GENDER IS NOT A HAIRCUT | In Nora Thurkle’s fiction, Kyla tries to capture a shifting sense of self in a haircut.
by Nora Thurkle
Kyla had trouble asking for what she wanted. So many times, as a little kid in the supermarket, when she was allowed to pick one thing, she went back and forth between the shelves full of Lego sets, science kits, swords and robots in shades of brown, grey, black, green, blue, purple, orange, and the dolls, dressing-up outfits and cuddly toys in pink, pink and pink on the other side, feeling a panicky urgency like she needed the toilet, and ended up saying she didn’t want anything. But not this time.
The shirt was yellow, but not like neon yellow, not too bright. It was perfect. It had zigzags on it, in dotwork, so from far away they looked like pencil shading. There were crisp black stripes on the shoulders and a black rim around the collar. The material was shiny and smooth. It was the away shirt, but Kyla liked it better than the home. She flipped through the different sizes for an 11–12. She was about to turn 13, but was too skinny for the next size, and she didn’t want it to look like she was borrowing someone else’s clothes.
Jesus, Ky, it’s forty quid! said Mum, grabbing the shirt and pulling the tag out of its neck. And I’ll tell you what else, people are gonna think you’re a boy even more in this shirt than they do now.
I don’t care if people think I’m a boy, said Kyla.
[She had sometimes wondered if she was really a boy, but that idea felt incomplete. She wasn’t not a girl, she thought, but she wasn’t just a girl. She felt different from day to day, lived in her body differently, a subtle shift.]
Yeah Mum, said Tegan, who was carrying a pair of plain black leggings for PE. What does it matter? And anyway, plenty of girls like football. There are loads of successful female footballers.
I haven’t heard of any, said Mum.
You haven’t heard of any footballers, said Tegan.
I have. David Beckham.
Mum, it’s 2020, said Kyla.
Maybe you could get the shirt but get a proper haircut, or get it coloured or something, said Mum, trailing her fingers over Kyla’s scalp.
She ducked away. Shut up Mum, I’m not dyeing my hair!
Kyla’s hair was unwashed, almost shoulder-length but with long straggly sections either side of her forehead where she used to have a fringe. The ends flicked out. There were a few boys in her year who sported the growing-out remnants of some long-ago haircut, just like her. Kyla was used to being asked if she was a boy or a girl. The hair, the lanky build – she was taller than Tegan already.
[Usually she nodded or grinned or laughed when boys told her, approvingly, that she wasn’t like the other girls, that she was actually fun and chill. She was friends with girls, just not at school. There were only a few girls in her class and they were already tight with each other, they came in unbroachable pairs, friendship-bracelet-official. Plus they mostly wanted to sit and chat during breaktimes and she needed to run and sweat, had all this physical energy she couldn’t carry back to lessons with her.]
Mum’s phone was ringing in her pocket, and she dropped the football shirt trying to answer it and hold her bags. Kyla picked it up. Mum beckoned them to the tills, continuing her conversation.
After they had paid, Tegan took the carrier bag with the leggings and the shirt inside, holding it away from Kyla. She wouldn’t have the shirt until her actual birthday. She knew that Tegan would stash it in the cupboard though, in case Mum wasn’t home when it was time for presents. So she could sneak a look whenever Tegan was out.
The hair was starting to be annoying. The ends of the ex-fringe tickled the corners of Kyla’s eyes, making her sneeze. The weather was getting warmer and the hair prickled her neck at the back, catching sweat. It wasn’t long enough to tie back, and she didn’t like to do that anyway – the look of her exposed face made her uncomfortable.
They went to the salon with Mum one Saturday, lured by promises of pizza afterwards. They crammed onto the small sofa by the door while Mum went to have her hair washed. The salon had a strong, stinging smell of hairspray; it stuck in your throat.
Kyla nudged her toe at stray tufts of hair on the floor. She reached for a magazine full of hairstyles, tiny dark bristles clinging to some of its pages. In the ‘Short and Sweet!’ section, she found the picture.
It was in black and white, and it took up half the page. The person was looking off to the side with an expression of annoyance or longing. There were faint vertical lines between their eyebrows; their mouth was half-open below the gentle slope of their nose, their eyes were dark, their cheekbones defined by shadows. A strong chin, no piercings in the ears. The person wore a black leather jacket and a white vest and had a tattoo on their neck, half-hidden by their collar.
The hair though! The sides of the person’s head were shaved to a charcoal scribble for several inches above the ears. Kyla thought about how it would feel under her fingers. The hair on top was longer, tousled into peaks and swirls, like flames photographed in black-and-white. Anyone with that hair, Kyla thought, must know who they were. She tore out the page discreetly, folded it and slipped it into her pocket.
