why are we so obsessed with celebrity haircuts?

A haircut doesn't need to have a hidden meaning.

by Alana Massey
23 June 2017, 4:05pm

i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture, and the times we live in.

Anyone who was conscious in the year 1999 will recall that Keri Russell, a fresh-faced starlet playing the title role in the WB drama Felicity, was poised to take over as America's sweetheart du jour, thanks in no small part to what the New York Times called her "glorious head of voluminous golden backlit hair." But rather than take out an insurance policy on her mortal halo, the callous and brutish Russell (unceremoniously and without a permission slip signed by the public) had her glowing locks hacked into a close pixie cut of tight coils.

The public reacted as it often does when famous women do something with their physical attributes: it sent death threats and abandoned her show to enter a full-time state of bereavement. For those who weren't around for this bizarre kerfuffle, it is difficult to do justice to just how enormous and unforgiving the reaction was. Because it was, you know, a haircut. But as recently as May of this year, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel felt fully at ease bringing it up with Russell, who has gone to great lengths (heh) to put the haircut hysteria in the past and focus on building a formidable career in Hollywood. And while Russell's case is perhaps the most outsized, when any female celebrity dares to dramatically change her hair there is never a shortage of frothing spectators with wrath and conspiracies at the ready.

When Miley Cyrus sheared the long brown waves of her Hannah Montana days into a platinum pixie cut with shaved sides in 2012, publications were quick to label it part of a "rebellious" phase — despite mentioning in the same articles that Cyrus had expressed a desire for said haircut as early as four years prior, as recorded in a 2008 interview with the star. "The former Disney princess appears keen to prove that being a fiancée to Liam Hemsworth does not mean she will be hanging up her microphone and rocking an apron with an army of little ones,"proclaimed the ever-progressive Daily Mail when Cyrus debuted the look, despite the fact that hair length has no known correlation to fertility or employment rates.

"Beyoncé's haircut: the meaning behind her new short style," read a Guardian headline in 2013 when the star briefly sported a cropped blonde cut. The article was a meandering, overly imaginative attempt to explain and critique Beyoncé's new hairstyle without so much as a perfunctory nod to those nefarious "sources close to the singer" usually found in such stories. The author ultimately concluded, "Going purely from my personal experience and observation, it is when a lady hits her 30s that she begins to feel properly, for want of a better word, womanly, by which I mean confident in her adulthood as opposed to how she generally felt in her 20s, which was like an overgrown, awkward teenager but with more responsibilities." The idea that women in their 20s usually feel like "overgrown, awkward" teenagers is certainly true of some women, but we are talking about Beyoncé here. Beyoncé has been a poised, famous, and lusted-after professional since her teen years in Destiny's Child. The idea that she operates on the time scales of mere mortals in this way is ludicrous.

Though short haircuts are the most predictable way to set off frenzied conjecture about a female celebrity's personal journey to self-actualization, coloring hair is an almost sure bet too. Never mind that Katy Perry changes her hair color more often than I change the sheets on my bed, her going blonde earlier this year was apparently evidence that she wanted to play matchy-matchy with her bleached boyfriend, Orlando Bloom. Ah, yes, Katy Perry, who wore a cupcake bra that shot fireworks on tour and who has modeled her hair on nearly every band member in Jem and the Holograms, was probably taking her style cues from iconic hair personality Orlando Bloom. Basically, any famous woman going blonde after the age of 25 has some ulterior motive related to maintaining a grip on her withering sex appeal and never has to do with the fact that blonde hair is a cute and exceptionally fun look.

The interior lives of celebrities are fascinating enigmas and I don't begrudge anyone their impulse to wonder about what's making them do the things they do. I am an out and proud consumer and creator of this kind of speculative fiction myself! What is tiresome about the endless stream of hypotheses is that they overwhelmingly rely on the lazy assumption that women changing their hair is invariably about a change in their personalities and priorities, their very reasons for being. There is an impulse to read celebrities' physical appearances as we might read texts: every color and contour quietly signals meanings that it is the job of the public to decode. But who are we decoding it for? Not for the women we put through the ringer every time they do something unexpected with their hair.

I mean, it's possible that these women are all in a state of perpetual crisis about their identities and using their hair as a shield against the forces of mortality, but it just doesn't seem that likely. Because seriously, why did you get your more dramatic haircuts or colors? Sure, you probably had one or two that were reactions to a breakup or a birthday. I once dyed my hair lavender in part just to spite a boy who told me I was too old for novelty colors. It does happen. But I would bet that these cuts were overwhelmingly the result of you seeing a haircut in a fashion spread or on TV and thinking, "Oh wow, that looks cool. I want to try that."

When you have the mega-budget that comes with unlimited access to stylists, products, and upkeep materials that celebrities have, it seems likely that you'll also be more willing to try bold new things with your hair — because you know that the people doing it are the best and that they can fix it if it goes awry. If you could do that, wouldn't you? For all the projecting we do on female celebrities' hair decisions, celebrities are the most likely people in the world to have the luxury of thinking of it as "just hair."


Text Alana Massey
Image via WikiCommons

Keri Russell
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