After Tragic Loss, Beauty Rituals Take On A Whole New Meaning

When a haircut can—and can’t—fix everything

by Bren Gomez

For most of my life, there weren't many problems that I couldn't fix with some sort of beauty product or ritual. The all-black outfit that needed a pop of color in the form of a bright lipstick. A last-minute gift of an eyeshadow palette before attending a birthday party. The mindless scanning of Sephora's website, fixing those times when I was hopelessly bored. A new hair color sating my restless need for change. This in my DNA; I've worked in beauty in some capacity—a writer, publicist, or makeup artist—since I was a teenager. For me, beauty has always been about fun and possibility. I wasn't interested in looking natural or understated—I don't wear teal eyeliner to look natural—I used beauty to be creative, to better express the version of myself that I wanted to be seen by other people.

My choices in hair and makeup have always announced me to the world in ways that words cannot. One look at my makeup, or lack thereof, can tell my friends if I'm feeling badass, pretty, sick, tired, or stressed. Dark lipstick is for when I want to look unfuckwithable. Double-stacked false lashes are if I know I’m going to be photographed. Three different shades of bronzer are for when I’m looking a little pale. A full face of makeup means, "Hey, I had time to give a fuck about the state of my eyebrows today."

When I found out I was pregnant, the last thing on my mind was my eyebrows. It was a shocking revelation, discovered only after a trip to the ER for uncontrollable vomiting. I had been confirmed sterilized years prior; as far as I knew, a pregnancy was "impossible." In the words of the doctor who saw me, "It's rare, but it happens. The human body is a miracle." 

Sometimes miracles don't feel so... miraculous. Sometimes they feel like a two-ton truck just drove through your bedroom window. I had never really put any thought into having kids; I just always assumed that I wouldn’t or couldn’t. Now, I was 31 years old with a healthy pregnancy, and I was forced to ask myself, Is this what I want? 

I didn’t have an easy answer. I called Planned Parenthood and made an appointment for an abortion. I canceled it the day before. I made another one. I canceled that one too. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I was not in a relationship anymore with the would-be father; we had called things off the month before. I had hoped telling him would make the decision easier. It did, and it didn’t. He wasn’t interested in having a relationship with me, much less a child.

Ultimately, I decided on a medication-based abortion, a two-day process. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. It felt like I was closing the door on ever having kids, at least biologically. When I told the father, he was relieved and said he would be there to support me. The day of my appointment, I didn’t wear any makeup or comb my hair. I didn’t feel like I needed to look good for this. I also didn’t hear from my partner at all that day, and he stood me up the next day when I took the second round of pills. Because I had counted on him being there, I hadn’t made arrangements to have any friends or family with me. 

That made an incredibly difficult situation even worse. The abortion was hard on me, harder than any of the literature or websites or my friends had said it would be. I want to be clear: I am not saying that this is representative of all abortions. It’s different for everyone because every situation is unique. I don’t regret my decision at all, but being alone made it worse and him not being there left me feeling abandoned and angry. I was filled with rage and disbelief and an incredibly profound feeling of loss, all things for which I was not prepared. It caught me off-guard and made me feel guilty. I experienced the kind of all-encompassing grief that took over my life, making me a prisoner and preventing me from doing anything else except giving in to my emotions. I had no idea how to process all of it.

I tried to fix it with beauty products and rituals, but that didn’t work, which left me surprised. I felt no joy when I tried to apply makeup. I felt lonely and empty. I canceled hair appointments, even though I desperately needed a haircut. I let my acrylics grow out until they broke off, then gave in to my former bad habit of nail biting. I stopped washing my hair and started using only face wipes to “wash” my face. My expansive makeup collection went largely untouched, save for Tarte’s Rainforest of the Sea Aquacealer concealer. That helped hide the darkness under my eyes that revealed I hadn’t been sleeping. It’s really hard to explain that you spend all day in bed but you never sleep. It’s hard to explain your greasy hair when everyone knows you carry dry shampoo in your purse. 

