Commentary: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel”


HOST INTRO: For the first commentary in our new series, where reporters reflect on their personal stories, Maddy Foley tells us about her relationship with something she’s had her entire life.

FOLEY: Tucked away in my desk is the first award I ever won. The circle of red construction paper is faded, now, where a row of long-lost star stickers once glittered. The two red, white and blue ribbons that hang off the bottom are raggedy and bent and a little dusty. I brought that award home pinned to my day camp shirt, the summer between kindergarten and first grade.

“Best Hair” is printed neatly in Sharpie across the handmade award’s center.

My whole life, my hair has been my defining physical feature.

By the time I was three years old, I was cross-eyed, sporting bright purple bifocal glasses that took up half my face. When my adult teeth grew in, there were big gaps between each tooth, and the front two stuck out. I was scrawny, too, always the shortest in my class.

But I had long, thick, curly hair, the color of a penny. I was born with a head full of it — that’s one of my mom’s favorite anecdotes. My first haircut wasn’t until the third grade. My hair and I grew up together. It became a security blanket, one I could hide behind (literally) when I felt insecure about the rest of myself.

Some days, I would wear my hair in one long braid. I would run around the playground, whipping my braid back and forth menacingly, like a rope. Other times, I had two big buns on top of my head, like cat ears. Once in a while I’d just wear my hair down, swishing like a mermaid’s tail.

I wondered sometimes what would happen if I just cut off all my hair. Tucking my ponytail into the back of my shirt, I’d look in the mirror. Who would I be to my friends, if it wasn’t Rapunzel or Ariel the mermaid or Pippi Longstocking? How would people describe me, if it wasn’t “that girl with the big hair?”

At the time, one of my favorite movies was the “Little Women” adaptation from the ‘90s. There’s a scene where the main character, Jo, is desperate for money to buy a train ticket. So she pawns her only thing of value.

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Jo: I sold my hair.

Amy: Jo, how could you! Your one beauty!

“Your one beauty!” My question answered itself. So I kept my hair long.

I kept my hair long through high school and college. I kept my hair long through office jobs in Washington, D.C. and restaurant gigs in Chicago. Two years ago, I got into grad school and moved to New York. I kept my hair long then, too.  

Since then, I got a job — and then another job. I started taking the train through Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and Queens almost every day for work. I got an apartment, a sixth floor walkup. From the fire escape, you can see the midtown high rises glittering against the sky. I spend a lot of time out there, on the fire escape, looking at the lights. I like imagining all the hundreds of thousands of people who turned those lights on, a big, fast-moving, hard-working community. And I like remembering that I’m part of that community, now, too, something I had dreamed about all those years ago on the playground.  

A few months ago, I was back in the hair salon I grew up going to. Busy with other things, I’d been wearing my hair in a big pile on top of my head. It was full of knots and split ends. “It’s just too… heavy,” I said when I made the appointment.

I told the stylist I wanted my hair short — really short. The shortest it’s been since my hair first started growing. And for an hour, I watched over two decades of an identity fall onto the floor. I looked in the mirror. I was still there.

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