“I always ask myself ‘Who is Leah?’ I always say that. And it makes me so angry. I’ll try to answer the question, then I realize I can’t. Of course I know at some level, but then I don’t— I confuse myself… I’ve never put this into words before.”
I first had the pleasure of spending time with Leah while leading her kayak trip during her Orientation to The Island School. Having just arrived, with eyes peeled wide by curiosity, she was eager to discover this new place and herself within it. It was when she received her acceptance letter that she began consider the idea of cutting her hair very short. Her friends at home in Burlington told her it wouldn’t look good and that she would look like her brother, “that was my biggest fear.”
The Island School is a semester school for high school students in Eleuthera, Bahamas. It is an intentional community, one that requires those who live within it to consider themselves as environmental stewards. This looks like composting after every meal, minimizing our carbon footprint through shared vehicles, wind and solar power feeding our campus, and two minute showers. “I approached cutting my hair from a practical standpoint. I knew I was going to be living here for 100 days, I didn’t want to bring makeup; I didn’t want to waste any of my experience worrying about hair. But at the same time, I was using my living in this type of place as an excuse to cut it. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to do it back home. This was a new start.” And while new starts bubble with excitement, they are also daunting. Coming into a new place, she expected to be embraced for her decision, however she felt both surprise and disappointment in feeling left out. “For some reason, I felt like cutting my hair might lead me towards figuring out who I am.” Just the opposite occurred as she learned that these strands didn’t have to contribute to who she was if she didn’t want them to. Leah was able to come out of herself, to move beyond the superficial qualities of her appearance and to begin to see herself for what she stands for: “truth, passion, honesty, and family.” She says, “I feel judged about it, but then I realize that it doesn’t really matter.”
When Leah was younger, she had thick black waist-long hair. She would never wear it down. It was unnatural and inconvenient to her. “My mom bought me a book about ‘letting your curly hair go.’ It was supposed to boost my confidence but I never did let it go.”
I ask Leah if she feels nervous to return home with her new look and self-awareness. “People who know me well will be supportive, but acquaintances will definitely judge me. I know I am strange and can be socially awkward,” she says, owning the quirky qualities we all possess. “I like star wars. I still play with Legos. But my friends who know me– that is what they love about me. When people first meet you they don’t open themselves up to embrace that. I don’t want to judge, I’ve really tried to limit that.” We can only wish that all young people can rise to this degree of honesty and see strength in vulnerability as Leah does.
At the end of our conversation Leah asks, “Why do you think I cut my hair”? I tell her that I think she knows why; she was challenging herself to be who she is. None of us ever know exactly who we are, we are constantly becoming. It is about finding that core that you carry with you. It seems like cutting her hair was the first step in Leah’s understanding of what it is that she wants to carry. She is reminded of a quote and shares, ‘Some say what defines me, others say why do I have to be defined.’ “I like that quote” she says, “because I think I am always trying to define. I know I can’t, but it is hard not to. I am starting to become okay with that.”
Photo Credit: Erik Kruthoff