I woke up the way you see people do in movies, gasping for air like I’d been drowning. A light across the room was on, painting my studio apartment in an eerie way. I reached across the bed for my partner.
He wasn’t there. But of course he wasn’t.
All of the previous day’s events suddenly washed over me. I’d insisted he come home during work. I was a mess, shaking and crying. We had been fighting for weeks, but more intensely in the last few days.
He wanted a less public life, and I kept explaining that once you are featured in Time Out New York and are in countless articles by your sex writer girlfriend, this is virtually impossible. I mean, we had a podcast about relationships together. He kept saying his “priorities had changed.”
When I asked if he wanted to break up, half-joking, he said, flatly, “I just don’t see another alternative.” After three years together, that’s all there was to it.
We’d met on Tinder when I was 21 and still in college. For three years, he’d ask me out for drinks every six months or so. We’d make out. I’d go home.
Until one September night when he showed up at a party at my apartment with a beard that did wonders for him. He pursued me for four months before I agreed to be his girlfriend. We fell stupid in love. Then my career began to take off.
At first, he was my biggest advocate. He made my newsletter for me, encouraged me to develop my brands, and was always fine with being written about, whether it was as an example of a good boyfriend or to test some new sex toy.
The relationship began to deteriorate after I was laid off from my job at Thrillist and my freelance career took off seemingly overnight. Then, I got a book deal. Everything was happening so fast for me and it seemed to make him feel less successful, even though I always tried to make sure he knew how amazing and brilliant he was.
It all came to a head in July 2017 when I wrote a scientifically accurate explanatory article about anal sex for Teen Vogue. (I’m still proud of that piece ― FU, haters.) The trolls descended like the flying monkeys. Evangelicals and conservative parents were losing their minds about this butt piece.
My inbox, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were jammed with crazies. Everything that was happening to me, my partner internalized. He blamed me for my own harassment. He said I’d brought it upon myself. When I needed him most, he wasn’t there.
After the breakup, I left the home I’d built for us over our three years together and got on a plane headed to Chicago, leaving my life in New York behind. To be frank, I needed my mom and dad. So I moved back to the city I’d grown up in to grieve.
My cousin and BFFL knew I was about one step away from going ”Girl, Interrupted” and invited me to spend the weekend with her at her apartment on the Gold Coast, where she took me for massages and facials to cheer me up.
It was then, as we were walking by the Red Door Salon, my hair matted with massage oil, I made a choice. For years, my boyfriend had told me never to cut my hair. He’d fallen in love with my long hair, so I was going to cut it ALL off. Hell, I was going to get BANGS.
Sure, getting a new haircut has a reputation as about the cheesiest way a woman says, “Eat a dick” to her ex, but I had to do something drastic to remind myself that I am a kick-ass woman who didn’t deserve this BS, to feel in control of my life.
Charles was the only stylist in the place. One look at his well-tailored suit and I knew I was in good hands. I showed him a picture of Taylor Swift on my phone. As I told him about my breakup, he declared, “This is going to be THE FREEDOM HAIRCUT. This is the start of your new life.”
He snipped away until my hair was at my jawline and I looked like a school teacher. But, then, with a sweeping gesture, he cut bangs. I went from petrified to ecstatic. There I was. The new me.
I looked amazing. I’d gone from stick-straight hair to my belly button to something akin to the Velma Kelly, and it was bona fide sexy.
My breakup fairy godmother took me over to the makeup station, deciding that I needed the works to truly transform from brokenhearted bird to full butterfly. The makeup artist glammed me up with a smoky eye and nude lipstick and Charles instructed his assistant to take glamour shots.
We posed. We vogued. I felt beautiful for the first time in weeks. The woman in those photos is not some broken, sad girl fresh from a breakup; she’s a fierce femme fatale with a new lease on life who knows her worth.
Over the next few weeks, I grew stronger still, imbibed with the ferocity of The Freedom Haircut. I started posting daily photos of myself on social media. I also received a ton of compliments from family, friends and strangers.
I was quietly grieving, spending most evenings awash with tears, but newly reminded of my inner strength. I felt like the haircut somehow made me look more like myself. As one close friend put it, “I didn’t know anything could make you more Gigi, but then I saw your new haircut and was like, ‘WOW she is more Gigi than she has ever been!’”
Life with the new hair has been shockingly easy. My hair was hard to take care of before: perpetually dry, brassy and dull if I let it air-dry. My bob, on the other hand, dries naturally with a little, flirty flip on the ends. If I take two minutes to blow dry it, it folds under in the perfect coif. My bangs are easy to cut myself and frame my face in a way that makes me feel sexy.
Give a woman the right haircut and she can do anything. My style started developing into something larger than it had been before. I’d always had eclectic style, but with the boldness of the hair, I was on a shopping terror: Rad vintage jumpsuits, full-length kimonos, sky-high heeled boots, berets in a million different colors, and intense statement earrings that fell below the line of my hair.
I had felt so lost, afraid and alone after my breakup. For a brief time, I didn’t remember who I was. But the haircut, the haircut remembered. And it forced me to look in the mirror and see it for myself.
I began developing myself, rediscovering myself, from the outside in. I began fully embracing the parts I had compromised as a result of being in my relationship. If I wanted to show full midriff, I did it. If I wanted someone to take a photo of my outfit because I was feeling myself, I asked. I felt in tune with my sexuality in a way that I hadn’t in as long as I could remember.
Eventually, everything else began to feel easier, too. I had this idea that if I didn’t have my partner, I wouldn’t have anyone ever again. I was so utterly wrong. After all, I’m a 27-year-old woman with a book deal, an amazing support system and a wonderful career that I’m passionate about. I’m a catch.
I was happy in my relationship for a very long time, but I couldn’t see how stifled I’d become, how small. It wasn’t my partner’s fault. I’d made myself this way. I wanted to be more desirable, more supportive of him when my career as a sex writer was already somewhat larger than life.
Now, the only person I had to please was myself. And I did.
A few weeks later I was on the pink carpet at Amber Rose’s Slut Walk strutting my stuff before I was to give my speech on the main stage in front of what felt like a million people. As I posed for the cameras, I felt more complete than I had in the last three years. This was where I was supposed to be, embracing my edginess, enveloped in the person I am and the woman I am becoming.
Healing isn’t an easy process. It is painful, but sometimes it takes a drastic change we have no control over for us to let go ― to really let go ― of everything that was holding us back.
Gigi Engle is a sex educator and writer living in Chicago. Follow her onInstagram andTwitter at @GigiEngle.