Short hair psychology: why the simple act of having our hair cut means so much more than we think

When I went to the salon after the 2020 lockdown (the first time in months!), I was desperate to have my grown-out bob cut back to its jaw-length glory. I soon noticed that everyone else around me, however, was having a very different conversation with their hairdresser.

“Not too much off the length,” one woman said, adding that anything more than an inch would be “too much”.

“I like it longer,” another woman with a grown-out bob insisted.

And still one more asked, much to the visible despair of the woman restyling her hair, if they could avoid cutting any off at all and instead “just shape it” (presumably through means of magic and witchcraft, as scissors had been banished from the equation).

“When women go through times of transition or crisis, they will often cut off their hair” 

Since going for the chop, I’ve had friends, without any prompting whatsoever, suddenly sigh wistfully and tell me that they love my short hair but that they could never face cutting their long tresses themselves. “Hair grows back,” I tend to reply ever so unhelpfully (compliments always make me decidedly awkward), but they wave my reassurances aside. They’re adamant that a mini mane just wouldn’t work on them.

Over on social media, however, there are countless accounts dedicated to the #shorthairdontcare movement. Many of these are filled to the brim with pictures of truly excellent pixie cuts, mullets, and bobs – but there is always, too, the odd post (occasionally scored by James Blunt’s much-maligned You’re Beautiful) about the ridiculous comments that women with short hair are regularly subjected to.

For example: you look like a boy, you’re prettier with long hair, [it’s] not feminine.

Of course, it’s not always negative feedback; tthe slew of misguided comments are also peppered with compliments praising these women for being so “self assured” and “confident”. Which is, of course, lovely – but, as a certified people-pleaser and generally anxious human being – not necessarily always true.

Why, then, do we have such strong opinions on women with short hair? Why do so many of us baulk at the idea of cutting our long hair off? And why, when we do, does it feel like such a huge deal?

Our ingrained psychology around hair length

From dictating the shape of our bodies to demanding that we have smooth skin free of laugh lines and wrinkles, society has long laid out a very clear and stringent rulebook when it comes to heteronormative beauty standards – and one of the oldest in the book pertains to the length of our hair.

Think about it; every single Disney princess has a long mane of glossy hair, as do the majority of models seen in magazines and actors on TV.

As Heather Garbutt, psychotherapist at TCPC, tells Stylist: “There are some very deep traditions that run within our culture with regards to the length of women’s hair.

“Long hair, for whatever reason, seems to simultaneously represent the innocence of childhood as well as the allure of adult femininity. Think about it; how many times have we seen the letting down of a woman’s tresses as a sensual and sexy experience?

“It’s almost a symbol of opulent femininity, almost an image of exposure and vulnerability that draws out feelings of sexual attraction often allied with feelings of protection in men.”

Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist at the Private Therapy Clinic, adds: “Traditionally, long hair has been associated with young women of childbearing age, while older women are considered to have shorter hair or more austere updos.”

And, as our culture insists on telling us that youth and beauty are mutually exclusive and that any sign of age on a woman is somehow unacceptable, is it any wonder that short hair continually proves itself to be so divisive?

The perceived power of a short haircut

All of the above, of course, means that women who do embrace the short hair movement are considered to be more confident and empowered in some way.

“With age comes experience and self-assuredness, which is probably why women with shorter hair can appear more confident,” notes Spelman.

Garbutt agrees, saying: “When women have short hair in this context, it’s a statement of independence, a taking on of ‘the hunter’ role – traditionally considered to be a more ‘masculine’ and dynamic identity – rather than the more ‘feminine’ (as in, empathic and caring) ‘gatherer’ mantle.

“As such, when women go through times of transition or crisis, they will often cut off their hair. It is symbolic of letting go of the past, getting out of our hair whatever has been troubling us, cutting old ties and lightening the load to go forwards into a new future.”

She adds: “This doesn’t mean that having long hair ties us into old tradition, however. Women can obviously be incredibly active, determined and capable in the world while still allowing their hair to grow long.”

Elsewhere, Dr. Lauren Appio, a psychologist and career coach in Manhattan, tells Lifehacker that a short haircut can actually instil us with feelings of increased self-assurance.

“I’ve found that people typically have an impulse to cut their hair after they’ve experienced stressful situations, positive or negative, where things have felt somewhat out of their control,” she says.

“Making a significant change to your appearance can be soothing because you can see the immediate results of your actions, which reminds you of the power and agency you have in your life.”

Navigating the grief of a short haircut

“When women choose to cut off their long hair, it is often in a time of transformation and letting go of the old and embracing of the new,” notes Garbutt.

“Whenever there is a letting go, there is grief for what is gone – as well as excitement for what is to come. It’s a much deeper thing than a simple change of style; it’s a shift in identity. The cutting of the hair represents that big step and that’s why it sometimes brings tears; in a way, it’s a matter of saying goodbye to an era and the person that we were before.”

“Cutting the hair is like shedding skin. It is most likely a birth into a new self”

Appio, meanwhile, says that it’s worth considering what has prompted your decision to go for the chop before doing so – but notes: “People who tend to be perfectionistic or indecisive due to overthinking can benefit from trying out more spontaneous behaviour. It can be illuminating to see that you can survive and even enjoy the outcome of making a quick or imperfect decision.

“At best, it is a way to be creative, take pleasure in your appearance, and try something new with minimal risk.”

And Spelman has the following practical advice for anyone who’s on the fence about a short haircut: “If you’re not sure about how a drastic cut will affect you on an emotional level, you could either try wearing a short wig for a while before taking the plunge or trying out a hairstyle app, so you can see how you’d look with a shorter style.”

“But it’s just hair”

Essentially, it seems our hair is deeply symbolic – but it is still just that; a symbol. It does not sum up who we are, and what we stand for, and where we’re going; it simply allows us to get there with a ‘do we absolutely love from the bottom of our hearts.

So, if you want to go short, ignore the naysayers and embrace your mini mane dreams with all your might. If you want to keep your hair long, that’s great too. Because, to quote the inimitable Leslie Knope of Parks And Recreation, it really doesn’t matter. Well, it doesn’t matter to anyone else but you, anyway.

Just don’t ever judge what someone else has decided to do, OK?