Earlier this month, I talked my hair stylist into giving me more than my usual trim. As she went to work taking eight inches off my blonde locks, I felt a cool breeze hit the back of my neck. When she turned me around to face the mirror, I admit it wasn’t excitement I felt at first so much as confusion, catching a glimpse of my newly shorn locks wondering, “What have I just done?”
Celebrity stylist Josue Perez hears similar responses of shock and awe from women undergoing their own long-to-short hair transformations at his salon in New York City. “Right off the bat, women tend to say ‘Oh my gosh!’ or tell me they haven’t had short hair since they were kids,” he says. “Others cry or say, ‘I look twelve!'”
Twelve is about how old I felt in that chair myself. But after following up with friends and sharing my “after” photo online, I found my confidence growing along with their list of compliments. Mixed among the positive reactions were confessions from some who admitted they longed for short hair like mine but were too scared to commit to a big cut. It was their responses—along with my own halting journey to the blunt bob I now wear—that got me thinking. Why do so many women second guess cutting their hair?
For a lot of reasons, says Tina Opie, founder of HairasIdentity.com. Using videos, photos, independent research, and blogging, Opie, who is also a professor of management at Babson College, explores how identity cues like a chosen hairstyle impact perceptions of women, particularly in the workplace. “There’s this perception that hair doesn’t matter—that since it’s not skin color or height, just hair, we shouldn’t make a big deal about it. But it’s every bit as important to us as these other traits about ourselves we cannot change,” she says. Many women are especially reluctant to part with long hair because it is equated with youthfulness and vitality, says Opie.
Historically, hair length has aligned itself with society’s notions of femininity. Consider the juxtaposition of the rebellious flapper bob of the 1920s with the more ladylike bouffant of the Gibson girl. Or how a pixie crop worn by Twiggy in the sixties was considered androgynous whereas the long hair and feathered bangs of the 1970s-era Farrah Fawcett was the epitome of sexiness.
“We, as a culture, have always used long hair to channel this general notion of attractiveness,” Opie says. As a young black girl in the seventies, she herself desired the long, luxurious mane of Charlie’s Angels cast member Kelly Garrett. She admits it took her years—and loads of failed experiments with hot combs, blow-dryers, relaxers, and oils—to appreciate her textured hair, which she now wears short.
Perez says if and when women decide to cut their hair, it tends to coincide with big changes in their lives, like taking on a new job or surviving a breakup. That’s certainly the way the “big cut” is popularly portrayed on screen. Think of Audrey Hepburn’s haircut in Roman Holiday which symbolizes (and makes possible) her newfound freedom. Or consider the heroine’s hack job in Disney’s Mulan, or Ritchie Tenebaum’s trim and shave before attempting to take his own life in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Then there are women like me, navigating the major change of working motherhood with the request for a short haircut that might shave a much-needed ten or fifteen minutes off their morning beauty routines. “It’s interesting,” Opie says, “the way hair tends to reflect the particular roles a woman may play at any given time in her life.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our entanglement with our hair is who we allow to influence our opinions about our hair. There is the celebrity factor, of course. (Who can forget the way women, myself included, clambered to copy Jennifer Aniston’s Friends-inspired Rachel haircut in the 1990s?) But more importantly, there are the people closest to us—our parents and romantic partners especially—who drive our decisions to wear our hair short or long, straight or curly, up or down.
More than a decade ago, a bad cut in college was all it took for my then boyfriend (and now husband) to tell me he wasn’t sure I should cut my hair short again. “It’s just, well, I just think I like you better with long hair,” he stammered at the time. It was his opinion more than any other that fueled the anxiety I experienced while sitting in that salon chair earlier this month, asking myself if I really wanted to go short again. (For the record, my husband loves my new bob.)
It’s funny, though, how liberating a major haircut can be. My hair’s been short for a few weeks now, and in that time I’ve come to the freeing realization that for too long I treated my long hair as if it was a kind of talisman. I guess I thought if I cut it all off, I’d no longer be me. Cutting it has reminded me that who I am—both in my mind and to others—isn’t as closely linked to any particular length or style, short or long, as I’d once thought. My husband still loves me, and my friends have all expressed that it looks great. Hair, and clothes and makeup for that matter, can play an important role in making us feel beautiful, but it’s not something that defines who we are. Plus, it can always grow back.