By Eliana Chow
February 7, 2020
Last school year, I started noticing more and more of my female peers on campus getting pixie cuts or buzzing their hair off altogether, and I was interested to know why. What were their motivations? What were they most afraid of? What’s changed in their lives as a result of their haircuts.
Over the past four months, I had the opportunity to spend time with, interview and photograph four of these women. In the following feature, I narrate their experiences to show how even in the 21st century, cutting off her hair is one of the biggest changes a woman can make to her appearance.
Shannon Egan always wanted to be a princess. Enthralled by the beauty of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, she feasted on Disney movies featuring princesses who twirled and spun and brought magic everywhere they went. Yet unlike Egan, most Disney princesses had long, flowing, blonde hair.
Egan recalls one haircut she had when she was 6 years old. Her hair had grown down to her waist, and she was wearing her favorite dark blue velvet dress with little blue and white flowers gracing the fuzzy fabric. Egan’s mother turned on a family camcorder to document the moments before she cut Egan’s hair back to shoulder-length. “How does a princess play with her hair?” she asked.
As if on cue, Egan demurely ran her fingers through the ends of her hair, looking down at the floor with a small smile on her face. “How does a princess walk?” her mother asked, and Egan focused hard as she walked toward her mother, trying to be as elegant as possible.
As with every other childhood haircut, Egan watched as her luxurious locks were snipped, falling to the floor in chocolate tufts to then be gathered to the side in bundles secured with rubber bands to prepare them for donation. She says she would hold the braids up to her newly cropped hair and find herself bewildered that they could not be put back. With hair like this, how would anyone know she was a princess?
Egan says her hair was her most prized possession and greatest enemy growing up. In high school, she played volleyball with a team of girls who could tie their hair into perfect, slicked-back ponytails for practices and matches. Egan remembers sitting on the sidelines, struggling to wrestle her hair into a tiny elastic band. It never did what she wanted it to do. It never looked like the other girls’ hair. Theirs was blonde, sleek and straight or textured with perfect beach waves. Her’s was thick, dark and brown.
The American girls that she knew were reflected in the popular American Girl Dolls: the blonde pioneer Kirsten from Minnesota, Kit Kittredge from Cincinnati and Julie Albright from San Francisco. Every little girl knew those names. They uttered the names religiously as they flipped through catalogues of overpriced clothing modeled on girls with silky blonde hair or very light brown hair in ringlets. As a young girl, Egan was convinced she had to tame her thick brown hair to look like the magazines in order for it to be beautiful. “My hair being brown was tied more to my identity than its length,” she says. It was hard, perhaps impossible, for Egan to be satisfied with brown hair in a blonde hair world.
Junior Megan Kim had a similar experience growing up in Ashland, Ore., with the added factor that she was a minority. As a half-Caucasian, half-Korean adolescent, Kim says she found herself caught between white and Asian beauty standards. The two cultures never seemed to agree about how her hair should frame her face. On the one hand, she wanted long “bohemian white girl hair” like her Oregonian friends, and she wished it were rich and red in hue. She coveted their wild yet miraculously frizz-free locks. But her thick black Asian hair never cooperated. On the other hand, she wanted shorter hair with bangs to make her face appear smaller, modeled after the Asian ideal: narrow cheeks, pointed chin, small forehead. She tried leaving tiny braids in her hair, but these only left her hair frizzy. She tried keeping it long, but then she thought her hair was too straight and coarse.
“I always hid behind my hair a lot, especially with my bangs,” Kim says. It was something she could control. In the midst of deep insecurities about how people perceived her, she felt she was at least able to control how much they knew, how much they saw. She oscillated between long and short hair, bangs and no bangs, until high school. Then in college she started getting cuts that made her hair progressively shorter.
Besides these personal insecurities and societal standards, young girls also experience unsolicited feedback about their appearance from peers. When junior Jess Crane was in seventh grade, a boy in her class told her she was ugly, and she says this was the exact moment when she began to be self-conscious about her appearance. “Shoot,” Crane thought. “He decides, I guess. He said I was ugly, so I am.” Comments like these often lead young girls to question their appearance, even if they previously haven’t paid much attention to how their bodies look through others’ eyes. Suddenly they’re aware of the image they present. As a result, they also begin to question their inner personalities. This can lead to further insecurities about who they are as a person. Are they too loud or too quiet? Too colorful or too dark? Too big or too small? For better or worse, a woman’s hair corresponds with her identity.
