Why I Decided to Cut My Curly Hair Short… Again

Emelie Burnette

When I came out to my dad in a Chili’s parking lot in 2011 (we all make choices), he asked, simply and sincerely, if I’d be cutting my hair short and wearing more cutoff jeans. It was sweet, really—he’s a man of few words and definitely not fluent in gender identity—so with a hefty weight off my hard-femme-leaning shoulders, I confidently told him no. Maybe six months later, I got a pixie cut and my first denim jacket. It wasn’t meant to be a statement, I swear.

While I wouldn’t say I regret it—my new life in San Francisco was a vibe, and hey, I still wear that jacket!—something about the hair felt not quite right, almost juvenile. Chalk it up to gayby insecurities, but I also really didn’t love that on my wedding day a couple years later, my hair looked eerily reminiscent of some preschool-era family portraits. But, you know, it was pretty easy to take care of and, ultimately, how I started a real relationship with my curls. In honor of that love story, of sorts, I’ve been growing out my hair ever since. It’s been almost eight years.

short curly hair for a wedding
@chantiburnette; PICTURED: my wife, Chanti (right), and me in 2013
babies with curly hair
Courtesy of Teri Battaglia; PICTURED: my sister, Loralynn (right), and me in 1990

The Backstory

Once upon a time, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a single photo of my natural hair past toddlerhood. I straightened it a lot, even crimped it sometimes; I cut it myself maybe half the time; I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to brush it, like, all the time. Truly, it’s no wonder I just wore it in a ponytail through the aughts. Heck, I didn’t even call my hair curly in those days. It was “unruly,” like everything else in young adulthood. So, when I eventually cut it short and suddenly couldn’t do much of the above, my ignorance showed: layers in the back, straight-edge bangs, stylists who’d never worked with curly hair. It was the blind leading the blind, so of course my hair looked young. It was. I was.

Eventually, though, the curls and I became a pretty great team. I spent years experimenting, perfecting the scrunch, and determining that, yes, running my hands through it would mean disaster. (Not to mention how much I put down for my holy-grail Deva products, mind you.) They grew up with me, backing me up in my biggest job interviews and surviving two cross-country moves. Yep, it took the better half of a decade, but I found hair that helped me become me, which is, I think, what I was looking for all those years ago with my post–coming out pixie.

curly hair stories
@chantiburnette; PICTURED: me in 2016
long curly hairstyles
Emelie Burnette; PICTURED: me in 2018

If that sounds like a lot of pressure to put on some curls (insert springboard joke here), that’s because it probably is, and this year, somewhere deep in a bout of existential dread, something gave. With an almost terrifying clarity, I realized I’d actually outgrown my grown-out hair. Where I’d invested so much time and energy in my 20s, now, on the verge of 30 and a divorce, I couldn’t help feeling the need to refocus, to step into a new stage in my life, to carry less weight and make a fresh start. While I really hate those sorts of clichés, I am at least a fair-weather fan of symbolism—so yeah, I was cutting the damn stuff off.

Flash to a few weeks ago, and what should appear in my Instagram feed but a bit of good old-fashioned #hairspo. Some notes: A) Jenny Slate is amazing. B) My identity is in this “get yourself a girl who can do both” vibe. C) She has my hair texture and color. Oh hi, sign… I’ve been looking for you. One “Should I get this haircut?” IG poll and a conversation with my boss (“I voted yes but didn’t want you to think I don’t like your hair now!”) later, I was sitting in Donatela Sen’s chair at Curls OneonOne in Beverly Hills, ready for my grown-up, not -out, hairstyle.

The End Result

Deva-trained and generally charming, Sen understood what I wanted immediately—and what it meant. Over our three hours together, she walked me carefully through the process, checking in while providing insights like what that extra inch of hair off my neck would mean (tighter curls), the difference a few degrees in shower water can make (you want lukewarm, never hot), and how my ideal haircut would require some maintenance (hair clips are very helpful while you air-dry) but not so much. It was a little like couples therapy, and, well, we came out of it stronger than ever.

what to expect when you cut your hair short
Emelie Burnette

A 360 View

short curly hair ideas
Emelie Burnette
short curly haircut
Emelie Burnette

Okay, let’s cover the technical stuff quickly. My curly hair styling routine after leaving the salon is a bit like my old one, with some minor tweaks.

The Products
DevaCurl Low-Poo Delight Mild Lather Cleanser
DevaCurl Low-Poo Delight Mild Lather Cleanser $22

Say hello to the only shampoo I will ever use. I give my head a good massage with this stuff, focusing behind my ears where I collect the most grease and rinsing pretty thoroughly.

DevaCurl One Condition Delight Weightless Waves Conditioner
DevaCurl One Condition Delight Weightless Waves Conditioner $22

Next, I finger-comb this weightless conditioner into the bottom of my hair and scrunch for some moisture retention, leaving it in for a minute or two before rinsing it out. Typically I avoid any direct scalp application, but if it’s a particularly dry day—I see you, Santa Ana winds—I might go there.

Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel
Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel $20

While I’m still in the shower, before I scrunch all the excess water from my hair, I comb a generous amount of this heavenly gel through my strands with my fingers. Applying it in the shower retains all the moisture without any of the residual crunch you might normally get from a gel, Sen told me. Honestly, that tip was a game changer.

Drybar Velvet Hammer Hydrating Control Cream
Drybar Velvet Hammer Hydrating Control Cream $29

Once I’m out of the shower and have flipped my hair over to shake out any excess water, I apply just a small amount (maybe a dime-size) of Drybar Hammer Control Cream on the top of my head and near the bottom of my curls to really tighten up their shape. It was my go-to with longer curls, too, and I love how well it accentuates my tendrils without weighing them down.

DevaCurl The Curl Maker Curl Boosting Spray Gel
DevaCurl The Curl Maker Curl Boosting Spray Gel $22

After I’ve air-dried with a few pins in the top of my hair to facilitate lift, if I have a special occasion or big meeting on the books, I’ll spritz this in to add some nice, sleek hold.

Final Thoughts

In short (sorry), I’m thrilled—not just with the cut, but with my new, simplified routine. I’ve always wanted a blunter look, something more mature, something chic, as my boss called it upon the big office reveal. The best compliment I got, though, was from my teammate Alyson: “I feel like your hair has always been this way. It’s just so you.” See? I really did find my happily ever after. Dad, if you’re reading this, thanks for the inspiration.

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