My relationship with my hair has been adventurous, to say the least. My teens were punctuated by asymmetric fringes, black emo bobs and aggressively thick clip in extensions, each visit to the hairdressers promising a new reimagining of who I was finding myself out to be. I dyed it, cut it, grew it and regretted it, all the while using it as an opportunity to protect myself and declare myself at the same time. It was an expression of every teenage phase I ever had the pleasure to cycle through: emo, chav, wannabe Cheryl Cole (that red box dye though) and please-will-a-boy-finally-fancy-me-dear-GOD.
Now, it’s my favourite feature. As it is, it’s exactly the kind of hair I wished for as a teenager, but rallied against because I couldn’t achieve. I spend a lot of time, effort and money encouraging my locks to look a certain way, and I’m not alone; a 2016 study found that on average, UK women spend around £751 a year on their barnet, more than twice as much as men.
The same study found that men also get their hair cut twice as often, opting for monthly trips to the barbers over women’s average 8-weekly appointments. The fact that men typically have shorter hair and require more regular upkeep is an obvious explanation for the disparity in frequency, but I also think that our perspective on getting our hair done is considerably different. Our appointments are an experience. We count down the days and savour the treat, or we dread the day and cancel - again. Love it or hate it, the impending promise of a hair appointment usually elicits some form of strong reaction from most of the women I know, and after contemplating my own relationship with my hair and how I’ve come to rely on it over the years, I got to thinking: is it ‘just hair’, or is it more than that? And either way, why is our relationship with our hair so entrenched in emotion?
So I asked you lovely lot, and the response was overwhelming. I spent the afternoon reading through the messages and there was such a vast range of stories, some funny, some serious, some liberating and some defeating. One thing that came to the fore time and time again was just how many women use their hair as a security blanket, myself included. If my skin looks terrible or I’m too tired to do my make-up or I feel like a bag of shit in general, I always have my long blonde hair to save me. Whether it’s freshly washed and fluffy as fuck or slicked back in a 3 day greasy bun, I always use my hair as a means to protect my vulnerability, championing it as a pretty distraction or beating imagined critics to the punch with a visible declaration of how few shits I give.
But that element of security isn’t always a welcome one. When my hair doesn’t want to play fair (couldn’t resist that internal rhyme), I’m left feeling exposed, a sentiment which Christy echoed. “I have really fine hair but a lot of it”, she shared in her message, “so if it ever thins out because of stress, it makes things 100 times worse. My weight fluctuates a lot and I feel like my hair distracts from the rest of me if I’m a bit chubs. I’d love to cut my hair into a chic bob, but I could never part with it.” I remember feeling the exact same way after I cut my hair into a lob (long bob, for those of who aren’t down with the ~ lingo ~). Suddenly the length that I used to hide behind was gone, and I no longer had the option of making my hair big to divert from other areas that I didn’t want to seem so. Cutting my hair wasn’t liberating - it was terrifying - and I’ve been growing it ever since.
So why do I still feel a burning desire to completely shave my head? And why do so many other women share this fascination?
For me, the lure is in wanting to challenge myself. Knowing how desperately I cling to my hair as a form of self-preservation, stripping it away would mean I’d have no other choice but to embrace my vulnerability. I couldn’t hide behind meticulous beachy waves or a half-arsed top knot - it would just be me, my egg head, and pair of very cold ears. Part of me is also desperate to reject the femininity that my hair invokes, a sentiment which Brooke relates to: “I’m currently in the process of trying to build up the courage to have all of my hair shaved off. As jealous as I get of other girls with long, shiny locks, I’m sick to death of feeling like I have to style it a certain way or have it a certain length just to be classed as ‘feminine’. I can’t wait to prove that long hair isn’t a sign of femininity.”
This rejection of forced femininity was a recurring theme in the messages I received, but a few people took it beyond the desire and chopped off their locks. Rachel spoke of the liberation that came from cutting her own hair short, declaring: “a few days ago I cut off my ponytail. It’s the second time I’ve cut it and it’s a really cathartic feeling. Cutting it off with a pair of shit kitchen scissors makes me feel strangely in control and strong. Hair is such a divisive thing for a woman.”
And I agree. To strip yourself of something that is so interdependent on femininity is a bold and fearless statement. It’s an unspoken declaration to those around you that you’re challenging the status quo - you’re shaping your own perception of yourself and how the world sees you, and your “femininity” is not reliant on the decoration atop your head.
For some, however, the defining element of their relationship with their hair is not the desired rejection of it, but learning to accept it. For the women of colour who shared their stories with me, this seemed especially true. Kya recounted how she was bullied by white girls at school for being different: “my hair is naturally curly but I spent years straightening it every day, buying extensions, shying away from myself. Now that I’m older and more independent, I embrace my natural hair and it’s a journey to becoming a self loving woman of colour. I’m on my way.”
For Dionne, the decision to straighten her hair wasn’t necessarily a conscious or difficult one, because it was so ingrained in her environment that it was just accepted as the standard. “Being of Afro-Carribean descent, I have naturally kinky, coily hair,” she wrote, “and growing up I always struggled with it because there were never any girls or women who wore their hair naturally - it was always chemically straightened. So I grew up thinking that it was the norm, and straightened my hair from the age of 9 to 18.” At 18, however, she decided enough was enough, and she rejected euro-centric, white-washed ideals of what ‘good hair’ should be. “I grew out my thick curls and I loved it. Now I’m 100% natural.”
After reading through all of the different stories that were shared with me and reflecting upon my own relationship with my hair, I began to wonder what it was that united us. Whilst some bitterly missed their hair which was lost through ill-health, others longed to shave it off in the name of liberation. Whereas some used their hair as a means to protect themselves against the world, others had to routinely change theirs just to feel accepted. What was it that joined us together? What made the struggle with our hair as women a common one?
I think it has to do with false promises. As women, we are told that our hair is inextricably linked to our femininity and our beauty, either directly, like those who were bullied for not adhering to the standard of straight locks, or in more insidious ways that influence us without our knowing, like all of the most “beautiful” celebrities sporting the same type of hair. Hair is presented as both conducive to, and a direct result of, femininity. You need good hair to qualify as beautiful, but good hair is also a social sign that you are indeed feminine - that you take care of yourself and your appearance (for the record, a quick Google search pulls up the definition of ‘feminine’ as: “traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness” *vom*).
We’re led to believe that if we get our hair right - if we can achieve that beauty and that femininity - then we’ll finally feel good about ourselves. Much like diet culture impressing the idea that buying one more replacement shake and losing one more pound will finally leave us feeling satisfied, we embark on this hair journey of buying products and booking appointments and endlessly straightening, curling and taming in a bid to achieve this elusive, fleeting feeling. Even if we already fit the ‘ideal hair’ mould to begin with or we reach that point through lavishly named treatments and extortionately priced shampoo, we still struggle to break out of the cycle of pursuit, because - and this probably won’t shock you - that promised feeling doesn’t exist. It was designed not to.
If we were happy with our hair, we’d stop spending money to ‘fix’ it. Instead of recognising this, however, we assume that we must be ‘one more hair treatment’ away from always loving our locks, and so we look for satisfaction in something else. That’s why so many of us want what they don’t have, even when we get it.
Our hair is entrenched in emotion and identity. We use it as a tool to communicate and express versions of ourselves, to assert or to hide. We use it to shed the baggage of emotional break-ups, and to bond with mothers, friends, sisters and neighbours. We use is to embrace our culture and our history, and to find strength and pride in difference. We use it as a means of simultaneously embracing and rejecting femininity, (eventually) on our own terms.
It’s more than just hair,
But we are more than our hair.