OutLoud: Making the Cut

Or the Sad Tale of Sally’s Tail

by Sally Sheklow

When I first started growing my tail, it was just a spit curl—a tuft at my nape barely long enough to twirl around a finger, a wisp of deviation from the lesbian norm.

Like most lesbians coming out in the 1970s, I defied the patriarchy by cutting off my hair. I blossomed during that golden era of dyke anti-fashion when women rejected compulsory heterosexuality and tossed away our curlers—or made social commentary art projects out of them. Short hair liberated us. We’d be women, not chicks or ladies, and definitely not girls. It felt funny to call our 20-something selves women, but there was power in it. Dignity. And we got used to it.

During that Amazon Age, we dropped out of the beauty industry on principle. We cut our own hair or found a friend to do it. We women were discovering our power and refused to be distracted by appearances. We wanted freedom. Shirtless dykes circled around campfires, sang to the female Divine, and took turns shaving each other’s heads. Cropped hair was our lesbian ID.

I liked the no-nonsense experience of a buzz cut. But I missed having my hair to play with, the feel of it down my back, a lover stroking it. So I grew the tail. While I whole-heartedly joined dykedom’s rebellion against het standards, my tail freed me from conforming with the nonconformists.

By the time I finished college and had to find a job, my tail was nearly a foot long. I kept it braided and tucked under my collar out in the world. When I chose, I let it loose. During those final months of school, I had no time for hair-cutting rituals, and mine was getting bushy and wild. I needed to look presentable for a job interview, so I bit the bullet. I found a minimally offensive dress at Goodwill and ventured beyond my food co-op comfort zone into an actual grocery store where I bought pantyhose in a plastic egg (I focused on the Goddess energy of The Egg). Then I braved a salon.

I hadn’t seen that much pink since I was swathed in it at birth. I flipped through the stylebooks for an acceptable cut. One model sported a minimal crop of curl on top, tapered to a trim edge at the ears and neck, and slight sideburns—compliant enough for gainful employment and butch enough to keep me recognizable to other dykes.

“This one,” I showed the stylist. “Can you make my hair look like that?”

“No problem.” My stylist was male, but he was gay, so I made allowances. His blonde-streaked coif seemed glued in place. Stylist Man couldn’t wait to get his hands on my unruly mop. I sat in a vinyl swivel chair surrounded by mirrors. Nail polish fumes poisoned the air, commingling with chemicals from various gels, mousses, and styling sprays. With my hair flat and wet from shampooing, my reflection looked like Moe the stooge. Nyuk nyuk.

Stylist Man wielded his comb and scissors in a flurry of lifting and snipping. I closed my eyes—partly to protect myself from the falling hairs, but mostly to keep from witnessing my defoliation at the hands of the beauty industry incarnate. No circle of bare-breasted chanting witches midwifed me through this rite of passage—just the whir of hair dryers and the thump of music and the sulfur stench of perm solution.

“Do you want to keep your tail?” Stylist Man asked.

“Yes, definitely!” Wasn’t it obvious? Apparently a man can’t be expected to possess the intuition of a woman—even if he is gay. I would certainly have made it clear if I’d been ready to let go of my precious, carefully nurtured, laden-with-symbolism-and-significance tail.

“Here you go, then.”

Stylist Man held out my disembodied tail.

It hung there from his fingertips. I wanted to rewind, call for do-overs. I struggled to register the instant reality of a done deal. I was tailless. Nothing unique or creative or rebellious about me. Just a salon customer with a haircut out of a book.

My defiance symbol was gone. No tail to make me different, to signify my rebel spirit. That tail had been my amulet of individuality. Now I had no outer freak flag to fly.

After that I stopped cutting my hair altogether. These days it does what it wants and is happy that way. Occasionally, I rifle through my underwear drawer and pull out the long narrow box that holds my old tail. It seems so sedate now—just a limp, lifeless braid. But it reminds me of how nervy I once was to break from the norm. Reminds me I’ve always had the wildness inside, part of me no matter what.

Writer Sally Sheklow grows her own hair in Eugene, Oregon.


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