My mom always says, “It’s just hair,” but Culture-with-a-capital-C seems to suggest otherwise. In the Bible’s Book of Judges, Samson loses his strength when his hair is cut. Chris Rock dedicated a whole documentary to hair. And I nodded in agreement when my friend observed that the most popular kids at our all-girls high school had “pretty hair.” I’m sure that at this very moment a sociology major is typing out a thesis on the intersection of hair, identity and sexuality.

On Halloween, I decided to dye my own hair. Sitting nervously in the middle of my bathroom, I watched as my friend Caitlin coated the tips of my dark brown hair in thick red goo that the box assured would dry to a deep reddish-purple.

I can’t dissect and analyze all the reasons behind this relatively out-of-character decision, but I have a vague idea. I dyed my hair because I was bored of my style, which hasn’t changed noticeably since seventh grade. I dyed my hair because as a college senior — feeling more than a little confined by 17 years of academic work and the job search — I was trying to recapture something that was youthful and carefree. I did it because at age 8, I loved it when my counselor Dylan dyed the bottom of her black hair magenta and because I still loved it, at age 21, when both my younger sister and eldest cousin did. I wanted in on that lineage. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t include Lake Bell’s character from “In A World” in my decision-making process.

Though at first I felt a bit like a walking Kerrytown cliché, I admittedly enjoyed life post hair-dye. I heard the word “cool” a lot more than usual. But even better than the obligatory compliments was when I was meeting new people — each time, it felt like a mini-social experiment. With this look, these just-met acquaintances could and did make assumptions of how supposedly “quirky” and “eccentric” I was. But their first impressions were followed quickly by their surprise upon realizing just how square I really am.

Soon the novelty (and the semi-permanent vegan Manic Panic “Vampire Red” hair dye) began to wear off, and in its place grew the realization that I was part of a larger narrative about women and hair, women and identity, and women and sexuality. My younger sister, the same one who had dyed her hair just six months before, told me it meant I was going through a “life-crisis.” “I am sorry, but it’s true,” she insisted. My friend Danny agreed — “It’s not like you are going through a break-up. I like it, but what is this — some quarter-life crisis?”

All these reactions felt eerily similar. I had inadvertently placed myself in a larger narrative — one with the Britneys and Mileys of the world. When Britney shaved her head in 2007, everyone — myself included — called her crazy. People Magazine even ran an article suggesting she had a personality disorder, quoting psychologist Renee Cohen: “When someone has dissociative identity disorder each identity is split off from the other.”

And when Miley cut her hair short, the Twittersphere blew up. @judgementalbitch wrote “Is Miley Cyrus pulling a Britney Spears to get attention with her awful haircut?” and @rockingmytiara tweeted “Miley practically pulled a Britney. #ThisIsNotOkay. Goodbye Princess Hair” Even
Jennifer Lawrence, Pamela Anderson and Emma Watson couldn’t escape the crazy, petty and “are they lesbians?” talk. And as Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in Salon, “Long hair represents femininity and vulnerability and sex. It’s princesses and mermaids and porn stars. Short hair, on the other hand, says, ‘If you think I’m gorgeous, great, but this isn’t about you, pal.’ ”Even more, women doing something for themselves rather than others was considered a violation of accepted norms.

To some degree, I get it. We all rely on visual cues and heuristics to craft seemingly logical narratives. These stories help us make sense of our experiences and the people we encounter. But women flouting beauty standards doesn’t mean their looks, sanity or sexuality should be questioned. Because you know what? As my mom says, at the end of the day, it’s just hair.

Zoe Stahl can be reached at

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