Our recent article on looking weird at work got a lot of great feedback, so I thought I’d do a follow-up on hair length as well. It’s a fascinating topic by the standards of someone who greatly enjoys very boring topics.
Hair is a very weird thing.
It’s a body part like no other. Science tells us it is made of rhinoceros horns. Don’t argue, it’s science. It is malleable in ways that our necks, toes, forearms, areolas, and most other body parts are not. It moves, sways, bounces, and whips around sexily when you’re standing on a beach thinking about the lover you left behind when time traveling back to dinosaur times. Again, this is science speaking.
It’s also one of the most immediately visible differences between men and women. And as such, it’s one of the most important cultural signifiers of femininity. Which is why women cutting their hair is so often interpreted as some kind of subversive act.
Evolutionary psychology loves long hair
From an evo-bio perspective, long, glossy, richly-pigmented hair is thought to announce suitability as a mate. “Look how well I process vitamins! Observe how successfully I feed myself! Put your genes in this human Rubbermaid container!”
… But I hate evo-psych explanations, because they’re so often disgusting, regressive bullshit used to justify unjustifiable cultural norms.
Think about it. If this explanation were true, wouldn’t the same be true in reverse? Women also want mates who can prove themselves to be successful foragers. If anything it would be more important, as evolutionary biology devotees love the image of man as the original primary provider. So wouldn’t women also flock to men with long, luxurious barrel curls?
Um. No. Because this gif of Nick Cage is making me gayer the more I watch it loop.
So either women don’t have this preference, or their preference is ignored. Here’s where a social and economic explanation makes much more sense to me.
Reality hates long hair
So humans like long, lovely hair. But who does that long, lovely hair belong to?
Long hair is difficult to maintain. Its growth is inhibited by poor nutrition. Prolonged sun and wind exposure damages hair. Primitive hair unguents were made of natural ingredients that needed to be hunted, cultivated, or collected, and often called for expensive resources like wine or oil. Even something as simple as a comb was a luxury item.
I apologize in advance for the following paragraph, which will make you psychosomatically itchy for the next forty-five minutes.
Head lice, bed bugs, and fleas are a lot less common nowadays than they were in previous centuries. Long hair (especially, ugh, long hair treated with animal fats) makes a great home for these majestic beasts. It is also really efficient at trapping dandruff.
Modern conveniences are good… right?
You would think that in our era of modern conveniences, long hair would now be eminently manageable.
But all our tricksy ape brain has done is devise new expensive chemicals and procedures for it. Whereas some women with short hair don’t need to condition at all, long hair requires a lot more product just to clean, detangle, and maintain. Once one reaches the dreaded 1:2 shampoo to conditioner ratio threshold, it’s all over.
This doesn’t even include people who go above and beyond with extensive hair treatments. Blowouts, keratin treatments, chemical straightening, perms, multiprocess coloring, highlights, and the repairing treatments needed to recover from all of it cost a metric fuckton of time and money. And that goes double for Black women or anyone with naturally wooly or kinky curls!
We’re talking hundreds of dollars for any one of them. The mousses, gels, oils, sprays, masks, primers, dry shampoos, leave-in conditioners, brushes, dryers, curlers, and straighteners needed to maintain the look at home don’t come cheap either.
We talk more about this in our classic feminist screed, The Pink Tax, or: How I Learned To Love Smelling Like Bearglove.
Whose is the burden of beauty?
So haircare is expensive in time, expertise, and resources. It also requires one to endure pain and discomfort, as anyone who’s tried to brush long hair on a child will tell you (there’s a lot of shrieking and crying involved).
So how do we get the pleasure of looking at long, lovely hair without actually suffering for it?
Since the crakow went out of style (Charles V, you fucking killjoy), beauty has largely been subcontracted out to women—especially young women—to their detriment. That’s why such burdensome displays as makeup, jewelry, complicated hairstyles, painful shoes, pushup bras, seamless panties, a wide-ranging wardrobe, and practiced photo poses fall to them.