It's not that I didn’t have time for self-care in the midst of grief and heartbreak; I just didn’t care about looking or feeling pretty or badass. I truly believe makeup is transformative and can alter your mood and make you feel powerful. The thing is, I didn’t want to be powerful. I wanted to be invisible, to be someone else. I didn't want to be seen. I felt breakable—like I would have a full blown meltdown at any moment. I was in pain, and there was no new face mask or lipstick or beauty product that could make it better.

The only times I actually attempted wearing makeup in the weeks following the procedure were the four occasions I saw my ex. I didn't want him to think I was fragile, even though every one of those meetings ended up with me in tears. By the fourth time, I had wised up and quit wearing mascara. (For the record, Kat Von D's Tattoo Liner withstood all that crying. It's weird to have mascara streaks all over your cheeks while your winged liner is perfectly intact.)

Finally, one day, I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I looked haggard, which is not a look that anyone ever sets out to achieve. My previously perfect, clear skin was now congested and spattered with whiteheads. My eyebrows were two entirely different shapes. I had lines under my eyes. My hair was a disaster: My grays were showing, I had three inches of roots, and my bangs had grown out so much they were now basically a new layer. I didn’t recognize myself or even like myself. But I thought I had the answer: A regular, boring, maintenance hair appointment wouldn't suffice, I needed something new, a badly-needed change of perspective. I wanted to be someone else for awhile. I wanted to change things with my hair.

It didn’t go well, of course, because emotional hairstyle decisions never do. I spent six hours at the salon, and my previously healthy black hair was now three garish shades of red, an ombre gone terribly wrong. I hated it immediately. On top of that, the color clashed with all my go-to shades of lipstick, which made me want to wear makeup even less. I felt even worse than I had before, and like I had expected too much from a few bottles of hair dye. 

When I told my ex about my hair, he revealed that in an emotional moment, he had also given himself an ill-fated haircut: a DIY mohawk that, with his thin, fine hair, gave him the appearance of a baby bird. Both of us realized that neither of us was handling the situation that well. It was one of the last conversations we would have. 

Something as major as an unplanned pregnancy has the very real power to end relationships, especially ones that weren't strong to begin with. Ours ended for good about five weeks after my abortion, inevitable, really, considering he'd bailed on me the day of the procedure. The true end of our relationship compounded my heartbreak; it was a loss hit me just as hard as the abortion. 

These were problems that were much bigger than other things I'd dealt with before. But still, there was nothing left to do except get my shit together. Looking like crap no longer served me. All I wanted was the small things I could easily fix, the things I had always taken care of and made time for: a haircut and root touch-up every five weeks, groomed brows, a full set of acrylics and a pedicure, freshly shaven legs, the small parts of me that I never neglected, yet had let go for weeks because I had felt completely powerless. 

What I learned is there is no control. I learned that sometimes practicing self-care means completely letting go, and my complete surrender to my grief was part of a larger process. I had to learn how to let go of the way I felt things should have turned out, and surrender to how they did turn out. I could tell my lover exactly what I needed from him to make the relationship work, and he still wouldn't do it. I could even be infertile or sterilized or on birth control and still end up pregnant. I could do all the reiki and self-care and face masks and buy all the new lipsticks in the world and still feel like shit. And I could show my longtime hairdresser several photos of the hair color I wanted and still end up with something entirely different. 

In the end, though, I had my hair fixed, dyeing it a chocolate brown and cutting it into an asymmetrical bob. That was the haircut that made me feel powerful again. Unfortunately, while it gave me back a sense of self, I realized that who I was—who I am—had changed. Grief does that. So does heartbreak. Both ripped me up and revealed a new person and nothing is the same. But there's beauty in that, in wanting to look my worst as I dealt with my worst fears, in leaving my house without wearing makeup, in facing the world with a hair color I hated. There’s also beauty in loving myself enough to give a shit about what I look like, and knowing that feeling better can be as simple as several weeks of grieving and one haircut away.