In Defense of the Short-Haired Woman

Salon ran a piece on Monday titled “Are short-haired women less attractive?” Let’s look past the headline (couldn’t it have been “Is short hair less attractive on women?”): Mary Elizabeth Williams—an intelligent writer whose work I enjoy, and who I think is a little off the mark here—writes that long hair has a peculiar hold over “nearly every straight man on the planet,” which makes me wonder how many straight men on the planet she talked with for this piece. Because I think she’s right in that a lot of men believe they prefer long hair—and wrong in that when it comes down to it, they don’t actually care all that much.

When I was 24, after having forever had hair that ranged from long to superlong, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirrored window while on a jog. I saw this floppy ponytail swinging behind my head and all of a sudden was disgusted. There was all this dead matter on top of my head, and it was there because I thought I needed it to look pretty, and I sprinted home, grabbed a pair of fish-scaling scissors, and cut off my ponytail while standing over my kitchen sink.

I wanted to know what it was like to not have my hair to fall back on. For no matter how unattractive I felt on any given day, I always had this cloak of hair to protect me: I might be ruddy-skinned and have uneven teeth, but you couldn’t challenge the fact that I was, quite definitively, a girl. The month before I chopped my hair saw me writing on my body with Sharpies, riot grrrl-style; I was going through a sort of “quarterlife crisis” and was ready to challenge the notion of what it meant to be a girl—and what it meant to be pretty, or not-pretty, as the case may be.

I wasn’t able to articulate all of this while I was hacking off my hair, though. I only began to understand my intent when I looked in the mirror and saw that I actually looked better with short hair, and for a brief moment actually felt disappointed. My hair had more volume, since it wasn’t weighed down by length, drawing attention toward my eyes. It elongated my neck, highlighted my collarbone. It was playful—far more appropriate for a 24-year-old than the heavy curtain I’d lived with until then. I loved it.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t alone. Yes, my girlfriends cooed, and my gay guy friends were a-flutter. But straight men loved it too. Some told me specifically that they preferred short hair on women. Some just said I looked great. A couple stopped me on the street; she wanted to know where I’d gotten it done so she could ask for the same style, and her male companion stood beside her, beaming. I was told it was sexy, daring, becoming, pretty, flattering, sophisticated, flirty. The number-one compliment I’d received from straight men on my long hair? “Wow, your hair is long.”

To be sure, not all of the straight men in my life were fans—I heard “You look great, but I miss the long hair” more than once from my dude friends. But for every one of those, I’d hear, “I normally don’t like short hair on chicks—but it really works on you.” I report this not to point out my uncannily bewitching allure (by all means, bring it up in comments), but to point out what I think they were really saying: I’ve grown up surrounded by images that equate long hair with sexiness, but damn if there isn't a part of me that knows what I really like.

If men prefer long hair, it’s often because it’s hard not to prefer what we’ve been told is attractive, much the same way I think I prefer tall men but have gone out with enough short ones to know that when it comes down to it, I don’t actually care. Unless we consciously recognize that we have a preference that deviates from the standard—hairy men, say, or gap-toothed women—we’re likely to go with the flow. I’m sure there are plenty of straight men who truly, inherently prefer long hair on women. But in my experience, the bulk of straight men who default to liking long hair on women just like women.

The success of long hair as a signal of attractiveness is perhaps the best example of a culturally imposed beauty norm there is. (You may argue it’s the thin imperative, but as many a fat activist has pointed out, that’s pretty recent. The Three Graces had ample bottoms. They did not have pixie cuts.) And yes, I know, I know—hair is a symbol of virility, and long hair is proof of a woman’s fertility once we shed the furry coat of our hirsute ancestors, and the religious and cultural mores surrounding women’s hair go back centuries. I’m not saying the whole thing is a conspiracy of The Man; I’m saying that when Williams reports as proof of long hair’s sex appeal that you don’t see short-haired chicks on the cover of Maxim, maybe that says more about Maxim than it says about men. And let’s not ignore the men who, despite the Maxim maxim, heartily prefer short hair. Michelle Williams’s pixie cut may have been inspired by, as she says, “the one straight man who has ever liked short hair,” but the number of dudely commenters on the Salon piece proves that Heath Ledger was not alone. “Short hair is very very sexy.” “Better to see a beautiful neck.” “I’ve always had a thing for short-haired women”—I didn’t have to look hard to sift out comments from men who specifically identified as straight who love short hair. They are legion.

Still, I’m not disputing that long hair has an allure. In fact, I must believe it does: My hair now nearly reaches my waist. It was an accident at first; I lost my job in the 2008 crash, and slowing down the haircuts was an easy way to save money. I wore my hair in an updo through the following spring and summer, and by the end of 2009, I was back in the land of the long-haired. I decided to keep it long until the following spring (I like the neck-blanket it provides in winter)...and that spring passed, and then another. The truth was, I liked having long hair again. I like being able to play with it; I like curling it on occasion. I like the feeling of brushing it, I like feeling it spill onto my shoulders when I take it down. I do wear it up most of the time, but I like the way wearing my hair loose delineates private life from public life: Since my hair is down at home and up in public, as a general rule, the only people whose mental image of me has long, flowing hair are me and my boyfriend.

And until today, I thought my boyfriend secretly preferred my hair long. I say “secretly” because his answer for the past three and half years whenever I ask him if he likes an outfit, a hairdo, or a lipstick shade, has been, “I like what you feel best in” (which can be maddening when I want to look nice specifically for him, but that’s another post). He’s not into traditional gender roles in the least; I only believed he preferred my hair long because he’d started stroking it whenever we’d watch movies at home. He's always refused to state a preference, but when I played the blogger trump card of “but it’s for a post!”, he acquiesced: “If I had to choose, I actually prefer short hair. It seems more like a choice, like the woman is more self-determined or something, since long hair is supposedly the default.” For the past couple of years, I’ve been telling myself that one reason not to cut it was because I thought he liked it. I’d assigned him the default in an effort to reconcile my own shifting attitude toward the length of my hair—and I’d assigned it inaccurately.

I’m not about to run out and cut it just because I finally know what he’d prefer—but that’s beside the point. Williams certainly wasn’t implying that women shouldn’t sport short hair simply because men might not like it; in fact, she concluded by saying that idea is “ludicrous,” and also pointed out that being comfortable enough with oneself to buck convention is an allure in its own right. That’s where she hits the nail on the head. Short hair, even when worn by the most prim among us, is a decision. It’s a decision to get more regular haircuts than are necessary with long hair; it’s a decision to commit to a more limited style. And I’ll argue that for many short-haired women, it’s also on some level a decision to challenge traditional femininity. Certainly not every woman with short hair possesses the confidence Williams alludes to, nor does every woman with flowing tresses lack it. But if you’re willing to shrug off one simple way that you can supposedly up your conventional attractiveness, I’d say that speaks to a certain “it” factor. Women who have always had long hair may find that through other ways. But women who have gone pixie know that there is, quite literally, a shortcut to the destination.