Women cutting their hair short has always created the same tiresome set of questions, usually asked by men: is she gay now? Has she had a nervous breakdown? Who broke up with her?
Comical threads fill websites like Reddit and Quora with anonymous users who pose questions like these: “Why do many of the extreme feminists have short hair or buzz cuts? Is it a symbol of not conforming to long hair, or do they just like short hair? No hate or spite started this. It’s just my curiosity.”
The fixation on women and short hair is by no means unique to the modern-day. In 1915, the famous ballroom dancer Irene Castle cut her hair just below her ears for convenience ahead of an appendectomy — she kept it short after the surgery, creating the “Castle Bob.” Castle, a reputation trend-setter, rattled American traditionalists with her new look. In 1920, the Women’s Suffrage movement gained traction with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and as more women joined the workforce during World War I, short hair took on a new meaning as an act against traditional ideas of femininity. Following suit, mid-20th-century actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Joan Crawford sported bobs, pervading popular culture with the ethos of an independent, modern woman. The 1970s and 80s brought layers and texture to the hairstyle, and by the end of the 20th century, the pixie cut saw a rise in popularity. Victoria Beckham and Halle Berry, in the early 2000s, continued the look of short hair with stacked bobs and tapered cuts.
Fictional worlds, of course, have reflected this trend: the unsettling Margo Tenenbaum from “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the odd Amélie from “Amélie,” troubled Susanna Kaysen from “Girl, Interrupted.” The alluring Mia Wallace, from “Pulp Fiction,” Mathilda in “Léon: The Professional,” the prodigious Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit.”
These characters’ short haircuts, while varying in shortness, ultimately achieve a familiar brand of identity: cool girl. Cool unsettling girl. Cool odd girl. Cool troubled girl. Cool alluring girl. Cool troubled troubled girl. Cool prodigy girl. So it seems that popular culture’s idea of a cool girl, a postmodern girl, is one that makes a show of her femininity while also rejecting it — an intriguing contradiction that directors tend to like.
What exactly are we doing when we associate say, a haircut, with an identity, a persona? Would Margo Tenenbaum still be the same character, still have the same intrigue, if she had long hair? Or if she didn’t smoke cigarettes or wear a shock of a fur coat? Appearance as identity is a dangerous thing to buy into, except of course, when it makes for a good film.
In our postmodern world, appearance as identity has only become more of a complex and sticky matrix. Anthony Giddens has a cerebral term for what we’ve endeavored our bodies to become: a “reflexive project.” In our 21st century, the presentation of the self has become more and more of a false narrative, a canvas onto which we project who we hope to become, not who we actually are. Who actually, then, are we?
I’ve always admired girls with short hair, especially if it’s especially short, hugging the jawline or swirling in curlier strands near the ears. I’ve seen the same woman with bobbed, wind-whipped, honey-colored hair biking down my street every week, earrings wagging, all business. After a week of seeing this woman and thinking hard about the state of my own appearance, how all of my clothes seemed to fit having short hair anyway, I got mine cut. It’s like by getting my hair cut just as short as hers, I might also attain her confidence, and maybe even her bike.
I wasn’t trying to make a statement by cutting my hair short, at least not consciously. I was just trying to get a haircut, to prove to myself that I can still do bold things and say to myself later that night in the harsh mirror of my bathroom, this suits me.
Could it be true that by walking out of the salon on a cool Monday, with the now exposed nape of my neck, I destabilized, on some level, my feminine side? I certainly felt lighter, less burdened. The curled ends of my hair bobbed with every step, animating my walk with a bit more energy than I usually carry.
Having such short hair feels like I’m wearing a costume, like the formidable Joan of Arc (the 1903 portrayal by Albert Lynch), or like the sleek Louise Brooks — like it’s not actually me, but instead some much cooler version, one I could never actually be.
This haircut feels jaded or makes me look jaded, even when I don’t intend to. And it’s always when I try to look disaffected that I feel the most affected, a comical sort of paradox that prevents me from putting on a show.
