It had been a particularly stressful week when, scissors in one hand and 10cm of hair in another, I decided to cut. A few snips later, I felt triumphant. Sure, a week from then I paid an expert to fix it. But in that moment, I felt like a weight had been lifted, and that felt good, even if it was just a few grams.
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG, photos via Shutterstock
Why We Impulsively Cut Our Hair
This is something you've probably done at some point, too, quite possibly right after a breakup. It isn't just heartbreak, however, that inspires us to chop. "I've found that people typically have an impulse to cut their hair after they have experienced stressful situations, positive or negative, where things have felt somewhat out of their control," said Dr Lauren Appio, a psychologist and career coach in Manhattan.
There are practical reasons for wanting to impulsively cut your own hair, of course, but that isn't what we're talking about here. We're talking about that impulsive urge to just get rid of it. Appio says people often feel the urge to impulsively cut their hair when they're bored or "stuck in some way". In my example, I've been trying to finish a book with a hard due date, which means I've had to stick to a strict, focused writing regimen for weeks. I craved something new. Novelty feels good, after all, and it can even make you more productive.
But why hair? Appio said: "Making a significant change to your appearance can be soothing because you can see the immediate results of your actions, which reminds you of the power and agency you have in your life."
Hair is also symbolic. As unimportant as it may seem — "it's just hair, it grows back, y'know," a friend once said when I wavered over shaving my head like hers — our hair is tied to who we are.
"Hairstyle is often a signifier of gender and culture," Appio told me. "Changing a hairstyle may reflect our desire to affirm our connection to our communities, or, alternatively, to challenge cultural or societal norms related to appearance and presentation."
For example, at the New Statesman, Laurie Penny explains her decision to wear her hair very short:
Among the plus points for short hair is that makes it easier to read my book on the bus in peace. I mention this because there are clearly some men who rarely or never consider what it's like for a person to negotiate femininity in the real world...Choosing to behave consciously as if the sexual attention of men is not my top priority has made more of a difference to how my life has turned out than I ever imagined.
In other words, hair is subtly tied to our choices and thus, our identity, which is why changing it can feel so damn good.
Why You Should (or Shouldn't) Do It
Admittedly, spontaneously lopping off my hair isn't a new concept to me. I spent 2010-2014 growing out a botched, impulsive cut. Sometimes it feels great; other times I've regretted it. From a psychological perspective, though, isn't impulsive behaviour usually frowned upon? I asked Appio. "If you haven't looked at the needs you may have that are creating these urges, it's likely you'll continue to re-experience a cycle of having strong urges, feeling the buildup of tension or excess energy, and releasing that tension by acting on your urge," she said.
There's a case to be made for the impulsive cut, and we'll get to that, but first, there are a few reasons why you might want to step away from the scissors and reassess your urge:
- The novelty wears off: The novelty of a new haircut can wear off quickly — then you might be stuck with a cut you don't like or one that requires too much work. I straighten my hair every time I wash it now, and I don't enjoy doing that.
- You might not know what you're doing: It's easy to screw up your own hair, especially if you don't have straight, fine hair. My hair is thick and half-straight, half-wavy, which means it needs an expert's touch (and even experts often screw it up.)
- It can distract you from more important matters: "Generally, I encourage people to respond rather than react to their urges," Appio said. "To determine whether a behaviour is helpful or unhelpful, it's important to consider how it functions for you. For example, you can explore how it will serve you to cut your hair or otherwise act on the urge you're experiencing, and how acting on this urge might get in your way." Fair enough. Also, keep in mind — the impulsive decision to cut your hair is often accompanied by days of obsessing over why it's "just not right".
That said, cutting your hair on a whim can be a perfectly fine way to deal with tension, too. It can just be a mildly adventurous experience worth having. Here's why:
- It's liberating: Again, that feeling of getting rid of the old and embracing something new feels cathartic. It also feels good to take control. Hair seems like a silly thing to feel in control over, but sometimes the simple act of making a decision, even a silly one, can make you feel more powerful.
