The Psychology of Hair: A Mane Obsession

Me & My Hair: A Mane Obsession “I’m going to grow out my hair,” I announced to my partner Joseph as we were entering our apartment building. For him, the comment came out of the blue. For me, it was a subject I’d been musing about for the last two blocks of our walk.

“Okay,” said Joseph. And then, after a beat: “You must think about this a lot!”

It’s true. Pretty much every day, Joseph hears a complaint or observation from me about my hair. It’s too dry; it’s too curly; I found another white hair; I’m going to grow it; I’m going to cut it all off.

Me & My Hair: A Mane Obsession “THE GOOD GIRL”
My hair and I have had a complicated relationship for years. After being a tomboy with short hair throughout middle school, I decided to grow it long. That occupied me for four years of high school. Since my mother said I couldn’t dye it until I turned 18, there wasn’t much else for me to do. It grew long and required a great deal of attention—gobs of conditioner and many hours spent de-tangling. I think of the ensuing look as my “Good Girl” look—long, virgin hair untouched by chemicals of any kind. My high school yearbook photo testifies to this. But I feel compelled to share that I never looked as good in high school as I did in that one photo. Right before it was taken, a classmate pulled me into the girl’s bathroom, did some scrunchy-type things with water from the sink, and made my hair look fabulous—just for picture day.

Read Related: Quick Styling Tips for Long Hair

As soon as I hit my 18th birthday, I not only cut it all off, but dyed it red. The rusty hue, courtesy of Clairol, didn’t suit my olive skin, and I quickly dyed it back to brown. Enthralled with the coloring process, I was curious if I could get it to blonde, and I had it professionally bleached. The bleach was so harsh against my scalp, and the fumes so noxious, that I had to leave the salon and sit outside, breathing fresh air and resisting the urge to find a flowing fire hydrant so I could douse my head under streams of cold water. The final result was jarring—lighter than an egg yolk, but vivid, and certainly not natural.

Me & My Hair: A Mane Obsession “THE RIPLEY”
The roots of my bleach blonde look—jet black—didn’t look right. The tiny dots of black against my head reminded me of armpit stubble. So I went back to brunette. I also tried a home-straightening kit, which didn’t straighten my hair so much as slaughter it. It clung to my head, lifeless, collecting dust and lint. No amount of conditioner in the world could revitalize it. I didn’t think I had any choice but to shave it all off—hence, the “Ripley” (nicknamed for Sigourney Weaver’s bald, alien-busting heroine in the third movie of the Alien franchise) or, as it was known more commonly in the 90’s, the “Sinead O’Connor.” I loved having a shaved head. I was in and out of the shower in minutes; I never had hat-head or bed-head; and rubbing it felt reeeeally good. Moreover, I got props from friends and co-workers for my “bold” hairstyle. Women with long, shiny hair marveled that I had the “guts” to shave it all off. But, of course, at some point I decided I wanted to move on. I began a long, long growing out process.

It’s one of my favorite haircuts in the world, the Pixie cut. And growing out a shaved head makes for a great Pixie. Close-cropped, too short for split ends and therefore shiny and healthy, the Pixie is a face-framer and just plain adorable. I loved having it and have since returned to it again and again. There’s something about it that makes a statement—it lets the world know that you’re (quite literally) a cut above the rest, that you’re not afraid to buck the “long hair is beautiful” trend. The Pixie makes your features stand out, and shows off your neck. Plus, a cropped cut looks great with accessories—cute hats, sunglasses, earrings. If your Pixie is long enough in front, you can stick little barrettes or bobby pins in it. Yes, the word for the Pixie is “adorable.”

But sometimes I don’t want to be adorable. To be quite honest, I want to be intimidating—particularly as I get older. I’ve always been tiny, and sometimes I think people don’t take me seriously. Well, I’m happy to forgo youthful charm in exchange for scare tactics. So I am growing it out again, aiming for a look I achieved six years ago, a look I like to call “La Doña.”