“I always expected that I would leave it long and that I would go for the woodland pixie vibe with long hair and long braids,” Egan says. For most of her high school years she wore loose clothing, her long hair cascading down her back or secured in intricate braids wound around her head. She says she aimed to present a magical aura reminiscent of Tolkienesque forests and fairy dust and impish elves. She dressed in “adventure boots, skirts, dresses, flowy sweaters.” But when she got to Wheaton, she noticed her peers experimenting with their clothing and getting more daring with their haircuts.
“I started getting nervous that if I didn’t do something interesting with my hair, people would skip right over me in a crowd or, worse, not want to be friends with me,” she says. “I didn’t have a personal style, but I did have a need to look interesting. I tried to find that sweet spot, where I was comfortable but also a little different.”
But Egan didn’t do anything to change her hair until she participated in the Wheaton in England study abroad trip last summer. For the first few weeks, the students stayed in different hostels almost every night. This meant showers were rare, and it was normal for everyone to roll out of bed with tangled, greasy hair. “Long hair became a problem because we had to constantly take care of it and worry about it,” Egan says. As a result, she became more interested in the possibility of cutting it off.
One day in Oxford, resting in the dorms at St. Hilda’s before dinner with her roommate, senior Parisa Anderson, Egan blurted out, “What if I just got a pixie cut?” “You should totally do it,” Anderson said, not batting an eye. A few moments later, Egan was on the phone scheduling an appointment for the following Friday. “I would be sitting in class silently freaking out,” she says about the days leading up to the haircut.
Egan specifically remembers how kind the British stylist was, much more so than most American stylists she had encountered. She says he worked with her and took care to listen to exactly what she wanted to do, paying attention to the photos she showed him and cutting slowly to make sure she was comfortable since she was getting so much of her hair cut off.
When Egan showed up at dinner that evening, multiple students didn’t recognize her, myself included. “You were carrying food to a different table,” Egan tells me, “And you thought the table I was sitting at wasn’t a Wheaton table because you didn’t recognize me. And then you turned around again and realized it was me. It was great. My favorite reaction from Wheaton in England was Collin Kavanaugh’s. He sat down at the table and we were sitting across from each other having a conversation, and he didn’t notice for five minutes. I’d been anticipating all the compliments; receiving words of affirmation is definitely one of my love languages, and I got so excited when people complimented me. It was delicious.”
For women like junior Sam St. Cyr, the road to shorter hair looked a little bit different. “Over Christmas break of my freshman year, I got a breakup haircut,” she says, recounting her first major change that cut her hair from mid-back length to shoulder length. “I wanted something drastic but not something that would be ugly,” she laughs. “It was very healing. I felt that as my hair was growing out it was proof that time was passing and proof that I was healing. It was really cool to see a physical representation of me getting better, or at least getting closure and moving on from that relationship.”
“From that point on I started loving drastic hair changes. The next year, I went to Costa Rica and met a female bartender who had a shaved head. I thought she was the coolest person I had ever seen, and that planted the seed in my mind that I could do it.”
The only thing that stopped her from buzzing off her shoulder-length hair spontaneously was the fact that she had a friend getting married in the beginning of the summer and she was in the wedding party. “I didn’t want to look horrible in her wedding pictures!” St. Cyr says. “But the day after the wedding I shaved it right off. We did it in my backyard: my parents, my boyfriend at the time and myself. We all took turns. It was a bonding experience.” When she turned on the clippers, St. Cyr shaved a strip right down the middle of her head and gasped, “I’m a clown!” St. Cyr says that her “breakup haircut” during her freshman year was the confidence boost she needed to keep experimenting with her hair and learning to be comfortable in her own skin. Cutting her hair short, then buzzing it off and growing it out again, was a physical act and demonstration of who she was becoming. It wasn’t meant to be a big statement for the world, just something she did for herself.
“My physical appearance has always been, at its worst, a coping mechanism for my emotional landscape,” Kim says, reflecting on why her hair has gone through so many changes. “If I’m not functioning healthily, altering my appearance in some way is going to be a way for me to cope with things. At its best, my appearance is simply an expression, a physical manifestation of that internal landscape.”
Before coming to Wheaton, Kim cut her long hair to shoulder length, then cut it shorter to chin length several months later. “Once I bobbed it to chin length, I wasn’t afraid of anything,” she says. Kim kept the short bob with bangs cut straight across her forehead until the end of fall semester her sophomore year, at which point she went full pixie in senior Kyleah Kirby’s dorm room in MacEvans Hall.
