The second Jennifer Lawrence debuted her short hair, the pop culture world was in a frenzy. Hollywood is like a fire-breathing dragon–no matter where you turn, you’ll get burned. Countless magazines and blogs had headlines such as “Important News: Jennifer Lawrence Has Cut Her Hair Short,” to “Hunger Games Fans Upset After Actress Shows Off Short Hair,” which is both hilarious and upsetting. No one’s hair should be that important (or interesting) nor should anyone be personally upset by another’s fashion choice. There seems to be too much micro-inspection when it comes to how a woman chooses to wear her hair, especially when in the spotlight. Of course, this is not news.
What I find most troubling, however, is there always seems to be backlash when a woman, famous or not, decides to chop her locks. While plenty of critics and fans alike supported her chopped cut, there were many disparaging comments made that are innately sexist, such as: “Should have cut her dessert as well.” When googling articles for “short hair” I often found men, and even women, writing articles about why women shouldn’t cut their hair, or the ridiculous reasons why they do, such as “wanting attention” or to “play a girl wanting to be a guy in a movie.” Of course, in media, it is often perpetuated that a woman cuts her hair only because she is distressed. Even in my own life, there have been several times I cut my hair, and people often asked me if I just went through a break up.
While I have usually kept my hair short, I personally I don’t care what kind of style a woman chooses. I don’t think having short hair makes a woman more independent, intelligent, or subversive than a woman who doesn’t. However, the freely given criticism is mind-blowing to me. A few weeks ago, I had my hair trimmed; the woman cutting my hair kept saying it was “too short” and that I needed to grow it long. Keep in mind, my hair isn’t even that short right now, it’s in a bob. When I was in high school, I had cut my hair a la Joan Jett, and many girls looked at me in disgust, asked me “why” I had done it, as though I had killed someone.
When I started studying at Sarah Lawrence College for my MFA, I went to a party to meet some of the other writers. There was a male poet who insisted I would be “more beautiful” if I had long hair. While I couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks of my fashion choices, I couldn’t help but wonder why people still think this way, especially people who are apparently educated enough to be aware of gender stereotyping. In other instances, people have assumed I must be a lesbian just because I have short hair, which is giving a uniform to different groups of people. Welcome to the perpetuation of stereotypes, ladies and gents.
When men and women assume a woman cuts her hair because she must be upset, or going through a break-up, it sends a terrible message: a woman’s value lies only in her beauty (or perceived lack of), and that only emotional instability would cause a physical change. It also implies women are less beautiful, thus less valuable, when they cut their hair. Hair choices should not be shocking or dramatic, it’s just dead cells growing from your scalp.
Of course, long hair has been historically viewed as a sign of luxury, in that it implies two things: you can afford the maintenance and you are healthy. In the past, the idea of long hair was not only just an ideal feminine standard, but extends back to the process of natural selection, as thick and healthy hair is a sign of youth and fertility. Simply, to have long hair means you are young. Our culture is obsessed with youth.
While it could still be that men may intrinsically prefer long hair for evolutionary and biological reasons of sexual selection, the backlash is also due to what is considered masculine and feminine. Short hair is still seen as a masculine trait. Unfortunately, women who choose to have short hair are seen as threatening, because they are rejecting the feminine standard of beauty, and in some ways, rejecting male and female power dynamics. In general, change makes people nervous, even if the change is good.
Men and women are also afraid of ceasing to be seen as attractive to others, thus less valuable, since our culture defines a person by their outward appearance. In the same way young women are meant to have long hair, older women are supposed to cut theirs off. Again, it stems from evolution, in that women past a certain age could not bear children, thus were not deemed as objects of fertility, and thus, sexuality. Obviously, we are somewhat behind the times if we still think a woman in her seventies cannot be sexy, have a healthy sexual life, and still have long hair.
Perhaps I’ve always had short hair because I don’t like being told what to do. Having always been accustomed to examining my emotions and the reasons why I act the way I do, why I desire the things I want, I’ve always questioned this “feminine” ideal. I prefer to experiment with my hair, simply so I know what I actually want–it is essential for me to explore my own face, to know what it looks like in various dimensions. I can say I’ve had it all:
I never wanted to be afraid of what others thought, of what I thought of myself. Even as a child, I knew I could be just as pretty even if my hair didn’t resemble Cinderella’s. Regardless of personal preference, judgment should also remain just that, personal.
Joanna C. Valente currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is a part-time mermaid. She received her MFA in poetry writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Some of her words can be found in The Paris-American, The Atlas Review, El Aleph Press, decomP, Thrush Poetry Journal, La Fovea, The 22 Magazine, and other places. In 2010, she founded Yes, Poetry. Her ghost resides here. @joannasaid