- Change is good: Novelty can be a great thing. It can make you more productive, motivated and creative.
- It's just hair: Yes, hair is symbolic of your identity, but a symbol is just that: A representation of something else. Your hair, as a symbol, is not the actual thing that defines you. When you screw up your hair, you remember this.
"People who tend to be perfectionistic or indecisive due to overthinking can benefit from trying out more spontaneous behaviour. It can be illuminating to see that you can survive and even enjoy the outcome of making a quick or imperfect decision," Appio added. "At best, it is a way to be creative, take pleasure in your appearance, and try something new with minimal risk."
Like the bangs you're thinking of cutting, I'll put it bluntly: Even if you screw up your hair, it might still feel good and at the end of the day, my friend was right. It will grow back, y'know?
Questions to Ask Before You Chop
Let's say you're leaning toward the "I'm gonna do it" camp but you're still wavering. If you want to put a little more thought into your decision, ask yourself some questions.
Have you done this before? What was your experience? I get the urge to chop often and asking this question always reminds me of how frustrating my past hair experiences were and most of the time, I realise the aftermath outweighs my desire for change. Appio suggests a few others:
- What needs am I trying to meet by cutting my hair or otherwise engaging in the urge I have? For example, do I have a need to feel more grounded or in control?
- What do I risk by making this change, and am I willing to accept those risks?
- Are there other, more effective ways for me to meet the needs I have?
Another good question: Are you drunk? When you're bored and buzzed, regrettable decisions often follow. Also, from a practical standpoint, think about whether you have any events coming up, such as a wedding, party or networking thing. You might want to allow your drastic cut some time to grow in before you go to a big public event. Or you just might not feel like hearing, "Omg you cut your hair?!" every five minutes.
If You're Going to Do It, Here's How
OK, you've decided: It's time to cut. It's probably best to go to a salon and enlist the help of a professional, but I also understand that this takes half the adventure and drama out of the situation. (Mulan didn't book an appointment!) If you insist on doing it yourself, at least follow some guidelines.
Do Some Research
YouTube tutorials are hit or miss, but there's a lot of good information out there from actual stylists. Just know that many stylists don't even cut their own hair, so it isn't as easy as you might think. When I finally went to a salon to fix my botched cut, the stylists were perplexed at how I even got the scissors behind my head. If you're going to do this thing, you want a couple of different mirrors so you can see your hair from every angle. In fact, here's what you'll need:
- A decent pair of hair styling scissors (as opposed to, say, kitchen scissors)
- At least two mirrors
- A handful of hair ties
- Newspaper or something else you can lay down to make cleanup easy
Know that there will be some trial and error. You'll cut your hair evenly, it will look fine, you'll move around and look at the back again, and suddenly, it's all weird. Consider this when you schedule a time to chop. It will probably take longer than you think. Not only that, you'll probably end up cutting off more than you think, so start longer than you planned, then work your way up.
Have a Backup Plan
Be prepared for the likely scenario that your new haircut will look like a toddler hacked it with safety scissors. You may just choose to grow it out, but you may hate your new cut so much that you want to take it to a salon and get it fixed like I did. If that's the plan, make sure you've budgeted for it and you have time to do that in the first place.
Don't Forget to Donate
Finally, don't skip donating it. There are a handful of charities that collect hair for wigs. For example, Pantene donates wigs to women with cancer and Variety gives wigs to children with long-term hair loss. You can also ask your local salon for recommendations.
Most organisations want the hair to be between 30 to 40cm long, and typically, they want you to braid or tie your hair in a rubber band before you cut and from there, you'll mail your donation. Some organisations have requirements about whether the hair has been dyed, so check the charity's requirements. If you're going to impulsively and cathartically chop off your own hair, you might as well make it an even more gratifying experience by doing some good while you're at it.