On letting go of who you want to be and accepting who you are

With less than a month to go before I’ll have completed my undergraduate education, there’s been a lot of reflecting going on around me. As I look back on the person I’ve become and the person I used to be, it’s hard for me to imagine how I got to where I am today.

Call it what you want—growing up, gaining experiences, or maturing—I’ve changed since my freshman year.

Thinking I wanted to be one of these was fun for a while.

When I entered college, I was pre-med. I wanted to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. The prospect of a career as a doctor was intriguing to me, partly because of the money and stability, partly because I had no idea what else to do with my life and I had liked biology in high school. As I exit the University of Michigan, I’ll be pursuing a career in journalism. Undoubtedly, I won’t have a stable career. Journalism, as a profession, is one of great movement. I’m assuming I’ll have more than a couple job changes before I’m 25. Who knows, I might even change professions again.

Right around the same time I decided to pursue journalism, some other changes were happening.

For my first two years of college (and this probably applies more to sophomore year), I had in my head an idea of who I wanted to be. The old me used to go to the library every day. I finished papers well in advance of when they were due. I used to proofread everything. I used to attend every single class period. I would wake up at 7 a.m. every morning, including weekends, just so I could say that I did. If I wasn’t in bed by midnight, something was wrong. I would forego hanging out with friends because I had an orgo exam. But I wasn’t doing wonderfully in school. It was frustrating to work so hard and still feel like a failure. I made my bed every day and kept my room spotless. I wanted to appear perfect to the outside world, but I was shy and scared. I never participated in class, oral presentations scared me, and I was self-conscious about everything. I would stress about every little imperfection.

This is so cheesy, right?

Eventually I came to the realization that I wasn’t enjoying myself. I dropped any pretense that I was, or could ever be, a perfect human being. I started to let go of some of the control that I felt I needed. I changed my major to something more attainable (Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science). I began to open up more in front of my friends. I put my flaws on display.

Whereas I used to suppress all emotions and pretend to be happy all the time, now I can recognize my unhappiness. I used to be content. Looking back, my emotions were flat-lined. Now, I even let myself wallow in unhappiness and self-loathing, but it only makes those happy moments that much better. I’m definitely having more fun. I’ve learned to not take myself (and life) so seriously. I participate all the time in class without worrying that everyone thinks I’m stupid; oral presentations in front of a class of 80 are no sweat.

I’m hesitant to call my old self insecure, but looking back, that had to have been the unrecognized root of at least some of my problems. Not all the changes I’ve experienced were positive. Some have had negative effects on my life, but I’ve matured and I’m embracing the new me. Or is it the real me?

Long Hair, Definitely Care

Lately, I’ve found myself consumed with the most First World of problems. I cannot stop thinking about cutting my hair. I spend the time I should be working googling things like “short curly hair” (dominated by cute-as-a-button, mid-90s Meg Ryan) and folding my hair under in the mirror to try to imagine what I’d look like with a sassy, flapper-esque bob.

Let me make a fairly embarrassing fact about myself perfectly clear. I am obsessed with my hair. Stupidly, vainly, exhaustingly so. I have Facebook profile pictures of just my hair. It is long, strawberry blonde and curly, but not in that Pepper Anne way (though I am much too cool for seventh grade). It is, if I may say so myself, fairly awesome hair. It’s the feature that people in the grocery store and the women’s restroom comment on, the thing I feel most proud of, at least physically, and most defined by. It’s my signature. And that, I’m worried, is part of the problem.

I’m partially interested in chopping off my long locks because I recently realized that I do not look remotely like an adult with hair that almost reaches my butt. Think, for example, of Hair Goddess (love her or hate her, she’s got luscious tresses) Sarah Jessica Parker. I’m worried I’m more this SJP:

What was I thinking with these bangs?

… when what I’m really going for is this one:

I have so got my shit together.

But it’s more than that. I’m also worried it might be really unhealthy and bad for my psyche, and my chi and my inner peace and whatever else is going on in there, to be so singularly attached to an aspect of my appearance. There is nothing remotely zen about thinking your hair is the most important and self-actualizing thing about you. In fact, it seems like that’s an extremely delicate and dangerous thread on which to hang self-worth.

I think we all do this (ladies and maybe even men — y’all tell me). And in a way, it’s just the other side of the self-consciousness coin. In the same way that we worry our {insert part of body} isn’t {insert “positive” descriptor} enough, we worry that we’d be less worthwhile or less important or liked and admired less if that one tenuous physical attribute we actually like about ourselves ever went away. It’s why, as a culture, we’re so obsessed with youth. We’re completely freaked out that having relatively perky breasts and butts and young, smooth skin is all that’s keeping us even remotely relevant. As Everything Goddess Tina Fey wrote in her marvelous memoir “Bossypants,” “I have a suspicion … that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Worrying so obsessively about cutting my hair probably has a lot to do with the worrying we all do, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, about walking that fine fuckable/crazy line. Will people in the “real world” take me seriously with mermaid hair? Will I be less attractive without it? Why, oh why, does this even matter to me?

So I’m curious: Do the rest of you have this struggle, with anything about your appearance? Do you feel defined by your looks, or trapped by them, and is that the same thing? Are we all spending as much time as I am secretly freaking out that no one will like us anymore if we chop off all our hair? Probably not, but it’d be nice to know I’m not totally alone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go ask my mom for the hundredth time if I should get a damn haircut.