Walking into that little room was like walking into a completely different world, Kim says. There was a chair stationed in front of the gable window through which soft evening light filtered in. Kirby stood in the center of the room with an apron on, holding a pair of clippers. There was hair all over the floor. “I don’t know if anybody thought I would actually get the pixie cut, and when I showed up it was super scary just being there and watching the hair go away completely,” Kim says. “It was always ingrained in me that you have to have a very particular facial structure to pull off a pixie cut, and I didn’t think I had that. But I had finished my first semester of sophomore year, sifted through a lot and felt like I had been ten different people. I needed to look like a different person. And when Kyleah was finished, it felt so right, so perfect.”
A few days into January, one year after she got her pixie cut, Kim drove four hours from Ashland to Corvallis, Ore. to visit her friend Zoey. She’d been considering buzzing her hair for most of the past semester, which had been yet another particularly difficult semester filled with intense change and emotional pain, but wanted to wait for an opportune moment. Kim’s visit seemed as opportune a moment as any, and the two of them planned to do it together. “We didn’t want to buy clippers so we were going to borrow some from a friend. But they used those clippers for their pigs, and they were very old and very dull. I didn’t really want to share clippers with pigs, anyway,” Kim chuckles. “So we drove to whatever store was open at 11 p.m. and found a cheap pair. We sat outside on the porch of her little house in the middle of her college town. It was raining, it was dark and I just buzzed her hair off. Then she buzzed mine and it was so liberating. It was even more cathartic than I was expecting. And it felt right.”
Kim hadn’t told her parents she was going to buzz her head because she didn’t want them to talk her down from the decision. When she came home and took off her winter hat, her father blinked. “You look like a Buddhist monk,” he said. “It will take some getting used to.”
A few days after she graduated from high school, Jess Crane invited some close friends over and they buzzed her hair in her backyard with some clippers she bought online. “I remember it felt very communal,” she says. “It was a bright summer day and none of us really knew how to shave a head. But you can’t really mess it up too much. One of my friends accidentally gave me three racing stripes around my ear.” Crane is interested in the gender dynamics that surround women who decide to get a pixie cut or buzz their hair.
She says that she had a “surface-level understanding of feminism and gender expression” when she first shaved her head. “But I think the more time has passed the more comfortable I’ve felt presenting myself as more ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ and still being a woman. The interesting thing about having a buzzcut is that you can’t change that on a day-today basis. There will always be this part of you that is ‘masculine.’”
“There are a lot of unspoken associations between a woman’s hair and her sexuality,” Kim adds. “Hair is a sensual feature of women, something I didn’t fully realize until mine was gone. It was liberating to be perceived as more androgynous, which revealed to me how much hair matters in how people view a woman. I had a friend who claimed he loved my short hair but liked it better when it was longer, and thought I should grow it out. Whether he was conscious of it or not, I know his opinion was partly influenced by the way long hair is sexualized, or feminized. It’s kind of a given that a woman will get catcalled no matter what she looks like, but now I generally fly under the radar, and I feel that the haircut is part of it.”
Apart from their interactions with society, these women also noticed positive changes in the way they viewed themselves, noting an increase in self-esteem and confidence.
“It was hard not having that extra layer of armor against this cold, cold patriarchal world,” Crane says jokingly, warming her hands around a mug filled with dark roast coffee while sitting in Lower Beamer. “But shaving my head, making myself less conventionally attractive, made me feel more secure because I was reclaiming what society wanted to control.” By letting go of the very thing she was told would give her worth, Crane has discovered a deeper, inherent self-worth apart from her physical appearance. “When I was deciding what I looked like and deciding I looked good, it was like reclaiming my agency.”
Kim has also experienced this tension. “I’m so exposed and so vulnerable without my hair, and I think that’s made me more confident,” she says. “I’m more comfortable walking out of the house without makeup, more comfortable wearing my glasses, which is something else I was self-conscious about. I’ve gotten bolder with my clothing choices, and started interacting more positively with my body image. There’s nothing left to hide my face behind.”
