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Empire Records shave
Empire Records

We asked a psychologist and hairdresser why haircuts are so emotional

Why do we make drastic hair decisions when we feel emotional? And why can haircuts often make us feel emotional? We investigate.

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It was right after the September 11th attacks in 2001 when a client paid New York-based hairstylist Siobhan Benson a visit. “She was really upset about it and she wanted to cut off all of her hair,” recalls Benson, who was in beauty school at the time but now owns her own salon in Brooklyn called Cut Loose. However, the customer wasn't in the right headspace to make the cut – she cried and ended up leaving the salon sans new ‘do. In the salon world, this situation is not unusual and Benson admits she’s seen her fair share of clients who have come to her in a highly emotional state wanting to make a drastic change to their appearance.

Our hair holds a lot of weighty emotions and drastic haircuts, particularly for women, are nothing new. Back in February 2007, Britney Spears famously walked into a salon and shaved her own head. While the moment is still heavily scrutinized by the media today, at the time Spears was in the midst of a divorce, reportedly dealing with a substance abuse disorder, and wrestling with mental illness. Shaving her head was a way of freeing herself from agony and exerting some control over the powerlessness she felt over her highly publicized life.

Several movies have also captured the emotional experiences of women who have wrestled with trauma and gone on to hack some or all of their hair off. In the 1988 film, The Accused, Jodie Foster’s character Sara Tobias cuts her hair from a shoulder-length style into a long pixie after she is gang-raped and her rapists are not found guilty. Then there’s Deb from the 1995 teen dramedy Empire Records who shaves her head following a suicide attempt as a means to make herself “visible”. In the second season finale of Girls, meanwhile, Hannah Horvath takes scissors to her hair after a bad OCD spell in which she punctured her eardrum with a q-tip and failed to write a book in one single day. These pop culture moments are telling about the strong relationship between drastic haircuts and our emotional states.

According to Rebecca Newman, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “When we’re going through a period of transition that is particularly painful, we tend to make decisions that provide immediate relief.” This can stem from the feeling of wanting to rid ourselves of intense or difficult emotions, causing us to make rash decisions such as impulsive purchases or getting a major haircut. In this way, Newman says, making a change to our physical appearance can feel akin to shedding a layer of skin in which we assume we will feel immediately better after the act. However, doing so ultimately doesn’t eliminate our distress as these external acts do not appease our internalized anguish.

When a romantic relationship ends, it’s common for individuals to want to make a change to their hair. “Grief after a break-up can drive someone towards making a big change in appearance, as a way of potentially lifting the literal and metaphorical ‘weight’ of the hair,” says Newman. Maintaining long hair can require a great deal of products, time, and patience, and letting go of that maintenance can symbolise the letting go of the emotional labour of the relationship, too.

For me, my relationship with haircuts has always been incredibly complicated. In times when I’ve been feeling particularly down about myself, getting a new hairstyle has always given me a temporary dose of oxytocin – it's been a way of feeling better about myself in times when I've been especially low. Yet, at the same time, I cry whenever I get a haircut. For whatever reason, changing up my look tends to give me a full-blown identity crisis. As someone who lives with chronic depression and anxiety, haircuts and I have a complicated relationship.

According to a new study by TYME in conjunction with YouGov, 20 per cent of the 680 U.S. women surveyed reported to have cried over a haircut they didn’t like while 1 in 6 women said they would be embarrassed to go out in public if there’s something wrong with their hair.

Newman believes that our understanding and standards of beauty often shape how we think and approach hair. “Our hair can help make us feel better about ourselves, but it doesn’t inherently hold any magical power,” she says. The re-invention of our physical selves can create a false sense of control. While we might feel like we’re in the driver’s seat of whatever is happening, it’s important to recognize that though we can influence certain circumstances in our lives, the only thing we can really manage is our emotions and reactions. In times of distress, we may seek different means of escape, such as a major haircut, instead of recognizing how making a drastic, and possibly regrettable, change to our appearance will only give us a fleeting sense of agency, argues Newman.

To determine whether an extreme haircut is a healthy way of coping, Newman suggests asking yourself if you are making the decision from an empowered place, a place of fear, or trying to use it as a synthetic means of internal change. “If a person has been quietly looking at hairstyles in magazines or on Instagram for a while, it might not be such a drastic shift after all,” she says. Beyond this, Benson always recommends that her clients wait until they feel calmer to determine whether a drastic ‘do is something they truly want.

Still, in certain situations, a new hairstyle can be liberating - giving us new style options and ways to present ourselves to the world. With this, Benson recalls a young client who got their head shaved off at age 12 as the first means of claiming and outwardly asserting their identity as transgender. As a hairstylist, she explains the importance of having empathy for all of her clients. “You deal with so many different walks of life who come to your chair with all their baggage,” she says. In this way, when done in the right headspace, haircuts can be a genuine means of self-transformation, and help us become more confident in ourselves.

This article was originally published 26 March 2019.

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