My 13-year-old sister decided to cut off her long, blonde hair. When she explained to the hairdresser her desired style, the woman responded with a condescending, “Why? Are you getting a divorce?”
After the cut, our mother instructed that she needed to start wearing more dresses. And that week in school, a classmate made insinuating remarks about her sexual identity. These comments made clear how my sister’s hair was deeply entwined with her femininity; especially in the context of her identity as a White woman, her blonde locks were a projected symbol of youth and innocence. A few clips with a scissor and my little sister’s social identity had completely changed. In a world where individual expression is inseparable from personal identity, our physical appearances become increasingly defining of who we are. Hair carries particularly heavy expressive weight, as it is one of the few aspects of our physical appearance that we can control.
Because hair is so expressive, it is often tied with social group identities. Even in college, stereotypes like the lacrosse player with the flowing “lettuce” haircut and the rainbow-haired art student prevail. Although these stereotypes are often untrue, physical identities do seem to influence how and where we fit in. Bee, a senior at The Colorado Springs School, said, “I still find myself caught in a cycle of hoping people are queer simply by the way they present their hair. I hate that I do that, because I get uncomfortable when I think about other people assuming anything about me because of my hair, but when you’re stuck in a place where it’s very isolating to be queer, I think it’s what you automatically revert to in efforts to find your community.” Especially in college, where finding community can be especially challenging, drawing relationships based on appearance may be a natural or even necessary way to establish community. Due to the individually personal and physically visible nature of hair, it can be a powerful way for people to categorize and quickly identify with others.
Nina, a junior at Tufts, shaved their head for the first time in high school. Nina explained that as soon as they shaved their head, “people were ready to assign me as queer—I had always introduced myself using ‘she’ or ‘they’ series pronouns, but after I cut my hair, everyone switched from using ‘she’ series to ‘they’ series.” After cutting their hair, Nina almost immediately experienced a change in perceived identity. “Only three days after I cut my hair, a girl in the dining hall asked me out—it definitely impacted the way I was read in the queer communities,” they said.
Lauren Samuel, a senior at Tufts, also found that changing her hair impacted the way she was viewed by others. “I went natural last January—and since I cut it, people ask about my racial identity in a way they weren’t before. It was immediately radicalized, and I noticed a big difference.” Although hair and hairstyles carry preconceived notions about gender, race, and sexuality, the ownership of hair as a form of self-identity can be profoundly liberating and empowering. “With short hair I just feel more like myself,” said Nina.
In the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, long, unkempt hair was a way of rebelling against stagnating and even oppressive societal norms. Unruly hair was a symbol of the rejection of restrictive gender roles and discrimination. It pushed conventional definitions of identity and united activists in physical appearance. The Broadway musical, which encompassed the counter-culture movement, chose ‘Hair’ as its title. Even today, using one’s hair as a symbol of control repeatedly appears in literature and pop culture. In Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion, the female protagonist, Viv, cuts her hair as a profound statement of liberation from a restrictive life at the end of the novel. Emma Watson cut her hair short in an act of establishing her identity as an adult actress away from her child-star role in Harry Potter. Miley Cyrus chopped off her Hannah Montana locks to coincide with her complete detachment from her Disney personality.
Whether for the purpose of distancing from a past identity or embracing a new one, hair can be an empowering form of self-expression. “A big reason why I decided to go natural was that I was so tired of straightening my hair and I didn’t know who or what I was doing it for,” Samuel said. “Now, ever since I cut [my hair], I love it. I love going out in rainstorms and I shower whenever I want without worry.” Although Samuel initially struggled with self-consciousness immediately after cutting her hair, eventually, “changing my hair gave me the self-esteem to care less about how I look and prioritize my appearance lower. I felt like I was taking control back in not having to straighten it. Appearance means so much less now. It was truly a decision of being myself!”
A few follicles on the top of our heads have a lot of power. Much about our physical appearance is fixed—the shape of our face, our height, and the structure of our bones are all embedded into our DNA. The power of hair rests in its malleability. Hair can grow long and untamed, can be shaved, styled, or rainbow-dyed. Because physical appearance is valued so highly in society, hair inevitably faces scrutiny and associations that can often be incorrect and harmful. But owning the presentation of one’s hair can also be liberating. By cutting her hair, my sister made the choice to embrace feeling like herself. And the beautiful thing about hair is that, like our dynamic identities, it is always growing and changing.