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Beauty How chopping my hair off helped me grieve the losses in my life

Feb. 23, 2022
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Two afternoons after a close friend accused me of lying about being sexually harassed, I found myself at my best friend's house, standing in front of the mirror with a pair of scissors in my hand. As a professor unwittingly droned on in the background over Zoom, my best friend and I gave ourselves bangs until hair covered the floor. Later that evening, as I explained the haircut to my therapist, I tried to put into words just how uncharacteristic for me it had been.

“I never make such impulsive decisions,” I vowed. “I don't know what came over us. It just instantly seemed like the right thing to do.”

My therapist, calm as ever, said, “You do know that in some ways, cutting your hair is a form of mourning and moving on, right?”

Suddenly, everything made sense—from Gone Girl's Amy Dunne and Superstore's Amy Dubanowski shortening their hair, to why my best friend and I were overtaken by the urge to cut our hair seemingly out of nowhere. As a result of standing up for what we believed in, my best friend and I had lost two people who had been an important part of our lives, people we loved and cared for deeply. We had lost friendships that mattered to us, and in our confusion and anger, the only way we could grieve was by impulsively working to look—and feel—like the different, new people we had become.

Looking at myself in my phone's front camera a week later, I still felt a strange sense of detachment from my hair. I no longer felt like the person I had been when I wanted to grow it out, and the bangs my friend and I had cut didn't seem drastic enough anymore. So I had my waist-length hair—a sign of traditional femininity in Indian culture—chopped into a pixie cut for the first time in my life. It seemed like one of the best decisions I'd ever made. My sister was fascinated by how “un-feminine” all my movements suddenly seemed; I couldn't stop running my hands through my hair; when I looked into the mirror, I saw myself again. I had been transformed permanently, for better or for worse—and the person I saw in the mirror, with a pixie cut she would've been too scared to get a few months ago, felt like the new me. And as I continued to try to come to terms with being sexually harassed and blamed for it, I wanted to run as far away from my femininity as possible. For some time, I stopped wearing dresses and makeup; I started smoking, drinking more, and doing everything that a “well-behaved” woman in India shouldn’t do. 

Growing up, my grandmothers always loved my long hair. They praised it endlessly, saying that it framed my face well and made me look “sweet.” In her last months, my paternal grandmother bombarded me with tips for growing my hair more quickly, from applying mustard oil to getting more frequent trims. After she passed away, I often found myself staring at the mirror for minutes on end, considering my unkempt, unwashed hair. I desperately wanted to cut it off, but my grandmother’s words kept stopping me even after she died. For a whole year, I clung onto the long hair, refusing to entertain any suggestions from family members or friends to trim or color it. On some level, I realized, I was holding onto my hair because I wasn't ready to let go of it—or my grandmother—just yet. After losing both my grandparents within six months, I felt messy and unkempt just like my hair.

After I went through with the pixie cut, I was surprised by how many people seemed unimpressed by it. From my hairdresser's shock at my request, to my grandfather's bitter disappointment, to multiple neighbors declaring that my hair had been “better before,” no one had any reservations in telling me how my new hair made them feel. I tried to take it all in stride, but the constant needling became frustrating—especially because I didn't know how to explain the reasoning behind it to people, and because I didn't owe an explanation to anyone. More than anything, people's problems with my hair threw me off because I had thought that Indian society was evolving past traditional gender norms. Now, it seemed I had to work harder to make people like me just because I had wanted a different haircut.

Ultimately, I ended up coming to a cliché realization: my grandmother would have loved me even if I had shorter hair, and me cutting my hair didn’t mean I had forgotten her or stopped missing her. I couldn't stop myself from doing things just because they would unsettle others—because those who really loved me would continue to do so regardless, and those were the only people who mattered. After my epiphany, I didn't care how people looked at me anymore. All my life I had always wanted to be the “good girl”, but if just cutting my hair short was enough to make people question whether I was a nice person, I didn't want to be seen as sweet or lovable or nurturing. I didn't want to be any of the things that people expect a woman to be. I just wanted to take a step back and find out who I really was when I wasn't trying to be what everyone wanted me to be. As a result, my hair not only helped me mourn the difficult end of a friendship—it helped me break out of my need to be the perfect woman.

On the internet, there’s a running joke that dyeing one's hair and cutting bangs is how young people cope with all kinds of crises—from pandemics to break-ups. In many indigenous cultures, though, hair has long been connected to spirituality. In India, where I’m from, the ritual of mundan—shaving a baby's hair off—is said to rid babies of negativity from their past life, while promoting spiritual development. After the death of their father, sons are expected to shave their heads as a symbol of grief and detachment from the ego. Widows are similarly expected to stay bald after their husbands’ death, as a way of renouncing femininity and pleasure. In some Native American cultures, long hair is a sign of connection to one's spirituality—while in religions like Buddhism, shaving one's hair signifies detachment from earthly possessions.

Psychologically, shaving your hair in times of grief is supposed to prepare you for a new, different life. In an article from Quartz, Dr. Katherine Ellen Foley writes that people recovering from any kind of trauma often cope by changing their appearance, and this, in itself, is a form of self-care. She provides the example of Britney Spears' 2007 meltdown, when the singer shaved her hair off at a salon because she wanted some control over her life and image, after being managed by music executives since she was 16.

Haircuts, hence, have a much deeper meaning than just a trip to the salon. For women especially, they can be a way of empowering oneself and regaining control over one’s appearance, consciously changing the way one is perceived by the world. They can be a way of grieving the end of a relationship or the loss of a loved one, a way to hold on to the deceased as well. For a year, my long hair was the only thing that connected me to my grandmother. My decision to cut it, however, still feels like the best one I’ve ever made: embracing this new haircut—and consequently, my new self—is the reason I can look into the mirror every day and feel like a person of my own.