I was in the third grade when I came home from school one day and announced to my mom that I wanted to cut off all my hair. I was inspired by my teacher and loved the way her hair casually framed her face, with no ponytails or clips necessary. It was effortless and unique at a time when long hair was considered the epitome of beauty for women. As someone who always preferred to stand out than blend in, it was easy to defy the norm, even as a child.
Not wanting to argue with eight-year-old Isabel, my mom took me to the salon for the big chop. While I am confident I could have rocked any hairstyle at that age, I looked especially cute after my haircut. My tiny curls found their new pattern snuggly above my ears, and most importantly, I felt fabulous.
As I walked into school the next day, my confidence, once unwavering, began to splinter as my peers snickered at my new style. "You look like a boy!" they shouted, laughing like my short hair was the funniest thing they had seen all day. "Are you gay?" they pushed, believing that any woman with short hair had to have been a lesbian. It was 2004, after all, bisexuality was nonexistent in the media we were exposed to as children.
I sat on the bus home after school and cried, covering my hair with a hoodie, I snagged in the lost and found. I regretted everything. While I couldn't name it at the time, internally, I was struggling with the fact that there was truth in what the kids were saying to me. Part of me did like girls and boys. But because I wasn't quite ready to live that truth, I vowed never to cut my hair again—even if it meant living most of my life in the metaphorical closet of queerness.
While I didn't know it at the time, that haircut and the response from my classmates were enough homophobia and embarrassment for me to deny myself embracing my sexuality outwardly for the rest of my childhood and teens. If I wasn't gay, nor was I straight, it didn't feel like there was anywhere I fit in, especially if I didn't look the part. So I opted for a heteronormative identity instead, forcing myself to believe that if I grew my hair as long as a mermaid, people would assume I was straight.
But that facade can only stand for so long. Eventually, after years of feeling alone in my struggles, I came out as bisexual in 2019 at 22-years-old. I desperately wanted to be part of the big colorful gay world, but I felt lost with no bisexual fairy godmother to guide me.
According to sexuality researcher Victoria Clarke who has done extensive work understanding the construction of queer identities, word association plays a big role in how we perceive ourselves and others. "For my students, the word lesbian conjures up associations like ugly, butch, masculine, or short hair," Clarke explains. "Whereas gay men are allied to style, fashion, and grooming." However, when it came to asking her class about bisexual identity, there was no clear image.
For centuries queer people have been using clothes and accessories to display their sexual identity in a way that helps other people know when they are not alone, known as signaling. However, without the visual guidance that lesbians and gay men are privy to, I was pushed to explore my sexuality in other ways, even if unhealthy at times (like feeling I had to prove my sexuality to other queer people).
It finally clicked that the only person whose validation mattered regarding my sexuality was my own.
This was also made more difficult because I was in a long-term relationship with a man. "People particularly struggle to read people as bisexual if they are in a long-term relationship with one person. This means that in a sense, once people are married, the gender of their partner is indicative of their 'real' sexuality," writes Julia Shaw, author of Bi, the hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality.
Because of this, I knew it was important that I still found a way to express my bisexuality, regardless of my monogamous relationship. Julia Hartman-Linck, scholar and feminist activist, writes in Keeping Bisexuality Alive: Maintaining Bisexual Visibility in Monogamous Relationships that "being visible as a bisexual woman was important not in terms of being recognized by potential sexual partners, but rather be recognized or who they 'are,' for their authentic selves." Still, I wasn't sure how.
After a few years of struggling to express my bisexuality without falling into stereotypes, I finally found relief after stumbling upon bisexual TikTok, also known as BiTok. For years I was terrified of fully expressing myself because I did not want to be misidentified as a lesbian or straight woman. But after an afternoon scrolling through content showing proud bisexuals with nose rings, tattoos, long hair, short hair, and a mix of femme and masc style, I finally understood what it meant to embrace your bisexuality visually, something I longed for ever since my first big chop.
Because of BiTok, I could re-parent my inner child and face my greatest fear: cutting my hair short as fuck, even if that meant people thinking I was a lesbian. Luckily, I am no longer eight-years-old, and there are much worse things to be called than a cast member of The L Word. I will gladly take it if that means showing up as my authentic self.
"Accurate portrayals of bisexuality are reflected (and gain traction) on TikTok because they find a way to make an individual's personal bisexual experience universal. When we feel seen, we feel validated, and we're further encouraged to show up as the best versions of our bisexual selves," writes Amanda Kohr, a fellow bisexual queen. Her sentiments are exactly how I felt scrolling through photos and videos of people just like me.
After a few months of pinning images of Ilana Glazer, Alia Shawkat, Kristin Stewart, and other bisexual icons to my hair Pinterest board, I booked an appointment for the big chop. I had been growing my hair successfully for years (in an attempt to cover up my true self), but after a weekend with a few queer friends, my gut told me it was time to stop hiding behind my strands and embrace who I wanted to be. It finally clicked that the only person whose validation mattered regarding my sexuality was my own.
According to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a member of Byrdie's Review Board, hair has long been associated with sexuality and attractiveness. Thus, it is not surprising that those caught between two worlds of sexuality find it hard to conform to either. "Studies have not explored this particular phenomenon but suggest that lesbian women felt that if their hair was long, other lesbians might not be too accepting or respecting of them," Hafeez explains. "There is a struggle to create new norms of beauty and appearance for the evolving image of what it means to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community and, perhaps, a desire to reject old conventional standards."
With the support of my husband and the promise that he would love me even if my hair looked terrible (which it thankfully did not), I chopped off more than 10 inches of my hair and left the salon feeling lighter and more confident than ever before. I could not believe that I finally did it, the thing that had terrified me for so long.
While there are many ways, you can express your bisexuality in monogamous relationships, for me, the greatest of all has been conquering my irrational fear of "looking too gay" and getting the haircut of my dreams. For the first time in my life, I feel seen for who I truly am, and a lot of it is thanks to TikTok. I know I can have short hair and be feminine or dress more masculine and still rock a bold red lip. There is no one-size-fits-all for looking bisexual, but seeing how others do it is a great place to start for anyone else feeling lost.
Clarke V, Turner K. V. Clothes maketh the queer? Dress, appearance and the construction of lesbian, gay and bisexual identities. Feminism & Psychology. 2007;17(2):267-276.
Hartman-Linck JE. Keeping bisexuality alive: maintaining bisexual visibility in monogamous relationships. Journal of Bisexuality. 2014;14(2):177-193.