Editor’s Note: The Eyes of the Beholders

There’s a great scene in an otherwise bad movie – so bad I can’t even remember the name of it – uttered by a woman who needs to escape a situation because she feels like she’s turning into another person’s idea of her. She’s starting to see herself the way that other person sees her – and it’s not a flattering portrait, and not her idea of who she is.

It’s an intriguing conundrum, yet so very pre-digital. Of course we can control how others see us. We can present whichever images contribute to our personal brand, curate our social-media pages in ways that portray only that messaging, and voilà – that’s who we are.

The movie reminds us this is not really possible in person. We have to be who we are all the time. To even try to control how others see us is an almost impossible undertaking. We give off so many nonverbal, social cues. Some may be universally understood within a given culture, but not everyone has the same social fluency, and interpretations differ. It’s estimated that as much as 65% of the way we communicate is with nonverbal behaviors. Seems pretty fruitless to even try to control how others see us.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time, and the person commented about my short hair. It’s not actually short – it’s shoulder length – but I get it: My hair up until about a year ago was very long. Yet it wasn’t simply that I looked different; this person acted like I was different because my hair had been shorn. In the eyes of that beholder, I had become someone different, and those nonverbal cues told me it wasn’t necessarily a positive difference. 

I had heard a lot about the freedom of cutting off long hair – that we overidentify with it, use it to hide. It’s like the thumb we abandoned long ago, our adult security blanket, our pet (if it’s long enough). 

So I cut it off slowly. Six inches about a year ago, and I hardly noticed. Another four inches the next time. Then, a couple months ago, all the way to the tops of my shoulders. That, I noticed. 

I walked out of the salon expecting The Transformation to finally happen. Would I feel exposed and vulnerable? Did I need to start wearing turtlenecks? Or would I find it freeing as I’d been told, like running barefoot through a sunlit meadow (OK, pretend there’s no such thing as ticks) or diving off a forebodingly high cliff?

I twirled my keys and walked to my car. Nope. No more or less free, bold, opaque or interesting. Just me with shorter hair.

We are who we are, not who others see us as. It’s good to remember that, no matter how successful we think we are at controlling our identities.