This haircut makes me feel French, and I am French, but French Canadian. I should’ve said: This haircut makes me feel French Parisian. This haircut feels like the vivid cool of smoking a cigarette for the first time, this haircut feels like drumming nails on countertops, this haircut feels like wearing gloves in painting class instead of not wearing them, a ladylike and cleanly thing to do which for so long I’ve avoided until my hands cracked dry from the oils.
This haircut feels like it exists between girl and lady, but I hate both of those words anyway. This haircut feels like the candied thrill of Coke in a glass bottle, this haircut feels like disobeying the grip of my ponytail holder every time I step out the door for a few miles at lunchtime, this haircut seems to accentuate my bad posture, this haircut feels like calling instead of texting, this haircut feels like the shapeless comfort of a shift dress, this haircut feels like the smart plunk of a chess piece touching down.
This haircut feels like the only poet I’ve ever really loved might be Frank O’Hara, this haircut feels like a holiday train ride, this haircut feels like its curls mimic the pensive windup of an analog clock, this haircut feels like not taking my makeup off before bed, this haircut feels like the acrid taste of whiskey, this haircut feels, when straightened into submission by the force of 410 degrees, like the unconvincing charm of a 1950s actress, this haircut feels like the purchase of a leather jacket which is somehow religious, this haircut feels like being late and not walking any faster, this haircut feels, especially when seen in silhouette, like I’ve become a paper doll, weightless and newly lovely.
This haircut feels like not replying to what is intended to provoke me, this haircut feels like reading the lucid prose of Rachel Cusk or Rachel Kushner, this haircut feels like only smiling when I want to, not because I have to, this haircut feels like the unmatched bliss of noise-canceling headphones, this haircut feels like not deleting search histories, unashamed of the curiosities and check-ins, this haircut feels like skipping school, which is something I can’t do without a great big stomach ache coming on.
This haircut feels like the estranged voice of Aimee Mann in her hit song “Save Me,” this haircut feels like liking small talk for what it reveals about a person, this haircut feels like walking around in the rain without an umbrella, this haircut feels like it deals in the business of never being dull, being fearful of it actually, this haircut knows bad things always happen on Sundays, this haircut feels like dancing to “Fantastic Man” by William Onyeabor in spite of Sundays.
This haircut, then, feels like not caring, which is hard because all I’ve ever done is try to disguise the fact that I do indeed care. I care whether people like me or not, or if they could look at me on the street and say I can tell that you’re a good person, I care whether people like my writing or not, this very sentence. I care about what people would say if I were to, very suddenly, stop talking altogether.
This haircut, then, is who I feel I am but also who I wish I was because while I love Frank O’Hara, I don’t play chess and I, though I’m getting better at it, find it incredibly difficult not to respond to what provokes me. And I’m still scared of Sundays no matter how many miles I run the morning of.
“To what extent is ‘identity’ a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience?” asked Judith Butler in her groundbreaking 1990 book, “Gender Trouble.” After all, what really is our identity? Is it the choices we make? Is it the things we say? Is it what we believe, but don’t wish to discuss? Is it all of it or is it none of it?
I’ve joked around and said that I cut my hair so that I was more recognizable as an art major, and while this was mostly a joke, not all of it was. By cutting my hair, I may have been pushing against more conservative ideas about women’s appearances and femininity itself, but by cutting my hair, I also may have been playing into what I think I should look like.
I think, in fact I know, that I got my hair cut because I was bored of my appearance. I felt it lacked a certain intrigue, which is, most definitely, a sad belief of mine that has to do with performance: My identity, despite the first letter of the word, is not for me. It is for others to watch and to be entertained by. But how, in the age we live in, could this not be the case?
We’re lying to ourselves when we say that we do things just because we want to. We may very well have desires that could look like our own, but those desires are shaped by the desires of others, à la René Girad’s mimetic theory. We want things because other people want them. We do things because other people do them.
By cutting my hair short, I didn’t destabilize the narrative or subvert the expectations, I was following it to the T. Of course, because I grew up with a brother and not a sister, I cut my hair short. Of course, because I’m in art school, I cut my hair short. Of course, because I was awed by the beautiful biking woman, I cut my hair short.
Will I cut it short again? Probably. I’m saving so much money on shampoo and conditioner.
Statement Columnist Taylor Schott can be reached at email@example.com.