Egan speaks about her altered perception of herself, using her characteristic gift of seeing the upshot in everything. “It’s like I’ve unlocked a side of Shannon that I didn’t know existed,” she says, clasping her hands, eyes widening. “I can be a powerful woman, and my hair just goes with it. It’s really surprising. My perception of the pixie cut went from being that only the powerful women wear it understanding that I could wear it. This is my haircut now,” she declares. “The pixie cut doesn’t wear you; you wear the pixie cut. If you are the powerful pixie, so will the pixie cut be.”
Style magazines have capitalized on rolling out advice columns telling women what to do with their closets and makeup collections and hairstyles. From Allure to Glamour to InStyle, articles feature bright images and careful sketches depicting the best haircuts for a woman’s face shape alongside pithy paragraphs about the do’s and don’ts of changing up one’s style. According to a 2017 article by Glamour called “Find the Best Haircut for Your Face Shape,” if you have a round face, you should choose from an “angled bob,” “long, asymmetrical layers” or “defined pixie.” If you have an oval face, try a “romantic” center part or a “shaggy pixie.” If you have a square face, go for a “tousled lob,” but if you have a heart-shaped face, a “pixie with pushedback bangs” is the way to go.
Even as companies begin to feature more diverse models in size and hair color and ethnic background, “ideal” beauty standards are still everywhere. Publications and social media outlets are still feeding the lie that women have to look a particular way in order to pull off a particular style. Out of this lie springs the fear that a woman will not like the look of her head shape, jawline or skull once she cuts her hair off.
Kim folds her hands in her lap and recounts being in eighth grade and watching one of her friends get a pixie cut. “I didn’t know anyone before who had done that,” she says. “And I thought she pulled it off so well but that I didn’t have the face structure to do it, too.”
When St. Cyr was contemplating buzzing her hair, she found herself worried about potentially having a “weird head shape.” “What if it just isn’t a good look?” she found herself asking. “Even some guys have gotten their head shaved, which is so much more socially acceptable, and sometimes they don’t look so good with shaved heads,” she says with a laugh, a bright exhale that lights up her entire face and crinkles the corners of her gray-green eyes. She added that some of her friends would offer backhanded compliments, saying she could make it work but they would never be able to pull off a haircut that risky.
“My friend Cori was always sort of countercultural from a young age, and buzzed her hair once or twice,” Crane says. “One time she did it when we were both in high school, and I remember telling her I thought it was cool but that I could never do it.”
Now, other students are looking to these four women and saying the same things the women used to say to their friends. “Worrying about our face or head shape is such a funny fear we all have,” Kim says. “It’s a legitimate fear — I experienced that fear. But I also think it’s a largely fake fear, not in the sense that the fear itself is fake, but in the sense that you’re probably going to look fine. You’re going to look good, and anything you’ve been told about what face shape you need to ‘pull off’ a certain hairstyle is completely irrelevant and untrue.” “Stop and take a second,” Crane adds with a chuckle, hoping to encourage women who want to cut their hair off but doubt they could ever do it. “You could, and you’d probably look good. I would argue that women look better with buzz cuts than men do.”
Still, one of the hardest aspects of making this kind of decision comes in the form of family members who might not approve right away.
“My grandma was the one with the biggest pushback,” St. Cyr says. “She can be very traditional in her manners and ideas about the world. When I told her that I was planning to shave my head, she didn’t think it was a good idea. That summer, I was working at a café and she told me I’d either get really good tips because customers would think I had cancer or really bad tips because they’d think I was a lesbian. It made me realize that she was vocalizing the stereotypes that a lot of people have about women who cut their hair this short.”
To people who think she wanted to make a bold, targeted statement, St. Cyr says, “I really just didn’t want hair, you guys. I’m so sorry to disappoint,” jokingly apologizing that she doesn’t have a more interesting reason. Kim reiterates, “A lot of women have specific reasons they want to do it. I think I’m being honest when I say yes, I had other ‘reasons,’ but first and foremost I just wanted to do it. We don’t have to justify why we make that sort of alteration to our appearance; nobody would ask a man why he cut his hair. When a woman cuts her hair short, it comes across that this was calculated, that it was significant or a statement in some way, and I like to think it doesn’t have to be.”
Kim says she has had many female students on campus come up to her and ask about her hair. “It’s been a conversation starter,” she says. She’s gotten a lot of questions from women on campus who feel like they don’t have a good enough reason to make the chop, are too afraid or just can’t justify the decision to themselves. And every time she responds by saying, “I have clippers. I’ll do it for you.”
Wheaton College, IL