Modern Times: The mane debate

Is the fear of short hair really a fear of women with power? Given the times, we're about to find out

Last November, Winona Ryder showed up at the red-carpet premiere for the movie Milk self-referentially sporting the tousled early-’90s pixie hairstyle once known as “the Winona Ryder.” Thus followed a slew of style reporters making the official declaration, with the certainty of an army of Wiarton Willies, that short hair is back: Winona goes gamine again; Posh is cropped to new non-lengths; Rihanna swings her little acorn-cap triangle. As every journalist will tell you, three is a trend.

And yet, around the same time, short-hair anxiety began elbowing aside the fashion Nostradamuses. In The Guardian, a man wrote a much-blogged-about letter to an advice columnist asking, “Is it true that a woman with a short hairstyle is subconsciously indicating that she does not want sex? My wife had a drastic haircut four days before our wedding, and our sex life was a damp squib from the start.” If I were the Dear Abby in question, I would have answered with something like, “Dear Morony Moronison: Possibly, your wife may not want to have sex with someone who would ask as asinine a question as this, or use the phrase ‘damp squib.’’ The columnist was a little more delicate, but responded with the assertion that “reducing one’s attractiveness in a spouse’s eyes may well signal some desire to push them away.”

In other words, short hair is inherently unattractive, a sentiment echoed by a sex therapist named Aline Zoldbrod in the New York Daily News a few weeks later in a piece entitled “Edgy pixie haircuts are back, but do they kill your attraction?”

“If you cut your hair you might be making a statement that says, ‘I don’t want to be seen as a sex object,’ ” she told the reporter. Somehow, I can’t imagine any woman brushing her long hair in the morning and saying to herself, “Gee, I hope that today I get groped in an elevator, a guy at work will Twitter something pornographic about me and my character and ideas will run second to my hotness. Come on, long hair – let’s go be a sex object!”

It’s hardly news that hair is another battlefield in the gender wars. Women going short is often read as a rejection of conventional femininity, a rebellion against the long, blond, impossible Barbie-doll ideal (which may be why so many little girls, staring down the barrel of adolescence, take the nail scissors to Barbie’s head).

As someone who goes from short to long and back again every couple of years, I’m fascinated by women who cling to the same hairstyle their whole lives or recoil at the chop as if it’s a form of female castration. I never miss the makeover episode of America’s Next Top Model, when contestants throw toddler-hyperventilation fits as bitchy hairdressers take them from shopping-mall big-hairs to Mia Farrows: In this world, right now, what scares you is short hair?

Of course, hair is a unique form of public self-expression. It’s possible to get in an elevator and find yourself next to a colleague wearing the exact same sassy Banana Republic ensemble you have under your coat. But the Rihanna haircut will not look the same on you as it does on Rihanna – or on anyone else. We try on hairstyles as much to discover who we are not as who we are. Hair is our own singular physical signature in mass-market times, which is why that moment when everyone had long, straight flat-ironed Friends hair – the one style that actually does look the same on everyone – was so depressing, like a nation marching around in McDonald’s uniforms.

In many cultures across the world, hair is a measure of women’s independence, deemed so potent that it must be cloaked from view. Both during and after the Second World War, French women who had fraternized with Germans were shamed at mass head shavings in public squares. The bald concentration-camp prisoner is no longer female, no longer human, a shorn animal headed to slaughter.

Against this history, past and present, short hair seems like a good screw-you to society, a way for a woman to reclaim her femininity from those who want to define it so narrowly. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in Forbes magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful women, the majority have “short” (above the shoulders) hair, often in that unyielding, anchorwoman helmet style that looks as though it’s sort of hovering above the wearer’s head. (Hi, Hillary.) I prefer to think that these women are strong and practical, and not just trying to “pass” as men, couching their sexuality. But I wonder if Sarah Palin’s updo got so much attention because it suggested a retro femininity that set her apart from other female politicians (Hi, Hillary) and endeared her to men – or at least the huzzah-huzzahing pundits on Fox News.

So is a fear of short hair a fear of women with power? Or perhaps some squib-oriented men are simply threatened by women whose first consideration, when it comes to how they look, might be their own happiness and not their husbands’. Then again, maybe the simple-minded man – or woman – sees only the gay thing. When Rosie O’Donnell signed on to The View, rumour had it that the producers included a clause in her contract that she must not cut her hair short, to match the show’s “glamour” level (Joy Behar?). What they were really saying was, We don’t want you to look too gay – you can have your “lifestyle,” just don’t flaunt it. And speaking of flaunting it: Ask a black woman about what it means to “hide” her hair, and her identity, with relaxers and irons, or how it feels to have strangers reach out and touch her curls as if they’re patting a dog.

My guess is that when men get anxious about women’s hair, they’re really funnelling anxiety about their own. Men have it rough on the hair front: Rogaine and Propecia are multi-million-dollar hair-pharmaceutical companies propped up by balding men questioning their masculinity. At the same time, long hair isn’t much of an option for any guy who’s out of grad school, or who isn’t a magician. When Céline Dion showed photos of her long-haired seven-year-old son on Oprah, they were met with a palpable discomfort; Veronica Lake–ish little boys just don’t generate the awwws that similarly long-locked girls do. Where hair is concerned, men’s range of motion is even smaller than women’s.

The platitude that women lower their hemlines and cut their hair in times of recession may become a reality in the next few years. But rather than seeing the new short hair as some kind of joyless desexing for dire times, let’s embrace it. Cutting one’s hair, during a recession or anytime, is a bold move, a way of facing the world. With our finances and futures laid bare already, the only curtain left to pull back is the one covering our eyes.