It’s something of a running gag that I change my hair constantly.  It got to the point my friend even interviewed me for an article on girls cutting their hair (It’s called “Haircuts, Expectations, and Taking Your Power Back” and you should all read it).  I’ve gotten used to being the girl who’s always changing her hair, and the accompanying, not entirely untrue, assumption that it’s the result of a certain instability of character. After all, the trope of women changing their hair in crisis is one of the more pervasive and lasting clichés. From Audrey Hepburn’s princess in 1953’s Roman Holiday iconic rejecting-of-royal-duties bob to Scarlett Johansson’s post-divorce highlights in 2019’s Marriage Story, we’ve been trained to recognize that a major hair change represents a similarly major life change. Gwyneth Paltrow cutting off and bleaching her hair in 1998’s Sliding Doors lets us know she’s letting go of dead weight, both that of her mousy brown hair and her deadbeat ex boyfriend. But this trope has range. The woman cutting her hair in crisis doesn’t always make her pretty. The movie makeover is a staple, and one I eat up every time. In 1995’s Empire Records, when Debra shaves her head in a bathroom following a fight with her boyfriend that ends in her attempting to end her life, it’s not meant to make her beautiful (although a generation of gay girls watched it and definitely thought it did). It’s meant to show that, like Gwyneth, something inside her changed that needed to be reflected on the outside. When Clem from 2004’s  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Ramona Flowers of 2010 Scott Pilgrim fame change their hair every week, we get what the director is saying. These women are ever changing and unpredictable, but they’re so much fun to watch you can’t help but stick around to see the next phase. It’s lazy, it’s unoriginal, and it works every time. Given the range of the messages the “Crisis Cut” can convey, I consider there to be 3 main categories of filmic hair crises. Growing up with this as the language of the media I consumed, I’ve gone through all of them myself. In a world where a lot of us are told who we are is only as deep as how we look, changing our appearance isn’t superficial. It’s a statement of identity. And in this time when everyone is understandably feeling pretty unstable, I think it’s no surprise that women have started fucking with their hair. 

Crisis Cut 1: The Gwyneth

This makeover shows a newfound confidence. A willingness from the girl who always blended in to finally stand out. For example, in Sliding Doors, Gwyneth is stuck in a terrible dead end relationship, with the brown hair and bangs combo that is universal Hollywood lingo for unfulfilled woman. After she catches her man cheating, she gets a haircut, some highlights, and a new confidence that leads to a dream job and a sweet new boyfriend. This is similar to the classic Hollywood makeover like the one’s in 2001’s The Princess Diaries or 1999’s She’s All That, one that sort of represents female empowerment, but is also sort of about getting male attention. The key difference between a makeover and a crises cut is that the girl does it for herself.  It’s not Anne Hathaway being forced to straighten her hair to become princess of Genovia, it’s Audrey Hepburn cutting her hair off in Roman Holiday because she finally doesn’t need to be a princess at all. As with all crises hair changes, the motivation is internal. Instead of the weight of societal expectations on her causing the makeover, it’s a weight of personal struggles being lifted. No one tells her she needs to get pretty. She suddenly feels beautiful, so she wants to look it too. If she lands the guy, it’s another facet of her new lease on life, not the goal of it.

I see this one a lot in girls who have spent a long time felt trapped somehow. When I was 17, living at home, in a terrible relationship, and dealing with all the adolescent pressures of trying to fit in at a public high school, I looked exactly like the before version of Gwyneth. When I moved away to go to school and the relationship ended, I cut my hair, bleached it blonde, and got bangs, and those changes felt deeply significant to me. They reflected a willingness for me to look a way that made me stand out, and they weren’t passive the way my long inoffensive brown hair had been for me. I’d love to say this deeply meaningful aesthetic choice came wholly from within, but it didn’t. I watched Sliding Doors, and countless other rom coms, where the girl leaves her shitty boyfriend and then cuts and bleaches her hair. It’s shorthand for that feeling of leaving someone or somewhere that made you feel invisible and letting yourself be noticed again.  It’s 1999 Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed leaving her dead-end reporters desk to go back to high school, this time as a girl who won’t hide in the corner but take centre stage.  It’s every meme about how much hotter girls become after you break up with them, and it’s your friend who finally cut her hair short after she went away to college.  This is the “Crisis Cut” for the end of a slow-burning crisis you had gotten so used to that you didn’t even realize you were in crisis at all. Yes, it’s a form of reinvention designed on some level to get other people’s approval, which has its own set of problems, but there’s something sort of liberating in thinking you deserve that approval after such a long time assuming you didn’t. People often talk about the pressure on women to be pretty, but often ignore that for many women like me who spend a lot of their lives thinking they can’t be, the goal becomes simply being inoffensive, even invisible. Even if the gaze they use to do so isn’t ideal, there’s something strangely powerful about daring the world to look at you.

 Crisis Cut 2: The Clementine

This is the crisis for the girl whose crisis is not an event but a state of being.  Her crisis isn’t necessarily bad, maybe she likes it. But for one reason or another, her crisis is just as much a part of her being as her hair. For example, Clementine of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with the constantly changing rainbow hair colours to match. She’s unpredictable, even unstable, and at times wildly unhappy, but she doesn’t want to be boring or bored. She breaks her boyfriend’s heart into so many pieces he literally erases her from his memory, but she’s so goddamn interesting he just keeps falling for her anyway. She’s adamant that she’s not a concept, just “a fucked up girl looking for my own peace of mind.” She’s as complicated as she is intriguing, and her changing hair colour reflects her ever evolving wants, needs and identity. (Ramona Flowers is this troupe played straight-ish, hence why she’s the one who’s become an unironic nerd fantasy while Clementine is the slightly more nuanced fantasy of sad boys and art school girls). 

