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Anatomy Of A Haircut

A renaissance story of personal transformation, one haircut at a time.

By Liam Ma
Illustration by Zoé Maghamès Peters
October 30th 2023

because you
            were never
            only beautiful
            to be found

– Ode to Masturbation, Ocean Vuong

Act I : The Wash of Identity

It’s 2008, and I’m cutting out a picture of Taylor Lautner after sifting through countless Tumblr fan edits to find just the right one. I dim the brightness on my screen as low as it goes as I steal glances at his chiseled body. I remind myself what I’m here for, “I just want hair like his.” His hair is slicked with gel. His body, oiled and smooth. His olive skin looks like mine. 

I feel a mixture of excitement and shame as I present the photo to my hairstylist at Great Clips. “I want something like this,” I reason almost apologetically. My eyes are fixed straight ahead, watching her every move. She works methodically. The rhythmic hum of the clippers changes as the teeth of the blade makes contact with my hair. She works quickly and the dulled scissors often pull. As she works, I can already feel my hope begin to fade—

I rush home and lock myself in the bathroom. I pull out a pair of scissors from behind the mirror. Fragments of hair stick to my sweating palms, my shoulders. As I cut, the prick of each piece leaves an itch, like bugs crawling on skin. I'm surrounded by the evidence of my work, feeling frustrated and disappointed and relentlessly critical. In a month my hair will grow back, and in a month I’ll try again. I survey the rest of my mostly hairless body. An absence of hair weighs as much as its presence. For its lack, I am lost; I know only to remove what exists.

Act II : The Cut of Death

I’m staring at the memorial photo of my mom at her wake. It’s her master’s graduation photo. With her dark gown and ginormous permed hair, I wonder if we are more alike than I realize. I never saw a model for my relationship with her and yet, I see so much of myself in her, and her in me. Her death ushers in another death; I find a freedom in the death of expectation, the absence of a dictated influence over my existence. In turn, I bleach my hair. I shave it short. I grow it out. Life goes on in the continuum of grief. Looking into her expression, I wonder if she would have afforded her younger self the same permission to just be—to simply exist free of obligations and expectations.

Act III : The Styling of a Temporary Release

Hair is in itself a community, a multitude of strands. And with each strand I am reminded: What am I bleaching away? What am I shaving away? As I dismiss my hair, I dismiss community—a community offered innately by circumstance, but conditional in its embrace. Hair is passed down and with each generation, it changes and mutates and marks your lineage. And whether present or absent, it is an anatomical manifestation of a relationship that begs one to attend to and tend to the collective. It is an active practice of care that can be transformative only if it challenges existing understandings of power, access, community, and identity.

Hair is the multiple deaths experienced while trying to find our way towards self-knowledge. A way towards desire. Each strand enters the world destined for death. In a queer world, there is no reality in which our lives are not precarious, not endangered. We live in a constant state of impending mortality. So I mourn these deaths over and over as I am reminded of the cost, the toil to uphold a hope for the sacred space that exists between birth and death, when death is already on its way.

Liam Ma is an actor, writer, and McGill University engineering alumnus with a background specialized in biomechanics and sustainable design. Liam recommends: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee; Bad Thoughts by Nada Alic; epsom salt baths; and bengal spice tea

Currently living in the french countryside (Lacelle, Corrèze), Zoé started her life as an illustrator in 2020, after a master’s degree in gender and sexuality studies (EHESS, Paris) and a training in collaborative fashion design/upcycling (Casa93).





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