When Mum’s haircut was done and she was getting her jacket, the hairdresser came over to them. So, who’s next? she beamed, looking straight at Kyla. It was obvious: Mum had put her up to this, she was avoiding eye contact.
Tegan sighed. Mum, really?
We know what you’re doing.
Kyla would maybe have said yes to the haircut now. But she had the picture in her pocket. She couldn’t get it out without revealing that she’d taken it. She just stayed quiet.
I think we’re all fine, said Tegan. Mum paid and they headed for Pizza Hut.
Kyla stuck the picture on the inside of the wardrobe in her and Tegan’s room, next to her poster of Megan Rapinoe. Tegan didn’t mention it.
“She felt a little jolt of disappointment every time she caught her reflection in a mirror, because of how little she resembled who she was in her mind.”
Gender is not a haircut, she had seen on someone’s T-shirt. But her hair was becoming an issue and she felt a little jolt of disappointment every time she caught her reflection in a mirror, because of how little she resembled who she was in her mind.
Not long after her birthday, she was at the park with a friend kicking a ball around and some older teenage boys were on the swings shouting and jeering at them, saying, What is that? And she couldn’t be totally sure they were talking about her; not sure enough to say anything. But her heart beat so hard she could feel it in her temples, and she wondered what they saw, if there was an answer to their question.
Kyla was coming up to thirteen-and-a-half by the time the blu-tack dried out and the picture fell from the inside of the wardrobe, lying incriminatingly on the floor with the face looking up. She picked it up, not looking at Tegan, who was reading on her bed.
Kyla’s fringe was no longer recognisable as such; she could tuck it behind her ears now. She could have tied her hair up, if she could forgo the sanctuary of it hanging heavy around her ears, available to hide behind if she just dipped her head. She had worn the yellow football shirt so many times it was starting to fray at the hem. She was wearing it today.
Do you want me to go to the hairdresser’s with you? said Tegan, not looking up either.
Nah it’s fine, said Kyla, my hair’s fine.
We could try that barber that Dad used to go to. It’s only ten minutes’ walk. I’ll buy you a Rio after.
The barber refused. I cut men’s hair, he said. This ain’t a salon.
Tegan kicked up a fuss, but Kyla just walked out. She chucked the picture in the bin outside.
[It was always like this – Tegan was fight, Kyla was flight. Once at the cinema a grown woman had said to her, Excuse me, this is the ladies’, actually, while blocking her way and staring her down. Kyla wanted to cry but she just turned and went outside and crossed her legs until they got home. Why didn’t you just tell her you’re a girl? asked Tegan later, and Kyla couldn’t answer, she didn’t know why.]
They sat on a low wall drinking from their cans. Let’s try the other one down the road, said Tegan. Kyla shook her head.
I haven’t even got the picture any more.
Why not? What did you do with it?
Tegan actually fished it out of the bin. Kyla had to laugh. A bit of orange peel came with it and Tegan shook it off onto the pavement, squealing. The picture itself was undamaged; it had only been in the bin for a few minutes.
The other barber loved them. Beautiful sisters, he kept saying. He had his own kid who was in the shop with him, sitting in the corner playing on a DS. What school you go to? Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Kyla didn’t really have to say much, and Tegan liked to talk anyway, especially about school. Her nose tickled as the barber’s scissors zipped back and forth, tiny sharp hairs floating like motes of dust in sunlight. The clippers buzzed against her head above her ears, and she felt a nervous catch in her throat. It took ages. She avoided looking at her face in the mirror. Hairs had collected in the black piping of her collar, sticking straight out like hedgehog spikes.
Finally the barber took some sticky paste and tweaked it carefully through the long hair on top, sculpting until it sat higher on her head. He twisted a few strands at the front between his fingers, positioning them just right.
Kyla looked at her reflection. The barber held a big square mirror behind her head too, so that she could see the neat line over the nape of her neck. What you think? he said, looking pleased with himself. It looked perfect. It really did. The shaved sides felt velvety under her fingertips. She smiled, caught Tegan’s smile in the mirror too.
It’s great, thank you so much, said Kyla.
Really beautiful, you will have to fight off the boys, now you have such a cool haircut. Beautiful. Don’t forget to tell about my business, eh, good review on Google.
The barber’s kid covered his face with his hands, shaking his head.
Tegan paid using the money Mum had left them for dinner; too much as usual, she was bad at keeping track. They used the change to get a box of wings to share. Thanks, said Kyla as they sat at the little plastic table.
No problem, said Tegan. You look brilliant. It really suits you.
Truthfully, it didn’t look that much like the picture. But she recognised herself now, and it was a start.
Nora Thurkle | @norathurkle
Nora is an emerging writer, born and still living in south-east London, and is currently writing her first novel. She has had work featured on Lunate, Liars’ League and Dear Damsels. She works as a primary school teacher.