Back in the first century A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.” Even now, in a world unfettered by religious maxims and traditional gender roles, long, flowing, shiny hair is revered as a glorious symbol of femininity. If you don’t believe this, watch a shampoo commercial and note the flicking, waving, and caressing of thick, lustrous female hair.
Yes, we like a pixie crop here and there, and of course a woman can go bald if she wants. Heck, even Beyonce is willing to try out a short style. But despite the dearth of hair options offered by glamour magazines and the many differences between 21st-century Canada and 1st-century Greece, the styling of hair still follows some general principles — the most basic of these being boys keep it short and girls grow it long.
Like I before E except after C, this is a very general guideline with plenty of room for deviation. Nowadays, neither long hair on men nor short hair on women are anomalies, and there are types of people we actually expect to sport these mildly nonconformist hairstyles. For male bikers, rockers, and hippies, for example, long hair seems completely obvious.
Likewise, there are certain kinds of women we expect to see wearing their hair short. There are waifs like Carey Mulligan and Mia Farrow, upon whom we always seem to project a certain vulnerability. There are impossibly chic French women, such as Jean Seberg and Audrey Tautou, and strong older women (royal or political ladies and the people who play them in movies) such as Hillary Clinton, Annette Bening, and Judi Dench. For any of these women, short hair is nothing beyond ordinary.
Knowing all this, you’d would think that more of us would be comfortable bidding farewell to our long locks. At the very least, we’d save money on hair products.
But it’s just not that easy. Like all things related to femininity and attractiveness, short hair is only really okay if it suits you. Which means — depending on what magazines you read, where you work, and what types of people you spend time with — if you’re too rangy or too athletic, if you don’t know how to wear makeup, if you’re neither passive nor spunky, if your nose is too patrician, your face too square, your neck too short, your jaw too weak, or your shoulders too broad — if any or all of these things apply to you and you cut your hair short, you run the risk of being perceived as unattractive, inelegant, or mannish.
You may hope that a short haircut will give the impression that you’re a confident woman free from the backward rituals of gender. You may think that it will show people you’re a cool chick who effortlessly marches to the beat of your own style-drum. But if you’re somehow wrong for it, you’ll be looked at askance and labelled a weirdo, undesirable to men and intimidating to women.
This isn’t entirely true and, deep down, most women know it. We’re our own worst critics — that’s what my mom would say. The truth is we never look as terrible as we think we do, and most people are too wrapped up in their own lives to waste much time analyzing and passing harsh judgement on other peoples’ appearances.
Part of how the beauty industry keeps women committed to its ever-changing style maxims (and thereby greases the wheels of a multi-billion dollar business), however, is by showing us how wrong we’ll look if we ignore them. We’re told what we can and cannot wear, what does and doesn’t look right all the dang time. For example, as a pear-shaped woman I’ve known that I don’t suit high-waisted pants and peplum shirts since I first opened a Seventeen magazine. I’ve known this because of all the what to wear for your body type articles I’ve willingly (gratefully!) consumed, seeking guidance from the invisible fashion gurus who keep me on the right style-track. Hair is just another one of those things for which there are all kinds of shifting rules. You have to do your research or you could end up committing a serious style gaffe.
So here’s the difficulty: once a woman knows what works on her, she tends to stick with it, and a short haircut represents a pretty drastic change for some. As Coco Chanel once said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” But it doesn’t necessarily follow that she’s changing it for the better. A short haircut may be easy to manage and maintain, it may be fun, freeing, and attractive, but what if you don’t suit it, and you don’t find out until your long, luscious tresses are lying in a heap on the floor? What if your short haircut turns out to be awful? What if it makes you look like a guy? Unlike a pair of pants, short hair can’t just be changed. Once your hair is gone, nothing will bring it back but time.
For women who take the plunge, there is a short-haircut exclusive thrill that can become addicting. It has to do with change and newness and freedom. I think it also has something to do with subversion. In my experience, ridding oneself of a traditional symbol of female identity is liberating.
Historically, however, shaving a woman’s head or cutting her hair short was punishment for adultery or fraternizing with enemies during war times. Short hair was a sign of poverty, shame, or martyrdom.
Even today, the meaning of short haircuts on women is hotly debated. The internet is rife with blogs and articles about whether or not ladies with short hair have “gone off sex,” questioned their sexuality, or just become plain unattractive.
