I have a visceral memory of the tub in my bathroom at my mother’s house. It was mauve pink; very sixties, and when she remodeled the house shortly after buying it in 2001, there wasn’t enough money to replace it, so we made it work with maroon linens and a Hollywood style mirrored cabinet she’d found on clearance at Home Base. I remember getting ready for my high school graduation in front of that mirror.
It was my bathroom, and remained so even after I moved back in with my mother after I graduated from college, even after she died and I was the only one living there. I remember very clearly, the morning after I graduated with my master’s degree: I stepped over the edge of that mauve bathtub and I thought: I must cut my hair.
My hair was long then, and I’d spent a lot of time and effort growing it out, so no one was more surprised by this impulse than me. But, my mind focused on escaping the personal tragedy of my mother’s death, not for the last time I took my inspiration from WWI heroines perhaps a little bit too literally. I’d written about the significance and symbolism of women cutting their hair during WWI in my master’s thesis, and I loved the stories:
While they were waiting to disembark at Salonika,Dr Isabel Emslie wrote that she “cut the hair of nearly all the unit.” No one seemed to mind, including “Edith Harley, whose beautiful long hair I was loathe to sacrifice,” except for one nurse who had “only twopenny-worth of Nature’s crowning glory, but as I was half through she called out in her lovely highland voice: ‘Oh, my good hair, my good hair, please don’t cut it off!'” (Hutton,With a Woman’s Unit, 37, 43)
This included Olive “ Jo” King, who loved her short hair and the freedom it provided (“As soon as it was done I couldn’t imagine why I’d never done it before. There are about half a dozen of us with short hair, & we fairly gloat over the others.”), but upon learning of her father’s disapproval decided to grow it out (“You’ll be glad to hear I haven’t had my hair cut for four months”), only to lapse in the heat of summer. (King, One Woman at War, 32, 43, 51.)
The importance of short hair was practical as well as symbolic. Women with short hair were prepared to “rough it” and work hard. Their shorn locks were a badge of honour — an reminder that their effort and dedication were to be taken seriously. A flagrant rejection of social norms. And, crucially, a visual representation of a break from their pre-war lives and selves.
I wanted to be windswept and interesting rather than trapped and tragic. So I exchanged my LAX-LON ticket for an earlier date, and I chopped off my hair.
I grow my hair, and then I get tired of it, and I cut it off. Nothing so unusual about that, but when I look back on the haircuts of my adulthood, there’s a clear demarkation. A dramatic life event demands its equivalent in coiffure. A bad breakup on the eve of a stateside trip, and I dragged myself to the same hairdresser who’d done the original chop. It wasn’t drastic enough: several groupon hair cuts later I was shorn, then gradually settled, then growing my hair out for my wedding. Happily married, I cut it all off again.
My hair is long again now, sustained by years of optimistic prenatal vitamins and nine months of pregnancy hormones; I’m feeling that itch. It’s not that I’m tired of my hair (though I am tired of cleaning it out of the bathroom drain). But what is a major life event if not accompanied by a haircut?