And no, women do not do this “naturally” because they are inherently “directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” but thank you for the suggestion, Fired Google Guy. Hey buddy, how’re you doing?
Why are we like this???
There are a complex set of reasons for the discrepancy, but the main factor is probably that women have historically lacked social power. The power to vote, inherit titles, own property, have a line of credit, work outside the home, live independently, remain unmarried, and divorce spouses are all extremely recent phenomena.
History shows an interesting trend around the popularity of short hair. There are two decades in the last hundred years where short hair became wildly popular: the 1920s and the 1960s. Think Louise Brooks’s definitive flapper bob and the pixie haircuts of Twiggy or Mia Farrow. Those short hair trends coincided with huge power shifts for women. In the 1920s, women gained the right to vote and seek safe and legal contraceptives, though only if they were married. The 1960s gave us the first oral contraceptive, the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, and The Feminine Mystique.
Despite the leaps and bounds of the last century, thousands of years of patriarchal cultural traditions still tell us that a woman’s value peaks when she is young and marriageable. Disney heroines can be tomboyish, ambitious, martial, hoarding bookworms of any race under the sun—but under no circumstances may they be old or ugly.
You’ll also notice that no Disney princesses have short hair. Hmm. Interesting, that.
(Tangled absolutely does not count. Her hair is long and blonde again in the 2017 miniseries, despite being a direct sequel. All of her dolls, backpacks, T-shirts, and commemorative flatware also neglect her plot-significant haircut.)
(And neither does Snow White. Do you have any idea how much hair is required for that kind of updo?)
What happens when a woman cuts her hair
All of this boring cultural baggage is why short hair on women is still seen as transgressive, and why both men and women can have really strong negative reactions to it. And yes, sadly, the most enthusiastic policers of women are often other women. I have theories on that.
Even if your reason for cutting your hair is something simple and personal like “I’d like a change” or “I think it makes my jawline look nice” or “it’s hot out,” some people cannot help but infer broader meaning and motivation from it. And most of this comes from our deeply-rooted anxieties re: social hierarchies. Men are primary, women are secondary, and it is the role of the secondary to seek approval from the primary.
Policing personal choices
If a woman chooses not to have long hair, she will inevitably encounter men and women who find this choice disturbing. Because if one assumes that the purpose of long hair is to cater to the preferences of the dominant social group, cutting it off deprives that social group of something they felt entitled to. Such people will then interpret short hair as a dangerous act of rebellion against the established social order, or (even stupider) believe that the woman is attempting to pass as male, thus seizing his social power undeservedly for herself.
My theory as to why women are often the self-appointed sheriffs of Hairtown? Well, we all live in a culture that has extremely fucked up preoccupations with gender presentation. Think back to the most popular kids you knew in high school and compare them to the kids who were bullied most severely. At least for me, all the popular kids tended to conform rigidly to contemporary expectations of gender performance. The kids who were lowest on the social totem pole were the ones who read as too masculine or too feminine for their assigned genders.
Fear of gender nonconformity is very visceral and very real for women as well as men. I think sometimes women think they are being helpful by trying to steer others toward “acceptably” feminine appearances.
Also, some women are just mean, IDK! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I can’t make this shit up
Don’t believe me? I feel you! That last section had a lot of gender studies mumbo-jumbo. #ILoveGenderStudiesMumboJumbo. So I took to Twitter to gather some of the most memorable short hair reactions from the Bitchosphere. Here is what they provided.
- “You are so brave.”
- “Did… did you do it yourself?!”
- “Don’t worry, it’ll grow back!”
- “What was the wager for?”
- “Lose a fight with a [implement]?”
- “But WHY did you cut it short? Now people won’t know you’re a girl…”
- “You look handicapped.”
- “You look like Jackie Chan.”
- “It’s nice, but it makes your face look bigger, no?”
- “You’ll have to wear more feminine clothing now.”
- “I don’t usually think short hair looks good on girls but I like it on you!”
- “Oh wow” paired with unrestrained facial cringe.
- “Do you like being single?”
- “Do you still have that haircut?!”