By choosing to cut their hair short, women reinvent an act of oppression and cast off old-fashioned standards of femininity. Some women, it’s true, just want shorter hair, but without even knowing it they too are flipping a big middle finger at patriarchy (and at silly people who think all short-haired women are self-righteous man-haters in the midst of emotional changes). And who doesn’t like to upset the status quo from time to time?
These days, my short-hair idols range from ’60s icons to ’80s ladies. I’ve waltzed into my hairdresser’s bearing photos of Linda Evangelista, Shirley MacLaine from The Apartment, Robyn, Chynna Phillips during Wilson Phillips’s heyday, and Tao Okamoto when she had that kick-ass bowl cut. I’ve got a sheet of Sheena Easton thumbnails (after Prince got his hands on her) ready for my next hair appointment.
But I wasn’t always such a diehard short-hair enthusiast. The first time I went short, I hated it. I didn’t have the confidence to wear it proudly and, because I was stocky, athletic, and a bit withdrawn, I wasn’t immediately identifiable as a girl. I remember well the two or three instances I was mistaken for a boy. Whereas now I might shrug it off, at 13 it made me cry. That short cut — a strange variation on a bowl cut from a $10 mini-mall salon — was six months of shame, of covering my head with hats or decorating it with hairbands and barrettes — anything to distract people from my hideous hair, which I thought made me ugly and, worse, boyish.
Since then, society has become more comfortable with a bit of gender-bending, and I’ve grown to covet the androgynous look. The notion that women have to wear skirts instead of pants was discarded long ago, along with the idea that pink and purple are girl colours, and nobody minds when a man sports an earring. RuPaul’s Drag Race has been renewed for a sixth season, and People magazine prints sympathetic stories about transgender children. Women like Annie Lennox, Casey Legler, and Tilda Swinton wreak havoc on our notions of what makes a woman attractive. Around Swinton in particular, discussions of androgyny, beauty, and style seem to swirl. In a recent issue of W magazine, Swinton described how she remembers her father’s military dress better than her mother’s gowns, saying, “I would rather be handsome, as he is, for an hour than pretty for a week.”
But I suspect there are many women who don’t feel the same way. Handsome is still very much a word associated with masculinity. Pretty is still our go-to compliment for little girls. Gender may be a construct, but it’s acted out every day in habits, mannerisms, decoration, and dress. It’s no wonder women hold their breath in the seconds preceding the moment their hairdressers cut off their ponytails. They’re shedding part of the feminine uniform, and tough luck if they don’t like the results.
The stakes are high for women who choose to cut off their hair. The rewards, should the results be pleasing, are huge. From money saved on shampoo to time saved waiting for hair to dry, short hair is a blessing and a boon — but only if you like it. Otherwise, you’re hooped. Doomed to suffer a million frustrated glances in the mirror, whiling away the time as your hair sluggishly crawls down past your ears, then to your chin, then finally grazes your shoulders once again.
Since my terrible first experience, I’ve become something of a serial short-hairist. Now that I’ve felt the rush of a great short cut, I’ll keep growing my hair out then lopping it off for as long as I am able to. I get a high from it. It’s my drug. Admittedly, according to the prevailing standards, I suit short hair. I’ve got good cheekbones and an oval face. My features aren’t fine, but they’re not particularly strong, either. I’m no Samantha Brick, mind you. The cellulite that I discovered on my ass at 14 is on a steady march down towards my ankles, and I have the metabolism for shapeliness, but not the willpower to be toned. I slouch and my profile’s a bit flat. I once got told that I looked like tweenage Aaron Carter. I am, by no means, too pretty for my own good.
But on most days, I can pull off a short hairstyle. So it’s easy for me to rave on and on and on about how wonderful it feels to free yourself from St. Paul’s glory, how stylish and (gasp!) handsome short locks are, how easy and breezy it feels to just wake up and go without giving a moment’s consideration to what my hair is doing. I’ve done the research. I’ve checked Marie Claire and Glamour, and they said it’s right for me. I asked for the Mia Farrow, and luckily it worked out. I encourage other women to follow suit. But I get it if they decide not to.
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Mikael Bingham is the Deputy Editor of Ballast.