Looking back, I can’t believe I did it all those years ago—I went from the Ripley to having the longest hair I’d had since high school. There were some bumps in the road—some trims, some chops here and there, a couple of at-home dye jobs—but I made it. With my newly long hair, I perfected a look that I dubbed “La Doña.” (Doña is a Spanish term of respect for a woman.) My father has always called me “Doña Luisa,” and this ‘do, I felt, was worthy. Fresh out of the shower, I would part my hair in the middle, pull it back tightly, and twist it in the back into a bun. Suddenly, I wasn’t a cute little Pixie again—I was someone to be reckoned with. The middle-part and severe shape, accompanied by dark lipstick, made me look—quite frankly—like a bad-ass. One might think that at any moment, I could whip out a rolling pin, either to create homemade flautas or to open a can of whoop-ass—or both.

But my curls got in the way when I wore it down—curls are soft and sweet, and not particularly intimidating. A hairdresser recommended to me by a mutual curly-headed friend used what I can only surmise was a witch’s potion on my corkscrews and turned them perfectly straight. It was incredible. After I showered, I had only to let my hair dry, and it dried stick-straight, shiny, healthy-looking. No lint, no lifelessness. There was only one problem: when I went back for more, she said salons weren’t using it anymore. Had it been discontinued? Was I lucky that I hadn’t sprouted a mutant third eye on the top of my head? I don’t know. I only know that the subsequent relaxers didn’t work as well, and I was forced to make friends with a torture device known as a Hair Iron. I spent hours sitting in front of a mirror, pressing my hair between two steaming ceramic plates, bored beyond belief. I had to schedule evenings around “doing my hair.” It became too much for me, and I made the chop again.

It turns out that my obsession with my roots actually has some roots of its own—in psychology, that is. Dr. Marianne LaFrance, Professor of Psychology and Professor of Woman’s and Gender Studies at Yale University, directed a study called First Impressions and Hair Impressions. The results point to the fact that people do draw impressions from a woman’s hair, to a surprising degree. Women with short hair are not necessarily perceived as adorable, as I had feared—instead, they are thought to be “confident and outgoing.” (But I’m still growing mine out. I’ve come too far not to.) As far as length goes, longer equals sexier (no surprise there) but medium-long connotes a higher intelligence.

And Dr. LaFrance found that “bad hair days” are “real.” Yes, Dr. LaFrance. Well, any woman with hair can tell you that! But the affect those days may have on your ability to be at your best is more profound than you might think. Dr. LaFrance’s study concluded that bad hair days affect your self-esteem and your ability to perform, as well as just making you feel all-around bad about yourself.

In some ways, I’m surprised that hair is actually as all-powerful as I sometimes feel it is. However, I don’t need a study to tell me that showing up at a job interview with bed-head isn’t going to get you any points with your potential employer—nor are you going to feel at your most confident, which will then affect your performance during the interview. Similarly, if your short crop makes you feel like the cat’s pajamas, you’re likely to communicate that sass on, say, a first date. And your date will in kind find you to be pleasingly self-assured. So it really does come down to feeling your best when you know you look your best.

Me & My Hair: A Mane Obsession LOOKING LIKE ME
Having worn the Pixie for years, I’m currently set on getting back to La Doña—a natural version that I can wear up and pulled back, or down and curly. It’s a long process, and I’ve dragged out my old headbands and hair-clips in anticipation of a very drawn-out awkward phase. Looking back on my hair-history is amusing—how much trouble I went to, how much time I had on my hands, how much money I spent, and how much I felt my identity was tied up in my hair. I believed my hair told the world who I was, instead of my personality, my actions, or my values. Of course, it’s fun to play with new looks, and to accentuate your personality. If a Pixie makes you feel even more adorable, why not do it? If straight hair instead of curly is what puts a spring in your step, why not spring for that relaxer? (Just make sure it’s safe, used by an experienced stylist, and guaranteed not to sprout you a third eye.) But as much as I enjoy a new look, now I feel comfortable about who I am, and know that the whole of me is not equal to my hair.

And thank goodness for that, because it’s looking very awkward right about now.