Relax. It’s just a haircut—or is it? When Beyoncé Instagrammed her new short, blonde, pixielike do, it set off a firestorm and even inspired a Twitter hashtag, #ShorterThanBeyoncesHair.
The normally lion-maned singer looked demure and sexy with her bleached-blonde buzz, but that didn’t stop commenters and Internet trolls from weighing in negatively. For some fans, Beyoncé losing her signature locks is almost as bad as her losing an eye. (For others, she’s an inspiration, sending them straight to the hairdresser).
The truth is—Beyoncé’s shorn locks hit a nerve with both women and men, for complicated reasons—and some really outdated, traditional, sexist ones.
Long hair on women is revered in our society—it is often a yardstick for a woman’s desirability. The sexiest women in the world—as judged by Miss America pageants, Maxim magazine Top 100 lists and Playboy centerfolds—almost invariably have long, flowing locks. The list of women with long tresses lusted after by men (and women), is well, long: Gisele, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Mila Kunis, and innumerable others rank highly as sex symbols.
Actresses’ images are often centered around their hairstyles—Connie Britton’s tawny-hued ’do is so sought after that there’s even a blog about it, and you could argue Jennifer Aniston became the most famous of the Friends gang only because of “The Rachel,” her signature layered bob.
On the other end of the spectrum, the list of short-haired ladies that we ogle is, yes, short: Miley Cyrus, who caused a controversy with her own cropped hair last year, managed to make it to the Top of Maxim’s Hot 100 this year, her short tresses slicked down (and there’s Rihanna at no. 3 with a half-buzz).
There was a mild uproar when Anne Hathaway cut hers for Les Misérables (but because it was for a role that was likely to garner her an Oscar, it was deemed acceptable). Yet Emma Watson and Keri Russell didn’t fare nearly as well when they went shorter. Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, who got mixed reviews when she cut her own hair, posted on Twitter: “I feel like Beyonce is having a very different experience of short hair than I am #bowdown.”
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Short hair gets called out by less open-minded men as mannish or boyish—which is often code for “dykey.” To men, long hair on a woman is a turn-on because it signifies fertility and clichéd ideas of femininity.
One Gawker commenter (presumably male) was typical in his reaction to Beyoncé’s bold move: “I have no problem with short hair for women but I really don't like this new trend of having the man's haircut and looking like a 12-14 year old boy as a consequence.”
For Beyoncé and Rihanna—who swings between long and short styles—matters are even more complicated. As black women, they must contend with a whole set of identity and hair issues their Caucasian counterparts never have to consider. That debate in the African-American community over keeping a natural look or straightening and relaxing it and using weaves is well documented in Chris Rock’s Good Hair.
This overstated importance on long hair goes way back. Indeed, it’s biblical. From Corinthians: 11:15: “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
Hair plays a big part in a woman’s psychology. There are studies that show that a bad hair day can cost women money and cause low self-esteem. Some 44 percent of women reported that their bad hair day turned into a bad day; 26 percent have cried after a haircut.
Losing locks to something life-threatening, like cancer, can affect a woman’s ability to cope with the disease. A study in 2004 stated: “Chemotherapy-induced alopecia (CIA) is a condition that can have profound psychosocial and quality-of-life consequences, resulting in anxiety, depression, a negative body image, lowered self-esteem, and a reduced sense of well-being.” Indeed, some people are so worried about losing their hair during chemo, they actually avoid chemo or choose a less proven treatment, the study found.
That’s one of the reasons even a fictional character, Samantha in Sex and the City, took preventive action and shaved her head, in a scene that was both shocking and touching. (Her hot boy toy, Smith, shaved his head in solidarity.)
When a woman shaves her head or cuts her locks, it is often seen as a tragic or scary act. There’s something about forcing a woman to cut her hair against her will that feels like a larger violation than it should be—after all, hair grows back.
In Venezuela, a pack of men, nicknamed the Piranhas, are holding women with long hair up at gunpoint in malls and forcing them to cut off all their hair so they can sell it because weaves and extensions have become even more in demand.
In Mommie Dearest, during a pivotal scene that solidified Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford as the worst mother in the world, after she catches Christina play-acting as Crawford in front of her fans, she becomes enraged and cuts off her pretty, blond curls. Without them, Christina is no longer a cute little girl who can compete with Joan for attention. “Mommy, what are you doing! I look awful!” she cries. “I can’t go to school like this!”
When Britney Spears had her nervous breakdown, the singer’s singular defining moment was when she got her head shaved. She shaved her head—the media reasoned— she must be crazy.
A shorn head is Hollywood’s shorthand for rebel: In The Legend of Billie Jean, the titular character, inspired after watching a clip of Joan of Arc on TV, cuts her hair off. The ultimate badass, Sigourney Weaver, sported a bald look in Alien 3.
And when she appeared on the scene in the late ’80s, Sinead O’ Connor, with her shaved head and fierce attitude, was threatening to some. For her record company, it came as a shock: she shaved it as an act of protest in advance of her debut Lion and the Cobra—she didn’t want to pretty-up to sell records. Her look was transgressive but made her instantly recognizable.
Sometimes the change isn’t that deep. Just a few days ago, Rihanna took out her own extensions and showed off a shorter, softer cut. It’s just easier.
She told a fan via Instagram; "I'll be back to long! I'm just not very good with long hair. I don't know how to do it, I don't have the patience to deal with or style it. It's always on your neck, or back and gets in the way. It's this thing attached to me that I always have to take care of. Then a week later, I'm over it--new style, new colour, new length. Short hair is my mojo though."