Last week when Beyoncé chopped off her hair, the Internet went nuts. My first thought was, maybe she read my essay on rocking a pixie cut (99.9% likely not). Later, Lena Dunham Tweeted, “I feel like Beyoncé is having a very different experience of short hair than I am,” bringing to mind the unforgettable moment of the Girls season 2 finale where Hannah, unstable and isolated in her obsessive compulsion, nervously cuts off her own locks in front of the bathroom mirror and a photograph of Carey Mulligan. Since then Dunham herself has been rocking a short, spunky style in real life.
Why is it that a character or star cutting off their hair has become cultural shorthand for a personal crossroads or major life change? Besides Hannah on Girls, think of Keri Russell and her character on Felicity and Julia Roberts’ “new mother” cut in Steel Magnolias. Anne Hathaway’s crop signaled the beginning of her “adult” life, getting married and winning an Oscar. Hell, even Miley Cyrus’ drastic chop ‘n’ bleach ushered in her current “badass/sexpot/I am a grownup, look at me but don’t tell me what to do” phase. Cutting off one’s hair is a declaration of independence, an announcement to the world that you know who you are and you will do what you want (something neither Beyoncé nor Dunham have ever had trouble expressing). Because, let’s face it, short hair is considered by many men as less sexy, less feminine, and maybe a bit threatening. When I cut my hair off I got a lot of backhanded compliments from fellow females who said things like, “I could never do that. I just don’t have the face for it.” But very often it’s not about the face. (Does Lena Dunham have a good face for short hair?) It’s about having the confidence to style yourself as you feel best, no matter what the cultural or gender norms say.
My mother used to be a high school teacher and one of her students’ semester projects was to shadow a professional in the field in which they were interested, then give a speech and demonstration to the class about that field. One student wanted to be a hairdresser but wasn’t sure how to demonstrate the profession. My mom, ever the brave and intrepid instructor, allowed her student to cut her hair… in class. She got a cute new cut for free, a lot of compliments, and when she came home that day and shocked us kids, she said simply, “It’s just hair. I knew if I didn’t like it, it would grow back.”
That chillax attitude had a big influence on me and it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to deal with bad cuts. But though it’s easy to say, it’s not so easy to make yourself feel. Chopping off your hair is a big leap, and it stirs something inside of you, because our hair, how we style and present it to the world, is a huge part of our identities. Certainly Beyoncé’s flowing, wild mane of hair is (or was) integral to how we see her, but is it integral to how she sees herself?
TLC’s fashion show hit What Not To Wear is now in its final season, and after ten years I think I’ve watched 80% of it. I know the formula inside and out. The most fascinating part of every makeover, however, is only a few minutes long – the hair and makeup transformation. After being verbally abused for a week by Stacy and Clinton, the subject is put in the hands of the very kind and understanding Carmindy (makeup) and Ted Gibson (hair), who gently prod the women into the final change of their transformation. But this part is not about what the women put on; it’s about themselves, physically.
Makeup is easy enough, and Carmindy handles each lady with compliments and a soothing voice. But it is the new hairstyle that seems to put each woman over the edge. This is where the breakdown happens, because after several days of major changes in their appearance, this is not only the last step, but also the single part of the transformation that can’t be reversed the day after the cameras stop rolling. This is something they can’t take off at night. It’s literally a part of them, who they are, and, from my point of view, says more about a woman and how she views herself than any fitted blazer or wrap dress ever could.
I was thinking Beyoncé’s tour manager would have to put a lot of wind machines into storage due to this hair turn of events, but who knows? Maybe she’ll put in extensions. Maybe she won’t. Either way, when Beyoncé gets off stage each night, she knows who she is and what stage of her life she’s in. She’s a working mom. She’s also a sexy-as-hell wife, and no amount of hair, great or small, is gonna change that.