Justice, Religion, Sex & Gender

Not the Break Up Hair Cut: On Appearance, Ritual and Going Short

This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone.
About three weeks ago, I walked into a hair salon and when asked how much hair I wanted cut, I responded, “All of it, please!” It was a bit of an exaggeration, but only just. When the hair stylist was done, I left with a pixie cut and a foot and a half of hair to donate. As I walked out of the salon, I found myself simply buzzing with energy. I felt as if I had a load lifted off of me (practically literally, as I have very thick hair!), and I might as well have floated home. I wanted to jump and shout and… say a blessing?
Ever since that day I’ve been wondering if and how Judaism deals with haircuts. Of course I thought about the story of Samson losing his strength from an unwanted haircut. I seem to have had the opposite experience though; I’ve gained a new energy rather than lost it. I looked up “Judaism and haircutting” and all I could find was the ritual of upsherin. In some traditional Jewish sects, boys do not get their first hair cut until they are three years old. This ceremonial hair cut signifies the beginning of the boy’s Jewish education, and they are often given a kippah and tzittzit to wear.
Ok, so there’s a celebratory hair cut for boys. For girls? When I wrote my first draft of this piece, I lamented the lack of a celebration of girls’ Jewish educations. Then my mother pointed me to the latest issue of Lilith Magazine. Anthropologist Alana E. Cooper describes the upsherin ceremonies she created for her three daughters. I loved reading about the meaningful moments shared between Cooper and her daughters, and it warmed my heart and soul to know that someone out there created such a special commemorative event for the Jewish education of girls.
So how could I make my rather significant hair cut also meaningful to my Jewish identity? Since I’m no longer a little girl and my Jewish education began long ago, an upsherin doesn’t seem appropriate for me. Saying the Shehecheyanu didn’t quite cut it (pun intended!) for me, maybe because I seldom recite blessings except at Shabbat and other holidays. Then I remembered exactly why I was cutting my hair. Which brings me to another frustrating thing about haircuts.
Every woman I know who has gotten a major hair cut has been asked the same question followed by the same comment: “WHY did you cut your hair?! It looked so good before!” Does there have to be a reason? Can’t a person get their haircut because they want to? So what if it looked good before, it probably still looks amazing. A couple years ago, one of my best friends from college told me a few days after she chopped off her long locks someone actually said to her, “First you cut your hair, then you come out of the closet!” Meaning what? Every woman who has short hair is gay? Right. And everyone woman with long hair is straight? Come on, people.
I am frequently frustrated by people who are stuck in stereotypes about women’s appearance; it sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying that women shouldn’t be defined by their looks. Nor should women be questioned and interrogated for making a change in their appearance. What should happen is that everyone ought to be respected for whatever choices they make, whether it’s a haircut or a sudden desire to stop wearing make-up or whatever it is. In my case, I do have a reason for the hair cut that has nothing to do with my love life or anything like that.
In my case, my haircut doubled as a mitzvah: I donated my hair to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, an organization that turns donated hair into wigs for women who have hair loss due to cancer treatments. So no, this was not a break-up haircut (as my hair stylist thought it might be). It was not my way of coming out of the closet (I’ve already done that in my own way that has nothing to do with my appearance). I’m celebrating my new do by helping someone else feel more self-confidence during a time when it might be at an all-time low.
So next time you see a female friend, or any sort of friend for that matter, after a major appearance change, don’t question it or judge it or tell them you “miss” how they looked before. As long as they’re happy with how they look and feel, why not be happy with them?

2 thoughts on “Not the Break Up Hair Cut: On Appearance, Ritual and Going Short

  1. Every time I’m seriously considering a pregnancy, I stop getting my hair cut, so that it will be long enough to donate by the end of the pregnancy. I do this in part because I’ve heard hair growth can increase during pregnancy (or at least hair shedding can decrease) and it seems like it might as well go to a good cause…but I also like the idea that my pregnancies are in some very small way a messenger of tzedakah, and therefore might enjoy some small superstitious extra measure of divine protection.

  2. People can have opinions about these things and can comment to real friends (but not strangers) and not in a nasty way. Not just about women.
    I have a good male friend who used to have long hair and now shaves his head. I still sometimes mention that I miss his long hair. My wife and I both recent went to an Idan Raichel concert. He used to have dreads and now shaves his head. We both liked the previous look better and I mentioned it on Facebook.
    None of this means I don’t think they had a perfect right to wear their hair any way they wanted.
    And with all this, I do realize that this is something that women with short hair are likely to be hassled about. I would be even more careful which women friends I might say something to about this issue.

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