get in line for boarding.


She spoke to me at a time when I was ready to hear her. A day before might have been too soon. If we crossed paths three days later, it might have been too late. By then I might have sunk too far to get unstuck and remained forever behind a visor of defensive suspicion.


The next time I had an appointment to get my hair trimmed, I cancelled. It didn’t instantly sink in that my encounter at the airport was part of my healing journey. The mother’s unfettered gratitude and open heart gave me back what the attacker took away. A piece of myself that was badly broken, but mending. With time it slowly stitched back together as the fabric of my spirit stretched durably over the scar.


Beauty is so often misunderstood. You can’t hide it because it’s actually nothing to do with mascara or flowered tops or sandals or hairstyles. Beauty burns from inside with a fierce, powerful glow. It appears with each small kindness you offer, each time you smile, laugh. No one can take it from you. You may try to cloak it, even smother it. But like spring, beauty will return in its season and take hold once more, reaching gangly roots into your heart.


As my hair grew back, I kept the style short for a number of years. Initially, I let the front grow and few wavy corkscrews flopped over my forehead, eventually framing my face. Then I decided that brown strands grazing my shoulders were alright.


Every so often, the nightmares return. I feel the hand wind into my hair, restraining me. I’ve learned to push back. With each stroke of my hairbrush, I push against the attack, shoving forcefully. With each breath, I throw an offensive blow into the shadow of the past, and swear that no one will sear my heart, no one will steal my beauty again.


Today, my hair is long, from root to tip, just over 28 inches. It cascades in a tussle of chestnut and silver to my waist. Standing before a mirror each morning, I untangle and brush out the length, reminding myself that I am okay. As deep as the roots in my scalp, as strong as the roots of an oak, I am safe in myself and no one will break my beautiful spirit.

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