The Cathartic Power of Cutting Your Own Hair
Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
I cut my own hair for the first time last winter, and I’ll never forget the very specific thrill: Standing in the fluorescent light of my bathroom, I uncoiled each frizzy curl with my left hand, then hacked at it with the blunt kitchen scissors in my right. Watching clumps of hair fall into the sink while my shaggy, Stevie Nicks-inspired hairstyle took shape, I felt bold, in control, and just a little bit reckless.
After the triumphant experiment, I texted my best friend to boast about my fearlessness and my new look. She responded, “Are you okay?”
Rude. But to her point, the self-administered haircut has become the cinematic mascot of a woman at her breaking point. Think of Robin Tunney as Deb in Empire Records, who, feeling angry and misunderstood, takes a razor to her head in the employee bathroom. Or Lena Dunham in Girls, who dispels ennui during a bout of writer's block by chopping her bangs with orange craft scissors. Salma Hayek, as Frida Kahlo, hacks off her locks while swigging vodka and yelling at house guests. It’s the raw, solitary take on the classic girlfriend makeover scene. There’s Halle Berry as Catwoman, who violently crafts a DIY pixie; Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, who stoically locks eyes with her mirror image while buzzing off her long, feminine hair; and — my personal favorite — Mulan. Not every woman who gives herself a haircut in a montage does so from a place of damage, but it’s generally presented as less of a decision than a compulsion.
My own case was far less dramatic. I had an event to attend and too-long hair, and so I transformed my waist-grazing waves into slightly more jagged boob-grazing ones. I wasn’t broken. I did feel stuck, in a less-than-ideal job situation, a relationship that didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, and a low-grade depression that was manageable but lonely. The motive, though, was my very long hair. Could I have booked a salon appointment? Sure. But I was agitated, and I wanted something different — right away. However conservative the trim, the adrenaline rush of each snip made me feel every bit as punk rock as Deb.
For women especially, “our hair is tied to our identity,” says Jessica Koblenz, a New York-based psychologist. (I challenge you to find as many emotional hair-cutting scenes involving men.) Hair has always been entangled with femininity. It’s an expression of individuality but also a social contract, an inherited tradition, a measure of self-worth, and one of the many physical reminders that women are meant to be composed — all tucked neatly behind one ear. Cutting it off can be a way to reclaim agency. “You’re physically not allowing someone else to decide how you will be represented; you define yourself,” says Koblenz.
That’s where the DIY haircut and the professionally styled breakover diverge. “The biggest difference is the role independence plays in the change,” Koblenz says, setting this specific kind of self-styling apart from the equally clichéd breakup haircut or new-mom one — which are dramatic changes just the same but often executed by a skilled salon worker. And not over a gas station sink. “The act of cutting your hair yourself can signal taking back your power or changing yourself in a way only you can design.”
That’s a powerful way to cue a fresh start. But there’s also a violence to it, one that can be indicative of a manic episode, confirms Koblenz. She points out that a drastic, uncharacteristic appearance change — like Britney Spears’ decision to shave her head in 2007 — is not an uncommon expression of emotional instability.
The visceral nature of cutting your hair is also what makes it so cathartic, though — like rage channeled into sport, screaming at the top of your lungs, or, if you’re a millennial, paying to break things in a controlled environment. Cutting one’s own hair may look like it mimics the act of self-harm, but it targets the one part of the body that has no sensation. After all, hair is already dead; to sever it is to recognize the dead weight you’ve been carrying around, and let it go. “It can be a healthy way of coping with an emotional trigger,” says Koblenz.
My own therapist gave a rah-rah head nod to this and called cutting your hair a perfect metaphor for loss and renewal — sometimes you need to tear down in order to rebuild.
While writing this, I took a break to cut my hair. I wanted to see how it would feel when there was no turbulence compelling me. (I also didn’t feel like I’d tied the bow on my hair-hacking philosophy and needed a fresh perspective.) On a mellow Tuesday evening, I snipped off the bouquets of split ends sprouting from my layered mane. This wasn’t the eager chopping I’d carried out a year ago; I made each cut with face-twitching apprehension.
Still, I felt a release with each tssst of the blades closing shut — and, even more so, in giving myself permission to make mistakes, knowing full well that I was making them. There’s a comforting impermanence to a haircut that, like a parent coaxing a child into the water, invites us to experiment with the guardrails on. It carries the thrill of danger but not the consequence, because, eventually, it’ll grow back.
Personally, I think I’ve had enough self-styling for a while. But I’d recommend giving it a shot at least once, if only because it comes with a compassionate warranty we don’t grant ourselves enough: Go on, mess up. It’ll be fine.