Why Is Short Hair Controversial? An Examination of Expensive, Annoying Beauty Standards

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?

How are you?

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, martialhoarding 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?)

Ugh. This movie sucked.

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.

She whips her hair back and forth.

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 HairTrue 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.”

… Cool.

It grows back, gurl!

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.

25 thoughts to “Why Is Short Hair Controversial? An Examination of Expensive, Annoying Beauty Standards”

  1. When I presented as a 13 year old I went to get my hair cut short, and it took 2 hours cause the hairdresser kept asking “Are you sure? Are you sure?” Every couple of minutes.

    1. Facepalm. I’m sure at 13, during a time when you needed lots of support from adults, some random lady acting out her own anxieties about gender conformity was just so, so helpful to you!

      1. A couple years ago, when I was 20, I wanted to cut my hair short. When I finally got to the stylist, she asked me “is your dad ok with this?”
        I said “why does he have a say in what I want to look like?”
        She looked conflicted and proceeded to ask me “is your mom ok with this?”
        She ended up doing it, but obviously she didn’t know how to do it at all.
        I should have checked first, but anyway I felt happy with the lenght, I would brush my hair with my hands and love the feel of it being short.

  2. I chopped off 15 inches of hair about 4 years ago and have never looked back! Pixies until I die or grow bald/rich enough to buy closets full of wigs.

    Although I also experienced about 90% of the Twitter response comments, what really bothered me was how SO MANY of the responses were related to my boyfriend’s opinion. When I casually mentioned to the hairdresser that I hadn’t told my boyfriend I was getting a pixie and I wanted to surprise him, she refused to cut my hair until I got his opinion on it. I had to get her manager to intervene. I get she may have been afraid of my regretting it and demanding my money back later, but still. People are always asking “what does he think of it, does he miss the long hair, what would happen if he asked you to grow it out again, etc.” Many of them refuse to believe that he thinks it was sexy as fuck and say he “is just humoring you, men always prefer feminine looking girls.”

    1. Christ deliver us! Whaaaaaat kinda of favor did she think she was doing you, exactly? Did she think you were going to show up six hours later, battered and bruised, begging her to glue the strands back on to assuage that dire medical condition: Boyfriend Haircut Rage?

  3. I chopped off my shoulder length hair for a super short pixie cut for the first time when I was in Grade 9. I loved it and even though I’ve let it grow out once or twice in the last 30 years, it never lasts and I keep cutting it off.

    I remember after cutting it off the first time, I got a few “sirs” from people who weren’t paying attention or saw me from the back – but the funniest thing I ever heard was from my bff’s younger brother – who would have been 12 at the time. He looked at my new ‘do, and proclaimed “it’s ok, you have FEMININE ears, so people will know you’re a girl”. And then ran off to play basketball.

    So, based on the wisdom of a 12 year old boy – I’ve never looked back and I’ve always been happy with my super short hair.

    Plus – it’s WAY easier to colour at home when it’s short!

  4. I am wearing hijab when I am going out but at home I did not wear head scarf. My body, my rules. I would love to chop my hair like you do but since I live in a very conservative neighborhood here in Indonesia, I am afraid if my neighbor see my chop hair they will gossips behind my back, I might get evicted by my landlord so I have to wait to be able to afford my own house ah well… The joy living in a conservative country, I might get killed if I openly said I am sex positive and pro LGBT person…lol

    1. Wow, what an interesting perspective!! I never would’ve thought we had readers so far away. I am delighted to hear from you.

      Sadly I have not had any opportunities to travel abroad, so I have never been to a place in the world where head coverings are the norm. People do wear hijab in America if they so choose, but it’s much rarer to see young women do so. There’s a strong incentive not to wear it because of anti-Islamic discrimination. Sikhs and practitioners of others religions that use hair coverings get lumped in and harassed as well, because people are ignorant assholes. No matter where we are in the world, society feels it’s their right to police women’s bodies.

      I hope you are doing well and can get your own place soon! Rock on with your awesome humanist values!!!

  5. I never had this so much about length as color. My aunt is a hairdresser and when I was a kid it kinda didn’t matter what haircut I asked for, I got what I got. But she would let me pick length. What I always wanted though were streaks of color because my mom had them. She (my mom) was 100% fine with me dying my hair but my aunt would never give me anything besides temporary dye.

    A few years ago when I was trying to recover from a tragically bad haircut I bought some pink and teal manic panic and gave myself a very vivid dye job. My brother said (not as a criticism, just as an observation) that I looked like a Scarlet Macaw. My grandpa still asks me every time he sees me if my hair is my real color even if it’s not dyed at all. I’ve had so many jobs where any “non-natural” hair color was against the rules that I haven’t done it for a long time just for fear it would impact my employability.

    I finally gave myself a pink streak recently after your “looking weird at work” post. Because I *am* job hunting again and I don’t want to work for a company that invested in my hair.

    1. Heck yeah for pink streaks! My manager at a previous company had pink streaks. She worried that at fifty she was “tool old” for them but I was like “naw gurl, get it!”

      Your story reminds me of an old hypocrisy. I once babysat for two girls, a mousey brunette and a red-gold redhead. With their parent’s blessing I helped the brunette dye her hair a richer shade of her natural color. When her redheaded sister saw how good it looked, she demanded that I put the same color in her hair, and I point-blank refused. I regret that, because it probably sent the brunette the message that her body *needed* alteration, but her sister’s didn’t? But in my defense, your honor, only so many people on this earth are born with hair the color of a sunrise over Ireland… I felt like I was tampering in god’s domain!

  6. I’ve had a pixie cut since high school, but whenever people find out I did at one point have long hair they ALWAYS want to see a photo. And then they’re weirdly disappointed that I look…. the exact same, except with long hair. I don’t know what they were expecting – it’s my hair, it doesn’t change the way my face looks.

