(Disclaimer: This is a story of 2011 me, well before the idea of appropriation was in my awareness. There’s no way I would do this now or approach it the way I did then.)
I remember it clearly.
It was shortly after a life-evolving experience at a music festival (don’t all the “best” stories start with that? ha), I was ready for change.
Over the previous years I had found myself slanging various products and services over the phone as part of one high-paced sales floors to another. While the thrill, buzz, and sweat of closing deals and stacking bills had its moments, days after that fateful weekend, I found myself staring at my spreadsheet, wondering what the heck I was doing with my life.
Two weeks later, I quit.
Perhaps aligned with a primal instinct that comes with identity shifts and change, I decided to shave off my head.
Unsure but hopeful, and with the encouragement of my men’s group, I drove myself to the local Supercuts to meet a couple of other brothers who were also going to cut their hair and bring in something fresh and new.
I remember Dave, our ring leader of sorts, smiling at me as I reached the shop, a twinkle of mischief not unfamiliar in his eye.
“Why don’t you get a mohawk?” he asked with all the warmth and invitation of a seasoned instigator and pusher of social norms.
I paused, thought he was crazy, and yet while waiting for our numbers to be called, realized there was no good reason not to.
Feeling the support and container of our deepening men’s group and finding myself living by the familiar shores of Southern California, I saw how if I were ever going to do such a crazy thing, the time would be now.
I can still remember sitting in the chair and the smile the hairstylist gave when they realized I was serious.
And so it began.
For anyone who has ever shaved their hair, either as a desire for personal evolution, necessity, or show of support, you know the experience of releasing one’s “self” from the past and energetics held in hair is both an uncertain and somehow affirming experience.
Cultures across time have view hair and its styling as symbols and, even for some, as initiations.
This, though self-guided, very much felt like the latter. As my faux-hawk fell to the floor, leaving smooth sides and a luscious centerpiece, it felt like I was not only letting of societal norms and expectations, with it came a sense of rebellion.
For a moment, I felt kinship to the punks, rebels, and misfits who raged at a society that no longer could dictate how we showed up in the world.
Soon after, with a glint in my eye, I walked out of the shop, squeaky fresh, selfies in full effect, and ready for the next stage of my personal legend.
Here’s what I learned from the six months I had a mohawk.
People Are Going to Judge, No Matter How Short, Long, or High Your Hair Is
Pre-mohawk, I was always self-conscious when I’d walk into a room. What do they think of me? Do I look ok? Will they like me?
Looking back, I realize now how a lot of that had to do with an ever-present desire to fit in and belong, a fear of being judged, and a lack of knowing myself.
The thing is, when you walk into a party with a mohawk, you don’t fit in. Without a doubt, some people judge, and at some point, everyone knows there’s a mohawk guy roaming around.
I quickly learned that it’s not my job to worry, think about, or adjust myself based on what I perceived as other people’s judgments and expectations. Even to try to would lead me to stay home, hide in the bathroom, or become an awkward, silent fixture in the room. All of which happened more times than I’d like to admit.
What I didn’t know back then is how we always have the choice to create our sense of belonging. And more importantly, how the permission to do so cannot, and does not, come from others.
Personal Perception Is Reality and the Only One That Matters
What was remarkable for me during that time was how when I’d show up “looking normal” with a baseball cap or fedora (yikes, I know!) covering my hair, I’d walk into a room and feel exactly the same as how I did when I had the most remarkable hair in the room.
I’d feel unsure, insignificant, and afraid of people’s judgment. I’d think to myself; it must be because I’m “normal now” and don’t have something cool about me for people to like.
But then, I’d show up the very next day in full awesome hawk and still feel just as uncertain, unlikable, and not good enough.
I remember the first few times this happened. It really messed with my head as I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
Worse, would it always be this way? Would I always feel like I don’t fit in? That no matter what I did or do, I’ll always feel I don’t belong?
In some ways, this is still true on some very practical levels. The color of my skin, the realities of being “the other” in most social situations, and the dance of my inner angst are all aspects that are hard to ignore as an Asian-bodied human living in our modern world.
