The "breakup haircut" is a cultural ethos that is said to be just as cathartic as it is defining. Just like a movie-montage chop typically indicates a turning point in a film or show (remember Felicity?), a dramatic hairstyle change supposedly marks an important phase in real life. It even became a trend post-election at a time when women felt the glass ceiling looming and looked for an active way to rebel. The popularity of the breakup haircut speaks to the idea that we, as humans, like to triumph over loss and heartache, even when it's viewed as impulsive or emotional. "Changing our appearance is a proactive measure when other aspects of our life feel beyond our control," explains Vivian Diller, Ph.D.
She continues, "Breakups (especially if they're unexpected or not mutual), can result in a blow to self-esteem. Taking a proactive step physically, like getting a new hairstyle, can help regain a sense of control over unsettling emotions—like sadness, rejection, and insecurity—even if only temporarily. New hairstyles or color can be associated with making a fresh start, with new beginnings and optimism."
I wondered, though, if those chops always feel as empowering as we'd hoped. Is there a sense of cleansing and freedom, or can letting go of your hair feel like just another loss? I asked dozens of real women to share their stories on the subject. One mused, "It gave me a clear cutoff from the girl I was and the girl I was turning into. I could now delineate between where we ended and I began."
It's not entirely difficult to understand. I was once disappointed when I ran into an ex in an outfit he'd already seen me in. Somehow, I felt it portrayed that I hadn't moved on or changed since our time together. (Don't worry—I bought my now signature scent Tom Ford Santal Blush ($225) that same afternoon.) As Heather L. Silvestri, Ph.D., explains it, "The breakup haircut may be an attempt to commemorate outwardly the psychological and emotional changes that the end of a relationship ushers in. It may be a sort of 'new relationship status' or 'new me' type of action."
While the post-relationship haircut has become quite the phenomenon—often, even, a cliché—it has roots in centuries-old tradition. "In native teachings, many tribes cut their hair during the mourning process, which symbolizes the deep wound to one's sensibilities. The act of cutting your hair is the cutting off of the flow of thought. You actually sever away past thoughts from future deeds. Cutting your hair usually occurs when [you] chooses to make a major change in [your] life, putting past misdeeds behind [you] and beginning a new life." One of the women I spoke to echoed that same thought: "After the haircut, there was a profound sense of liberation. Funny how a haircut can do that."
Furthermore, it's a practice that more often happens with women than men after the dissolution of a relationship. "While appearance looms large for both men and women in terms of self-esteem and identity, women are socialized to put particular emphasis on it," says Silvestri. "Society also tends to expect women to be attentive to their appearance. As such, the breakup haircut may serve as a way to replace some of the attention and ego-gratification that a woman's prior relationship served.”
"In its healthy incarnation, the breakup haircut represents a self-aware choice to engage one's appearance in a playful and empowered way," she continues. "Less healthy is the case in which someone makes a big change in appearance without realizing what's motivating it and potentially gets caught up in a compulsive need for external approval without really being able to internalize any of it." Control has so much to do with it and it is healthy to feel in control of your own life. "I cut off seven inches, got sparkly honey highlights, and flipped off every man who controls any woman," another reader commented. So when it comes down to it—do your thing. But make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.