  7. The irony in the evolution statement is that I’m a girl with short hair who has a serious thing for guys with long hair.

  8. I cut my hair the summer before I went to college, and I’d be talking about doing it for months but wanted to keep it long for prom. I still remember how pissed I was when my then boyfriend “came around” and gave me his blessing to cut it. The fact that I hadn’t cut it yet had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not he approved of the choice. After I cut it, I received a lot of comments like the ones above, including my mom, who looked at it with definite horror the first time she saw it and went, “It’s so short.”

    It is crazy that at this point in time, hair length is still such a big deal. That said, I rarely if ever dealt with random street harassment in college. I had a class with a girl who cut her hair from at her waist to at her shoulders (still significantly longer than mine), and she commented on the rather extreme drop in the number of catcalls and such that she had to deal with with that change and nothing else. We live in a crazy world sometimes.

  9. I have always let my hair grow long for several years and will then chop it off, typically to below my ears in a bob. I’ve had several hairdressers almost in tears over it. Hairdressers! You’d think they would be the most open minded about it but nope. From others I usually get the “oh why would you do that? It was so pretty long” and I tell them when they want to take care of it and pay for all that product and style it and comb it several times a day, they can have an opinion. That shuts them up fast.

  10. Huh. I cut my hair short for practical reasons (much easier to care for, don’t have to pull it up every day, etc.) with no thought to political/radical implications.

    This makes me want to MAKE it political/radical.

  11. I cut my hair into a pixie aged 18. I’ve had it no longer than bob length for 8 years, and I shaved my head last summer because I’d always wanted to, and because it was falling out due to an eating disorder. It’s growing in good and healthy now, and my plan is to grow it to my shoulders, but I don’t want it super long again, I don’t think. We’ll see. I haven’t got time for all the faff and nonsense- I’m much more of a no makeup, get up and go type of woman. Thanks for this post 🙂

  12. I couldn’t believe how upset people got over Rapunzel’s hair being cut short at the end of Tangled. She still looks cute with short hair. Probably the only reason Disney grew it back out in the television series is because people whined about it being short. The comments online are ridiculous. Its the 2000 teens now. Why is short hair still controversial for women?

  13. When I was pregnant with my son I had short hair, this led to someone commenting “but you have short hair? I thought you were gay?”

  14. I have hair that goes to the bottom of my tailbone – my job is unpredictable, I don’t want to spend time or money getting it cut, and it’s a texture where it’s easy and time-saving to brush it and throw it up in a hairstick bun. I do that every damn day – most people have no idea my hair is as long as it is because if I wear it down, people make stupid comments.

    When it was shorter (like, waist-length – by no means short) and I wore it down occasionally, I got comments like “Wow, you should really cut it and donate your hair!” (No? I’m using it? Also, I’ve done that four times, it would be weird to have more people out there wearing my hair?). People would act like I was being selfish when I said I had no plans to donate it, but I’d donated it prior – – since when do I owe someone my hair? I also got a lot of, “Wouldn’t it be easier to have it shorter?” (No? I’ve tried that, it’s s way harder to care for and more time-consuming to style when short, but why do I feel like you’re not trying to simplify my life by asking?), which just goes to show that there’s no right length for a woman to have her hair, people are going to bitch at you, regardless.

    The four times I did cut my hair to donate it, people lost their whole damn minds and I felt like I couldn’t get anything done for days as people talked constantly about my hair, which was annoying, plus they’d comment as I grew it out again. I know how my hair looks, you don’t need to tell me it’s now shoulder-length, what gives?

    There’s also the fact that when I wore my long hair down, people would randomly touch it – to be clear, I’m a white girl, and it’s unremarkable pencil-straight white girl hair, so I’m sure it didn’t happen as much to me as it would to a woman of color, but it was still creepy. If it was a little old lady or a kid I kind of didn’t care, but it was usually grown people who should know better, and after the umpteenth dude to touch my hair in the grocery store without asking first, I’d had it – hairstick buns when in public from that point out.

    At this point my family, close friends, and coworkers I share a locker room with know how long my hair is, but that’s it, and I’m planning to keep it that way to minimize other people inflicting their opinions on me about it.

    Again, I’m convinced that no matter what length a woman’s hair is, people are going to be mad about it – I wish my life were so boring that I could think about other people’s hair!

  15. My least favorite comment is along the lines of “my boyfriend wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair short”.
    Excuse me?? Are you his property?
    And I was once asked if my partner was ok with my short hair. I told them that wasn’t his choice to make.
    I’ve often changed my hair length but finally did a buzzcut about 8 years ago and haven’t looked back since. It’s perfect for me: easy, punk, simple, frames my face nicely. It does lead to many comments, because this hairdo def isn’t feminine.
    And it did lead to a whole gender exploration, because why was I finally feeling like myself? Apparently I’m non-binary 😛

  16. This is great! I’m low-key obsessed about short hair on women in culture, and how this varies from place to place.

    I got a pixie cut, here in Poland, at 16 and never looked back. I just like the way it looks. Sure, a friend once said that she’d love to see me with longer hair just for context, but at the same time I get a LOT of compliments from boomers.

    On the other hand, a friend in Italy asked me if my hair meant anything – he thought I might be gay. In the US, a girl told me she knew I was European because I had such a bold look – and. lady, it was a Mia farrow 60s pixie, no undercut.

    My theory is that haircuts can be really cheap here. Sure, you can pay an arm and a leg for a fancy cut, but if you’re happy with a neighbourhood barber, you can get one on the cheap. And that means most women cut their hair short at one point or the other.

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