When I was a little kid, I used to cringe when people told me they were "proud" of me. It wasn't from a lack of confidence (I was plenty proud of myself at that age). Instead, it was simply that, even at 6 or 7, I sensed a tiny whisper of condescension in this word. I got that it was supposed to be a compliment, but when someone said they were proud of me, it almost felt like the person was implying that I'd surprised them by doing something right—getting a good grade, performing well at a violin recital—or that my achievements were "cute" but not impressive (which, at the time, was probably true). We all have words that rub us the wrong way for some reason, and to my childhood ear, there was a hint of judgment lurking under the word "proud" that I just couldn't ignore.
Of course, people tell you they're proud of you way more when you're a kid than they do when you're an adult, so I haven't heard that one in a while. (Maybe by adulthood people realize how condescending it is?) But now that I'm in my mid-20s, I've started hearing a word that irks me even more: The word "brave." Not brave in the context of going to war or battling cancer—I'm talking about the bizarrely common phenomenon of using the word "brave" to describe a haircut. As in, "Wow, you're so brave for cutting your hair short!" Or, "I could never cut my hair like that—you're so brave!" As someone who's undergone a few hair transformations in recent years, I've been called "brave" more times than I deserve.
Here's the thing, though: Changing your hairstyle is not brave, and saying that it is is not a compliment. In my opinion, we all need to stop telling people that making conscious decisions about their appearance is "brave." Let me explain…
First, some backstory: About a month ago, I cut my hair the shortest it's been since I was a toddler. I bid adieu to about four inches, resulting in a blunt bob that ended right at the crook of my smile. For me, this was not an emotional haircut, though I've had those before. (At 23, I cut off eight inches of hair, a move that symbolized my letting go of old insecurities). But this cut was purely aesthetic. I thought a cropped bob would modernize my look, bring me some edge. I decided to do it on a whim, and then I texted my stylist friend Melissa Hoyle (the only person I've let cut my hair in three years). "I think I want a sort of Tavi Gevinson, Lea Seydoux, cool-girl crop," I told her.
The next day, I went into the salon (Spoke + Weal in Los Angeles), and that's just what we did. I didn't cry when the inches came off or feel like a "new person." Yet for some reason, in the days after, about a dozen people told me how "brave" I was for making the chop. "Wow, it takes confidence to cut your hair that short—you're so bold, so brave!" friends and co-workers told me.
Again, I figured they all meant this as a compliment, but because my haircut didn't feel brave, it was hard to take. I had to wonder: What was brave about cutting my hair short, exactly? That I didn't look like every other girl in Los Angeles? That I'd dare to want a haircut that took less than two hours to style? Is it really "brave" simply to be a woman who doesn't look (or care to look) like a contestant on The Bachelor and not feel ashamed?
It was hard for me to pinpoint exactly what was so bothersome about associating my haircut with the word "brave." Then, I remembered something the author Megan Daum told me. I interviewed Daum a few years ago, and at some point, I suggested that the subjects she wrote about took bravery, to which she responded, "I hate being called 'brave.' … 'Brave' is doing something you're afraid to do. 'Brave' … involves relinquishing control."
Daum explained that it would be terrifying to blindly dump the unfiltered contents of her brain onto a page and hit publish, but that would never happen. Her words, like my haircut, were a conscious choice, entirely within her control. To call them brave was to overlook how carefully they were considered. Similarly, to call my haircut brave was to imply that I had no say in it, that I had done it by accident, or for any reason other than I thought it was cool. Which, in a way, implied that it wasn't.
Lena Dunham has expressed similar contempt when fans and critics have called her "brave" for exposing her naked frame on Girls. Here, the word "brave" felt like a dig, a passive-aggressive insinuation that her nude body was, in Dunham's words, "fucking funny looking." In an Instagram post earlier this year, Dunham let us know her true thoughts on the matter: "Let's get something straight: I didn't hate what I looked like—I hated the culture that was telling me to hate it. When my career started, some people celebrated my look but always through the lens of, 'Isn't she brave? Isn't it such a bold move to show THAT body on TV?'"
Calling my short hair brave felt equally backhanded. To me, the subtext read, "Your hair isn't as pretty as other girls. How audacious of you to look this way."
Of course, all of this goes without saying that my haircut wasn't even that intense: It was a bob, for goodness' sake. It's not as if I buzzed my head and dyed my eyebrows blue. (Although labeling that choice "brave" would probably be just as problematic for all the same reasons I've outlined here.) Not to mention that calling a haircut brave totally minimizes actual bravery—you know, that thing that people exhibit when confronting legitimately dangerous situations, like combat or life-threatening surgery. Not only did I actively want to cut my hair, there was zero risk involved. May I repeat: My bob haircut does not make me brave.
Of course, sometimes a haircut does represent something deeper. The first time I cut my hair short felt like liberation—a shedding of teenage self-hatred and desperation. "In my experience, women chop their hair to get rid of what is not serving them anymore," my stylist Melissa Hoyle explains. "Emotions are tied to everything. In most cases, cutting off the dead inches means you are ready for a fresh start."
In other words, for many women, a short haircut might symbolize a newfound independence, confidence, or self-acceptance. But is it really that radical, that "brave," for a woman not to need long hair to accept herself? If so, I hope all the rad short-haired girls in the world are inspiring that to change. And in the meantime, I'm going to keep my chin-length crop, not for the political statement, not for the compliments, but because I think it's cool. And because I like to feel the breeze on my neck in the summer. It's really very pleasant. You should try it sometime.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so... welcome to The Flipside (as in the flipside of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of "beauty." Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation, too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here, on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.