Coco Chanel once said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” And while she wasn’t the first to suggest that going for the chop wields power, that idea has certainly been internalized by those aching for transformation.
On social media sites like Twitter, the impulsive snip has been made akin to seeing a therapist — or, in most cases, acknowledging that you should probably see one before making any big decisions.
@freakin_dani: “do I actually want to cut my hair or do I need a therapist?”
@alliewach: “personally I believe wanting bangs is almost never about wanting bangs and if u want bangs u should go to therapy first.”
Hair experimentation can be seen as self-care — arguably the most low-risk alteration we can get away with. No harm, no foul. The bowl cut you got on impulse but have come to regret will grow back.
Whether or not you believe the semantics run that deep, for many people haircuts have always been signposts of the need for something new. And the way society reacts to hair transformations only reinforces the symbolism.
Whether we’re discussing the post-breakup chop or the new-me ’do, haircuts have become a marker for pivotal moments in life. But the mysticism is in the act itself: sitting in a salon chair and listening to the snips as pieces of ourselves get chopped away so we can show the world how we wish to be seen.
It’s a magic spell that combines potent emotion with a real-life alteration that’s quick, easy and painless. That’s what makes it feel like sorcery.
This idea has also been fueled by fashion and popular culture, with styles gaining traction via screen, song, or celebrity status: The “Rachel,” the “pixie,” the “flapper,” and the “pageboy” are now hallmarks of their respective eras.
We think the cuts themselves will make us feel good, but it’s the narratives around them that make us think we’ll be imbued with the same qualities as those who wore them in the past.
These feelings are most perfectly captured in film scenes, such as the moment in “Empire Records” when Robin Tunney’s Debra cuts, buzzes, and then shaves her head after surviving a suicide attempt.
In “Roman Holiday,” Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann frees herself from the royal pressures by decisively choosing a pixie cut and a short fringe.
Mulan uses her father’s sword to cut off her long hair so that she can go unnoticed in the Imperial Army — but by the end of the film, she wears it long again, signaling a change in identity.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s original fairy tale, the Little Mermaid’s sisters sacrifice their mythical locks to the sea witch in exchange for a magic knife.
A hair-transformation montage in “The Princess Diaries” shows Mia Thermopolis’ frizzy hair becoming split-end-free and glossy.
It’s easy to understand why haircuts are often cited as a way to take control of certain feelings or ideations. The mental craving for release or change is satiated by physical action, and — presto! — we suddenly have agency.
But of all the visual depictions of haircuts, the one that stuck with me as the greatest haircut catharsis was from the opening of “500 Days of Summer.”
We see a young version of Zooey Deschanel’s character brushing out her long hair in the mirror, and the narrator tells us: “Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing.”
Summer picks up some scissors and quickly snips off a whole chunk of her hair.
Though the cut is never mentioned again, it shows the viewer that Summer valued the fact that she could get rid of something she cared about without it causing her pain. That really stayed with me.
The takeaway is supposed to be that we should be wary of this character because she can distance herself from emotion, but all I got from it was that hair is reassuringly constant in its qualities: There’s no pain.
Plus, it comes back.
I’d come home for Easter break from university, convincing myself that I wanted to be there to start my dissertation — rather than admitting that I didn’t trust myself to be on my own.
Over the course of the year, I’d begun to experience periods of deep, low mood (as opposed to the usual static-crackle of generalized anxiety disorder, the symptoms of which I’ve had since I was young) and had been ambushed by distressing intrusive thoughts. They quickly escalated into suicidal ideation.
My Mum was a trained hairdresser in her youth, so haircuts in our house were not a wild occurrence. With my new compulsive tendencies, I often played around with the thought of getting the scissors and just cutting it all off — but I never had the guts to do it myself.
Yet I suddenly felt suffocated by my hair, which elicited a deep-set panic that someone else could grab or pull it. So I begged her to get rid of it, and although it pained her to do so, she did.
Within the hour my hair was shorter than it had ever been, my neck cold and covered in itchy flyaways. I spent most of the session with my eyes closed, listening to the snip of her scissors, as the urge to hurt myself softened a little.
It goes without saying that lopping all my hair off did not, in fact, cure me of my ills. But it gave me a reprieve, a sense of authority over something that often makes me feel small and powerless.
Because shorter haircuts require more maintenance, I also had to take care of it (and, by extension, myself) through regular trims and washes. It suddenly became something to focus on other than worry.
As my mental health improved somewhat, I allowed my hair to grow again. My anxiety is still something I grapple with on a day-to-day basis, as are intrusive thoughts, but the need to cut is not as strong.
The haircut itself was a plunge, something I probably won’t be brave enough to repeat in the future. But living with my choice taught me a lot about self-care. Yes, haircuts are transformative in a physical sense, but they can also provide a mental balm that combines “real” action and therapeutic methods.
The practice of growing out a cut is representative of mental recovery, too. I look at my hair growing and know that I’ve come really far and I’m striving for a future when it can be longer.
Now I have a long bob and an anxiety diagnosis, which I’m awaiting treatment for. And almost predictably, I got a fringe. Some things never change.
Lauren Entwistle is a reporter and freelance journalist writing about mental health and pop culture — sometimes both at the same time. You can follow her on Twitter.