Curls, cut and a catharsis

About four months after my last haircut, the curls start taking shape.

Story highlights

  • CNN writer Eliott McLaughlin goes for 2+ years without a haircut
  • His long curls baffle and amuse coworkers, friends
  • McLaughlin shows up to work one day and the locks are gone
  • He donates his hair to Wigs 4 Kids, a charity that makes wigs for sick children
On a recent Friday, I stepped into a place I hadn't been in years.
"Oh, wow!" Shawn Black, my longtime hair stylist, said as I entered the salon. He's been cutting my hair for a decade, but he hadn't seen me in about 26 months.
Chuckling at his reaction, I thought back to the dozen times over the previous year that my good friend, Ed, had told me he was going in for a trim and I asked him to assure Shawn I hadn't fired him.
I slipped into the black chair and watched in the mirror as Shawn carefully separated my bouffant into about 15 ponytails an inch or two above my scalp. The mildly uncomfortable hair-pulling process was the requisite for Wigs 4 Kids, a charity that manufactures wigs for youngsters with illnesses.
From the back, I looked more like Snoop Dogg, except not as cool.
Before I get into how Shawn lopped off 13 inches of my hair, let me explain how I came to acquire the mop atop my head.
My mum passed last May. A few months before she bravely marched on, I was visiting her at her Stone Mountain, Georgia, home, where she was essentially bedridden. She noted my hair was getting long.
"I've never seen your curls like this," she said, reaching up and taking one of the corkscrews in her fingers. "It's beautiful. Why have you never grown it out before?"
The answer was simple: Pops would have skewered me.
A few weeks after my mother passed away, I went to England to spread her ashes off the red cliffs on the coast.
A hippie or woman
My father had died a few years earlier, but he had instilled in me since my teen years that certain things don't belong on boys, long hair among them. Another no-no was earrings.
I vividly recall being shamed into removing the one I acquired in high school over spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida.
It rested in my lobe for only a week, but pop's constant harassment those seven days -- primarily manifested in accusations that I had turned into a hippie or a woman -- eventually convinced me to extract the cubic zirconia stud.
There are only so many times you can hear your father joke, "I'm heading to the store. You need anything? Skirts? Tampons?"
When mum passed, it had been a while since my last haircut. It was already getting long for my taste. Why I went another year without cutting it, I am not sure.
Maybe it was cathartic, or perhaps it was because mum said she liked it. Maybe I was just getting back at dad for making me take out the earring when all the cool kids had one.
Hell if I know. I just let it grow, and gravity eventually pulled the corkscrews past my shoulders.
Problems ensued, issues I had never faced before.
My hair would get caught in things like the recliner and my laptop. If I rested sunglasses on my dome, the curls stubbornly entangled the nosepiece. When eating on patios, the wind would blow the locks into my mouth alongside a forkful of food, an awkward (and kinda gross) sensation to say the least.
On vacation in Panama several weeks back, it became too much. The humidity left me drenched. I couldn't cool off. My hair kept falling into my eyes. I emerged from a swim in the ocean looking like Cousin Itt.
The curls get out of hand during a vacation to Panama in March.
I tried putting it in a ponytail, something for which I had previously never found cause in life. It provided relief from the heat, but if you put me in a pastel leisure suit I could've doubled for a drug lord on "Miami Vice." Not really the look I was going for.
The hair had to go. I mentioned this to friends, who had mixed responses. Some had grown accustomed to the shaggy locks; others had been praying I'd get a trim. One suggested I donate my hair.
My first reaction: "Who the hell would want my hair?"
Shorn for a cause
A little research yielded many takers: charities that collect the hair to make wigs for the terminally ill, namely cancer patients whose radiation or chemotherapy treatments had caused their hair to fall out. Sufferers of alopecia and trichotillomania also receive the wigs.
I won't purport to have done my journalistic due diligence on which organization is "the best." I'm sure they all have merits, despite the lack of diversity in naming them.
I chose Wigs 4 Kids because it focuses on children, had great reviews, spends 80% of its budget on programs and its website features a charming before-and-after photo gallery of wig recipients.
Their smiles were so much wider in the pictures where they showed off their new hair than in the photos depicting them bald. The resplendent grins reminded me of a charity my pal helps organize here in Atlanta, the Songs for Kids Foundation.
The group takes musicians to children's hospitals, not only to play music but also to let the kids join in -- singing, songwriting, strumming axes, banging on drums. The little rock stars are giddy when they get their chance on the mic.
Wigs and drums may not seem as important as efforts to, say, find cures to the diseases ailing these youngsters, but until cures are found, there is more to treatment than palliative care.
Self-esteem can go a long way in a youngster's fight to survive, providing her/him with the necessary confidence to believe the battle is a winnable one.
Innocent as they often may be, kids can be cruel. We're all familiar with the schoolyard clique or bully that picks on the kid who's smaller or different in some way.
As Songs for Kids notes, illness can further isolate a child. So while a wig may seem like a small gesture, being able to scamper across a baseball field or twinkle-toe across a dance studio -- without worrying about your hairpiece falling off or your baldness making you an outcast -- that can be an enormous deal.
It's a chance to earn acceptance, to show you're a lot like everyone else, no matter what ails you. Most importantly, it's a chance to be a kid when a dastardly disease is doing its best to make you grow old faster than you'd like.
Chop and a snip
That's what compelled me to finally call Shawn. I didn't have any Sampsonian connection to my hair so it was a fairly emotionless ordeal, though we both had good laughs as he finished up the ponytailing process.
Finally! I am clean cut, except for the sideburns, and far better prepared for the imminent Atlanta summer.
A cup of gin and juice and some melanin, and I would've made a decent Snoop Dogg. Shawn felt it wise to document the look in digital imagery.
I was sure the pictures would never see the light of day, but I've found myself sharing them with friends who were all too willing to join me in laughing at myself. Thanks, guys.
Shawn finished by carefully scissoring off each ponytail and laying it on a table so it could be prepared for shipping.
When he was done, he exclaimed with surprise, "Did you know these were under here?!"
Thinking I had a rash or perhaps birds nesting in the 'fro, I nervously replied, "No! What?"
"These chops," he said, laughing.
Ahh, yes. I confessed to knowing about the sideburns, though I hadn't given them much thought as they'd been obscured for months. I told him he could go ahead and cut them off.
He declined, saying they "square up" my face. I still don't know what that means, but I assumed from his tone it's a good thing.
In all, it took about 90 minutes to get me seriously streamlined. I got the double-take all last week from co-workers who were surprised to see me show up Monday with a buzzcut and sideburns. Some mocked me, asking if I'd lost a bet or expressing relief I no longer looked like a Muppet.
Me, I'm much cooler now, which is important considering the sweltering Atlanta summer is almost upon us. I'm also pleased that my 26-month grooming experiment served some purpose other than catharsis, if that's what it was.
To the delight of my co-workers (well, most of them) I brought the chopped-off locks to the newsroom.
I'll even go so far as to thank our weekend homepage editor for convincing me to write in the dreaded first person so we could educate people about donating 'dos to organizations aiming to normalize a few challenging lives.
But this will probably (read, most definitely) be my last foray into writing about hair. If you'll excuse me, I'll go back to writing about hard news, sports and hip-hop now.