- “Did you want it to come out like that?”
- “Do you like it?”
- “Hey dude!”
- “If only you wore color, and not just black, so you would at least be more obviously a woman.”
- “I beg my wife not to cut her hair, and she does, and then I thank her when it gets long again.”
- “Oh, short hair would look HORRIBLE on me, but it looks cute on you.”
- “How’s your boyfriend handling it?”
- “Do you belong in the ladies’ room?”
- “But you looked so nice with long hair!”
- “Oh honey. What did you do?”
- “Are you a lesbian now?”
- (Coworker sees me walk into the room, literally bursts into tears.)
History is horrible
I proclaim 100% of these “opinions” to be old memes. F. Scott Fitzgerald, that old bastard, wrote a short story in 1920 called Bernice Bobs Her Hair. True to his title, it is a story about a woman named Bernice who chooses to bob her hair short. She’s very popular with boys… until she cuts her hair and they all lose interest in her. In a fit of hysteria surely brought on by a wandering uterus, Bernice hacks off her cousin’s lovely long hair while she sleeps and absconds into the night, probably upon leathern bat wings, the short-haired old crone.
Fitzgerald wrote the story for his sister Annabel. Guess why. Oh, did you guess “To talk her out of getting the haircut she wanted by framing it as the Doom of Valyria upon her sexual value?” Yes, that’s it! How did you know?!
The present is equally horrible
Back in modern times, a popular website for men who hate women ran an article called Girls with Short Hair Are Damaged. I refuse to link to this site because I have already showered once today, but its name is very similar to a Lord of the Rings book, if you care to search it out for yourself. Here is a slice of the turd-and-onion pie:
“… Every American girl who cuts, and keeps, her hair short often does it for ulterior reasons. Short hair is a political statement. And, invariably, a girl who has gone through with a short cut—and is pleased with the changes in her reception—is damaged in some significant way. Short hair is a near-guarantee that a girl will be more abrasive, more masculine, and more deranged. The bitchiest work colleagues, the most difficult cashier, the most confrontational, aggressive cunts in bars have all shared one trait—short-ass hair.”
To be fair, my hair is indeed a political statement. I shaved the words “REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRATIC” into the side of my head next to big check boxes, and checked the Republican one. I feel their inhumane, femininity-hating platform better reflects my confrontational, aggressive cunt values.
What short hair really means
In many ways, it’s stupid we even need to have this conversation. It’s 2017! This narrative is sexist and old and boring. Nobody approaches a guy with a high-and-tight and shakes him by the shoulders, screaming “WHY, YOU DEVIL?!”
Women deserve to make choices about their bodies and finances without the world weighting in or drawing bizarre inferences about their motives. The whining of moms, boyfriends, and street randos should influence your hair length as much as the whining of cicadas at dusk, i.e. not at all.
Being a real adult is about finding a purpose and a path beyond what has been prescribed to you. The goals you have defined for yourself and the work that you put into them kinda define you. And it’s tempting to want to do what you’ve always done, or do what you think other people like. But if you’re adulting correctly, you’ll make plenty of decisions that scandalize, confuse, and frustrate expectations.
Your body, your choice
Do with your body and your life whatever the hell you want to do! Being happy is the point of being. If you want short hair, get short hair. If you like long hair, have long hair. And if you’re a woman of color and you’re like “This is nothing compared to the shit I get for wearing my natural Afro-textured hair”… we’re with you! It’s your head. You get to decide what adorns it.
And if you have strong opinions about how other people’s hair should look, kindly dig a hole within your mind and bury them so deeply that not even the tenacious terrier of alcohol can dig them back out. It’s not your head. If you love long, beautiful, glossy hair, you have the world’s permission to try to grow it yourself and spend as many hours tossing it and laughing into a mirror as you please.
Finally, take it from our readers:
Okay, bitchlings, round two! Tell us about your lovely locks of any lengths! Do you have a good story about a coworker bursting into actual tears when she saw your cut? Because I already covered that!
Give us the goods in the comments below.