“But why did she do it?” a male family friend asked my mum, his face the picture of confusion. “Well, people take her more seriously now,” was the rather defensive answer my mother gave in return. The “it” that they happened to be discussing in detail — and in front of me — was my new haircut.
After weeks of Pinterest curating, I had chopped my almost waist-length hair to a short, blunt bob. It was a choice that felt innocuous enough, but to those around me it seemed to act as a kind of personal or political statement — and interestingly, most of the comments about it came from men.
Walking into work the day after my trim, I felt confident. But after silently surveying me, a male colleague declared: “I prefer long hair on girls.” I let it go and chose to bask instead in the glow of the adjectives used by my female coworkers. I looked cooler, edgier, and more sophisticated.
As time went on, the unsolicited quips continued from men with whom I came into contact. One man I met told me that he’d scrolled through my Facebook pictures and that I looked more beautiful with long hair. Male friends and acquaintances pointedly declared that they “just prefer longer-haired women” when the topic came up in conversation. One upside was that the catcalls in the street dropped significantly, but being constantly asked to justify my decision felt like emotional labor.
As it turns out, I got off lightly. Twenty-five-year-old Eva* was working as a stockbroker when she cut her hair from hip- to bob-length in a bid to be taken more seriously in male-dominated board meetings. Instead, male coworkers made lewd jokes and even asked if she had sought her boyfriend’s permission beforehand. “It was the kind of environment where everything was turned into a sexual remark,” she told me. “They made it clear that while they preferred long hair, mine wasn’t too bad because it was still ‘grabbable’ — I wasn’t impossible to have sex with.”
Hair acts as a marker of gender identity, and it seems that when women choose to subvert this, they become a threat.
Before cutting her auburn hair into a pixie cut, 26-year-old Jasmine Ricketts was warned by male friends that it was the most attractive part of her. Afterwards, she was told she looked like a “weird boy” and called a lesbian by men in the street. Kailing Fu, a Chinese-Singaporean theatre performer, shaved off her knee-length hair and faced abuse from strangers. Some put their hands together and bowed at her. Others asked if she had cancer.
What is it about short hair that riles men? In many cultures today, long hair is linked with youth and womanhood. But this hasn’t always been the case. Dr. Alexander Edmonds, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, explains: “It used to be common for men to have long hair and even wear makeup, but since the democratization of fashion in the 20th century, there has been a sharper contrast between male and female presentation.”
Hair acts as a marker of gender identity, and it seems that when women choose to subvert this, they become a threat. “[Women] having short hair is similar to other kinds of gender transgressions from the past, like not wearing a bra or a dress,” Dr. Edmonds says. “It’s a rejection of the cultural expectation that women should try to please.” Short and shaved hair is posed as the opposite of femininity, and in the West has historically been reserved for disgraced and deviant women: During World War II, French women suspected of having relationships with Nazis in German-occupied France had their hair shaved and were tarred and feathered.
The view that long hair equates to femininity has been imprinted on us since childhood, when storybook princesses with flowing locks were the epitome of beauty. Dr. Victoria Showunmi, a lecturer at University College London, says, “This in itself speaks back to the romanticized notion that women are not women unless they have very long hair, flowing in the wind.” Likewise, the dashing Disney princes who married the likes of Ariel and Aurora proved that a normative male has relatively short hair. Dr. Showunmi also suggests that some men may feel emasculated by dating women with hair shorter than their own.
But women face a double bind. Long hair might make you beautiful and appealing to men, but it won’t get you far in the workplace. Mary Bock, a professor at the University of Texas, conducted research on the presentation of broadcast journalists in the United States. She found that “smooth, short to medium length hair seems to be almost like a uniform” and concluded, “The implicit message is that this is what professional looks like.” Ivanka Trump’s latest haircut echoes the sentiment that long hair is not serious. The Guardian dubbed her new trim a “political bob” (or “pob”); The Express called it a “power bob.” It seemed that by cutting her long blonde hair short, she was forging a new image for herself and making a political statement.
Dr. Edmonds explains that women cutting their hair might act as a threat to men worried about their rising power in professional spaces. Perhaps this explains the visceral response of Jenna’s stockbroker colleagues after she cut her hair. “Longer hair connotes femininity with its associations of passivity and eagerness to please,” says Dr. Edmonds. Shorter hair, on the other hand, “could signal a willingness and ability to compete with male peers and superiors at work.”
We are socialized to believe that when we cut off our hair, we are mutilating our femininity. But in fact, cutting my hair has been liberating.
For women of color, and in particular Black women, the pressures pile on. Achieving long, flowing, princess-like hair may require expensive weaves and lengthy chemical straightening processes. British-Nigerian Dolly Ogunrinde had been straightening her hair since childhood. By the time she hit 17, it was damaged and falling out. She decided to shave it off and grow it out naturally, but was unprepared for the abuse she received afterwards. At a party, a boy told her she looked “disgusting and like a boy,” and she was ridiculed when she covered her shaved head with a wig. Dolly told me, “Something we accept as the norm of how women should present is actually quite difficult to achieve naturally for some Black women.”
Ultimately, hair is used by others to categorize and define us, to mark out our sexuality or gender. We are socialized to believe that when we cut off our hair, we are mutilating our femininity. But in fact, cutting my hair has been liberating. Not only does it take half the time to dry, have more volume, and look killer with an off-the-shoulder top, it also feels right for me at the moment. So here’s to styling our hair based on how we like it, and when it comes to outdated gender stereotypes, not giving — or growing — an inch.
*Name has been changed. This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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