I have short hair. Not shoulder length, not a bob, short. I cut it the day of sixth grade graduation, modeling it after Emma Watson’s then new, now infamous pixie cut. Life is subtly different with short hair. You get mistaken for a man more. You spend less on shampoo. You don’t have hair ties to offer your friends. More than any of that, though, people really start to notice your hair.
This comes with the classic questions I’ve learned by heart: “When did you cut it?” and “Do you like it?” and “Would you ever grow it out?” (and, God forbid, the occasional “you should grow it out”). It’s annoying to always have to hear so much about the same feature of yourself, but they’re easy enough to smile through and respond to politely. These aren’t the comments that stick with me, that get under my skin. The ones that do are the most innocent: quiet confessions from the commenter about wanting to cut her own hair short, too, “but I could never pull it off.”
It’s true that some women do look better with long hair. Maybe it’s their face shape, or the way their ears look with short hair, or any of the million other factors. But this is true of long hair, too. Having hair that reaches past your chin frames the face differently, and for every woman this benefits, there’s one who would look better without it. But whether it is a reflection of strict Western beauty standards or the social pressure to fit into a traditional mold of femininity, worries of being able to “pull off” a certain hair length tend to only come up when that length is short. After all, when was the last time you heard a woman wonder whether she could pull off long hair?
Of course, I don’t blame anyone for noticing my hair, or for bringing it up. It stands out, I get it. It can even be fun to talk about, a springboard for jokes or enjoyable conversations, something I can give advice about. But, at the end of the day, every remark is a reminder that my hair is, in some way, remarkable. Simply by being short, my hair has done something worth noting.
When I cut my hair, I wanted to surprise all of my friends, keeping the dramatic excision of my then waist-length pride and joy until they could see it for themselves. It was a big enough decision for me when I thought I was only changing my hairstyle; what I was yet to realize was that, in the eyes of those around me, I had also changed myself.
Short hair on women doesn’t exist on its own, but as a part of a dichotomy. It exists in contrast to something else, a departure from the norm. A female short haircut can be many things. It can be edgy (think Kristin Stewart), or chic (Kiera Knightley), or mod (Twiggy), or boyish (Winona Ryder circa 1998). But the something it can never be is neutral, and neither can the women who have it. Unlike the myriad other hair lengths and styles women can have, short hair rarely feels justifiable on a simple aesthetic basis, or because it’s easy to take care of. Instead, it’s interpreted as some larger statement. It can mean the wearer is, or at least trying to be, cool, different, “not like other girls”. Or it can be feminist, read as a sign that the woman wearing it isn’t planning to fit into gender roles, instead showing men that she can do anything they can, including cutting her hair. Then, of course, there’s the big label: lesbian. Among more socially conscious circles, this is graciously extended to a more general “queer”, though the assumption is just as present. When you’re a woman whose cut doesn’t reach past her ears, your hair isn’t allowed to just be; it has to mean something.
This is understandable—there’s a long, socially ingrained history behind this norm, reaching as far back as the Bible, “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her” (Corinthians 11:15). When short hair finally did become popular among women in the early twentieth century, especially the 1920s, it was hardly by accident. Shorter hair accompanied the higher hemlines, tighter skirts, and freer lifestyles of the flapper movement, a movement fundamentally built upon the idea of rejecting cultural norms. It’s a hair length that’s counter-culture by design. A century has elapsed since then, and the status quo has been pretty well shifted, but the presumption that short hair must mean something other than just a preference for the hairstyle persists.
There’s nothing wrong with fitting into the stereotypes around women with short hair, or allowing these factors to influence your hairstyle choice—I myself check some of these boxes. But to start from the assumption that there must be a reason besides simple appreciation of the hair length is limiting. It hinders the self-expression of short haired women who don’t fit these molds. It turns it into an uphill battle for them to be perceived as who they actually are. Yes, these women probably made a conscious choice to cut their hair, and they surely had a reason. But this is no less true of any woman who’s ever changed her hairstyle. Her hair may not be short, but I’d bet your friend’s asymmetrical lob with side swept bangs isn’t the haircut she grew up with. Yet, somehow, in her case there’s nothing to read into it.
My hair’s been short for six years now, a long enough time for me to have grown it out several times over, had I wanted to. But I haven’t. It doesn’t bother me that it’s different, or that it calls attention to itself. That’s not enough to make me ditch my current length—in fact, it was part of the reason I cut my hair in the first place. It can be fun to be counter-culture in a low stakes way, to break the mold and do something a bit different. It can be fun to walk into a room and see that I’m the only woman with short hair, that I stand out in that way. But sometimes it’s almost more than I bargained for, having to deal with these counter-culture perceptions all the time.
I love my short hair; I wouldn’t grow it out for the world. I love it because it’s easy, because it’s cute, because it makes a statement, because it’s a part of who I am. But it would be nice, every once in a while, to not have to be “the one with the hair.” Sometimes, it would be nice to just be me.
(P.S. To any women out there reading this who have been debating cutting their hair, here’s that sign you’ve been waiting for. Cut it. I promise you can pull it off.)