I believe humans experience the unique duality of looking out and seeing our reflection in how others respond to us while also having a deep knowing that who we are can never be fully seen by others until we see and value ourselves first.
People Value Your Value, Your Look
You may find it amusing (I still do!) to know that during this period of time, I decided to follow an inkling and started my first solo entrepreneurial venture focused on consulting small businesses in their marketing, sales, and systems.
I remember the first few times walking into networking meetings and feeling very much out of place. In those moments, I remembered to smile, to look people in the eye, and human as best as I could.
In marketing, they say it’s always good to have something for people to remember you by. Whether it’s a catchy slogan, a snazzy business card, or a high head of hair, humans remember what is novel and remarkable.
Though working with dozens of clients, I learned how, while my hair certainly brought an element of fun and creativity into the picture, what they most valued (and paid for) was how I served them and their business.
Whether it was chatting casually over drinks about marketing strategies, giving talks on mindset from a stage, or hosting workshops and events, what I found was people didn’t show up because of how I looked.
They showed up because I had something that would help them get what they wanted in life and business.
Keeping up an Image Is Hard, and Often Not Worth It
There’s something about having a mohawk, dreads, or any other eclectic fashion or hairstyle.
It takes time, attention, and effort, and usually lots of it.
I think back now and laugh. These days, while my hair is down to my waist and the ritual of combing and conditioning is very much a thing, I keep my personal primping down to a minimum.
During those mohawk days, even though I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror, I never actually saw myself.
Instead, hair products were laid out, bouncy tunes played in the background, and hours upon hours were spent looking just above my eyes to make my hair and style just right.
While the results were plenty of, “wow man, that’s cool!” and of course, “can I touch it?” by giggly girls at the bar, I often was left only with fleeting moments of feeling like I belonged, and then nothing.
As I became more used to having a high head of hair, there were many times when I would even forget I was rocking the hawk.
I also found that while there were times when I was keenly aware that the attention I was getting was because of the way I looked, there were other times when I’d feel fantastic and still get or feel rejected.
What this taught me is the identity that we believe is ours, the ones we demand, protect, and project, and even the one people perceive in their heads about us is none of our business.
When we place too much focus on what people think or on looking the part, we tend to forget ourselves and ironically dampen the organic spark in our eyes that draws people to us in the first place.
Living for Others Is a Fool’s Game
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during that time was a recalibration of who I was living my life for and how the only thing that actually mattered was how I showed up for myself.
What I realized held me back for so much of my life was a false perception, a grandiosity of my ego which always wants to believe it’s a bit more important and memorable than it really is.
How much did this one particular moment matter in the grand timeline of my life or the lives of others? While we all reach critical moments in our lives, I realized that my mind, my ego would always make the consequences of the present moment seem more significant than they are.
In my moments of doubt, before going up to give a presentation, definitely before approaching someone I found attractive, I reminded myself that everything in life is a matter of perspective, time is relative, and memory is fleeting.
This realization that while the risks and uncertainty I was facing seemed large and in charge, chances are they are forgotten by everyone (myself included eventually) the moment a new shiny thing or fresh challenge entered our lives.
This gave me a sense of freedom that I had never had before because it means it didn’t matter, or rather, the only one it mattered to was the voice inside my head.
While there may always be the innocent tribal aspects within me that want to belong, we are not here to live for or by other people’s standards, judgments, or our ego’s illusion. To do so is to live a life less lived and one which leaves us too easily swayed by the winds of life and social condition.
I’m grateful for how I found my roots, my inner ground over the years that followed. Through gentle, gradual processes of owning and speaking my truth, the elating experience of not giving two shakes about what others think, and the freedom in sharing and asking for what I want, I learned that the belonging I had always sought was within me the whole time.
While the desire to fit in, external validation, the thrill of social games, and the warmth of feeling of being seen and accepted are all part of the human experience, these are just fleeting moments.
I learned that if I am to bear fruit in this life and provide shelter from the storm for myself and others, the roots that matter aren’t found on the top of my head.
And for those who won’t believe until they see it!