The changing hair colours of these lost souls may read as Manic Pixie cries for help when written by a bunch of dudes, but I think there’s something deeper implied. In a world where you will inevitably get pigeonholed based on your looks, refusing to contain yourself to only one is very freeing. We don’t always get to explore our identities, to experiment with them, at least not in the way boys do. Felicity’s television ratings plummeted in 1999 when Keri Russell cut her hair, and many famous women have to keep the hair they’ve had since the 90’s to keep brand recognition and avoid ridicule. Personally, when I was younger, I was pretty unassuming. So when I first cut my hair, I suddenly had an identifying feature, and I was very reluctant to grow it out and lose that. Now that my identity is a lot less rigid, or maybe now that I just have less of an identity period, I don’t feel so stuck.  I change my hair colour pretty much monthly, because that’s about how often I change facets of who I am or how I want to be. I’ve learned which colours make me feel pretty, which make me feel tough, and which ones I should never ever do again (for all my talk of women’s hair changes being more nuanced than people suggest, black hair is truly, for me, just a crisis). It’s all trial and error, just like figuring out who you are. It’s part of growing up. The number of girls I know who tell me they’ve “always wanted to try” dying their hair, or cutting it, or getting bangs, but “aren’t brave enough” is honestly mind blowing. While “brave” is in this case obviously a platitude for “willing to look stupid,” it’s still funny the trait we associate with changing your hair is bravery. Girls I met in first year who had never changed their hair started to experiment once they lived in the same house as someone with haircutting scissors and a lust to bleach things, and I’ve watched them all become so much more confident in their self-expression since. For example, girl who said she’d never pull off bangs finally got them, and now says she’ll never grow them out. Without the freedom to experiment, she wouldn’t have figured out what she liked. Our house never looks the same as it did the year before, for many reasons, but that change reflects the fact we’re really not the same people we were the year before. We’re a bunch of twenty-year-old girls trying to figure out who we are, one DIY hair colour at a time, because sometimes figuring out who you are takes a little bravery.

Crisis Cut 3: The Debra

This particular cut is near and dear to me, the sister to “The Gwyneth.” This one is also about leaving a situation you feel trapped in, and letting go of inhibitions, but with one key difference. “The Debra” comes with the additional freedom of being completely unconcerned about what looks good or is attractive. This is what happens when you reach your breaking point, and instead of being motivated by a new found beauty and self-love you’re driven by a rage against the shit that was keeping you trapped in the first place. This is Debra in Empire Records shaving her head in the bathroom after attempting suicide. This is Mulan slicing her hair off with a motherfucking sword to go to war after realizing she will never be the daughter her parents and culture want her to be. Because no matter what rom coms say, hair is not just a fun way to get a boyfriend and express your inner beauty. Hair is political. It always has been.

Women have always been judged on their hair, especially women of colour, and even had it regulated. Certain jobs still won’t allow so-called “unprofessional” hairstyles; sometimes counter cultural hairstyles like colourful hair or shaved heads, or more sinisterly traditionally black hairstyles like braids or locs. The world wants to control women, and how they express themselves, and an easy way to do that is to control their hair. That’s part of why changing it has so much power. Hair is a huge part of how we are perceived and judged, and cutting it all off is symbolically saying “fuck you” to all the things it represents– our perceived femininity, our perceived conformity, our perceived value. I cut off all my hair after another failed relationship as a way of showing I was fed up with being someone’s girlfriend and getting screwed over because of it. I was tired of being perceived as feminine and docile. I was sick of playing that role, and I thought cutting my hair would let people know I wasn’t going to anymore. It sounds stupid to say, but it felt scary. There’s a reason girls on America’s Next Top Model cried when Tyra shaved their heads. It’s marking yourself as an outsider, and that can be lonely as well as empowering.

But “The Debra” can be joyful too. One of my favourite crisis cuts is the coming out cut. For gay girls and AFAB trans people, hair can be a huge part of the closet.  Long feminine hair is a way of protecting yourself against people saying you’re different, or not performing your gender in a way they appreciate.  It may be a stereotype that gay girls have short hair, but there’s a reason so many out women chop theirs off.  It’s a way of shirking the gender norms that told you that you couldn’t be masculine, that told you not to look at other girls the way you wanted to. I remember seeing pictures of a Non-Binary friend beaming after finally cutting their hair off. I remember a trans friend in high school getting his first “boy haircut” and how the new confidence almost made him a new person. It felt like a turning point in his transition, because that was the moment people first started seeing him how he saw himself. I remember chopping my friend’s hair in my bathtub before her first pride and seeing how radiantly happy she looked to have that weight off her head and her chest. She was still a few years from coming out to her family, but that felt like the moment she came out to herself. It’s moments like these that make me feel like hair is more than a makeover montage.  

Hair has been turned into something gendered and political, which can feel crushing, whether you’re scared to cut your hair and out yourself or told the hair that grows out of your head is somehow “unprofessional” because it’s not the hair white people are familiar with, (and there should really be a fourth category here for the scenes where black women shave their head or start wearing their hair natural after years of being told it’s wrong to do so, since you could make a whole category just out of Sanaa Lathan roles, but I don’t quite feel qualified to tackle that so please go watch 2019’s Nappily Ever After and 2009’s Good Hair). But part of having something so personal and integral to our very beings be politicized means we actually have the power to change a very political message we send out every day. So this notion of unstable or heartbroken girls changing their hair may have some truth in it, but maybe we should think more about why, in times of crisis, the way so many of us take matters into our own hands is by changing our hair.



Matilda Eklund (she/her) is a 4th year psychology student at Queen’s, who dreams of getting paid to make people talk about their feelings, and convincing people that trashy movies and pop songs are important and good, actually

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