there's a reason you cut your hair after a breakup
The transformative power of chopping it all off, and what it means.
Image via Youtube.
“I was doing it for me,” are the final words Keri Russell says before she impulsively chops off her long curly ringlets in an iconic episode of Felicity. The shocking cut was the result of her character Felicity Porter’s emotional split with her boyfriend in the beginning of the hit show’s second season. Her dramatic tight-curled pixie cut became the symbol of her new beginning, or as she says, a “new me.” The empowering scene was the perfect depiction of the “breakup haircut.”
Before that unforgettable episode in 1999 and over the decades that followed, women have been cutting their hair following a relationship rift. On Instagram alone, the hashtag #breakuphair brings up hundreds of photos of women who have had extreme hair transformations. Not to mention, a radical new looks is almost expected from our celebrity idols after a split. But why do women seem to instinctively run to their hair salon when they call it quits with their partners?
“Changing one’s hair to mark an important life event is, in part, a signal of how much we look to women’s appearance to determine who they are or what’s going on their lives,” explained Renee Engeln, a psychology professor and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. “Making a radical change to your appearance can be a way of sending the message that you’re also making a radical change to your life—or that you’d like to.”
The pop cultural depictions of women’s breakup haircuts are fairly recent. As Jezebel points out, Maggie McKendrick's crop in the 1961 film The Parent Trap might be the first one, but the act has certainly become a phenomenon. Women from Frida Kahlo to Katy Perry have opted for a cathartic cut following the end of a relationship. Today, “breakup hair” is so common that “If she changes her hair after a breakup.. she’s gone forever Bruh.. new hair.. new man.. new life” has become a meme that’s been shared thousands of times.
A person’s hair having the transformative power to change lives goes back to the Biblical story of Samson, who as the tale goes, loses his strength after he cuts his hair. But in today’s world, women chopping their hair seems to be more about reclaiming strength than losing it.
“I wanted to change myself, for myself. I wanted to feel like I had control over the decisions I made for myself and I wanted to give myself an opportunity to do something without needing anyone’s opinion about it first,” explained Jess Sikon. After her break-up she chopped five inches off her long blonde hair and styled it in a long bob. “I was ready to turn over a new leaf and give myself a fresh start.”
Like, Felicity Porter, most women who find themselves in the salon are looking for a new beginning and way to take control of their lives. As Coco Chanel once said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life." A drastic haircut is an obvious and somewhat easy way to tell the world you are ready to start over and when you’re feeling impulsive it’s a much quicker alternative to that “revenge body.”
“Hair is an important piece of real estate because it frames your face, so you can dramatically change your look [with a haircut],” explained Coby Alcantar, a stylist at Little Axe Salon in Brooklyn. “Some people come in after a breakup and they just want their hair off, they don’t want the memories, like there is DNA in the hair that holds those memories.”
That was the case for 26-year-old Shelby Stanovsek, who chopped her hair after a difficult breakup earlier this year. “I couldn't shake this feeling that my hair was too heavy,” shared Stanovsek, who made the drastic cut five months ago. “I tried to shake it off, thinking cutting it would be something I'd regret, but it just felt too heavy.”
Even though those like The Weeknd and Justin Timberlake have changed up their signature hairstyle after a split, the cathartic cut is usually made by women. This is likely due to the fact that hair is so closely tied to femininity. As soon as Felicity reveals her new look to her friend, her first response is “Guys are going to hate it.”
As writer Erin Blakemore explained for JSTOR Daily, “Cutting hair—and thus resisting traditional ideals of feminine beauty—is a classic way to gain distance from subordination.” When some women come out of a breakup they don’t just want new hair, but a way to express their power and individual freedom —something they may have lacked in their relationship.
“For a woman who makes a big change from long hair to short hair after a breakup, this change can signal a rejection of traditional norms for women’s appearance,” explained Englen. “It can be a small way of challenging traditional gender roles as wel—a small act of rebellion.”
”I felt fresh and happy that I had done what I wanted to do without having to consider anyone else’s preferences,” said Sikon of her new look.
While it makes sense that a fresh haircut can offer a much-needed confidence boost, the problem with breakup hair is that it doesn’t necessarily fix the emotional turmoil caused by the split.
“Changing our appearance is unlikely to lead to meaningful life changes,” said Engeln. “But it’s not surprising that we often assume it will. There are a number of industries devoted to convincing women that a new beauty product or practice can result in a wholesale change to our lives.”
Even though an impulsive snip might not solve all your life problems, it is a common coping mechanism women continue to turn to. If you are going to make the cut, Alcantar at least suggests that you find a look you are going to feel confident in, which doesn’t always mean chopping off your hair, but maybe just a trim or new styling product.
“[A breakup haircut] is like a fuck you to that person, and that is rad,” said Alcantar. “But, you want to make sure it works for you and you are going to be confident with how you feel.”