Did You Ever Cut Your Hair? Haircuts in Life and Literature

Shelley Duvall in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”

“I’m not doing that anymore,” I said fiercely. “All that money for this!”

If you’re a woman, you’ll intuit my meaning.  Of course I’m talking about hair.  Last winter, a stylist gave me a bad haircut, which is difficult to do, since I’m a wash-and-go gal.  

Was it the worst haircut I’ve had?  That would be hard to say.  It was bad.  Very bad. But I remember years ago after cutting my beautiful long hair for the first time, I sobbed and went from salon to salon trying to get it fixed.  My mother had warned me not to cut it.  She said it would never grow back the same. I should have “let my freak flag fly,” as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young advised in their song, “Almost Cut My Hair.”  Even my mother thought so.

There has been crying and devastation in the past. In my twenties, I emerged from a salon with a hairdo that managed to be both poufy and ragged. It was a cross between country and punk, i.e., Loretta Lynn and Joan Jett, and not an ideal look for bicyclists.  I arrived everywhere with feral hair that grew wilder as I pedaled. I carried a hairbrush in my bike kit and tried to tame my hair before I entered buildings inhabited by humans.  I looked forward to bedhead, because it smooshed my hair down.  What I noticed:  most people have normal hair.  I certainly wish I did.

Here’s how to survive a bad haircut.  Wear hairpins and barrettes to tame it.  Wait for it to grow out.  But this recent bad haircut had magical properties. It just wouldn’t stop growing along the same bad lines.  It got worse and more unruly

A couple of months ago, I finally cut it myself, with the blunt scissors we use for opening packages. 

It  lay down flat on my head. “You mean it could have looked like this all the time?” 

But then it started to grow. And guess what?  It, too, was unmanageable.  I had to snip off sections of hair every couple of days.  I obviously do not know how to cut hair.

In August, I finally got a good professional haircut. I am so relieved.  

In literature women have complicated experiences with their hair, too.  Here are some examples.

1 . “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Bernice gets attention by boasting that she’ll have her hair bobbed, and then loses all attraction for men.  Poor Bernice!

2.  The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.  The heroine, Maggie, cuts her own hair as a child after her mother and aunt talk about how unruly it is.  And she gets into a lot of trouble.

3.  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  In one chapter,  Jo sells her hair, her “one beauty!”—to pay for her mother’s train ticket to Washington, D.C., after they received a telegram informing them that Father is ill in a military hospital in Washington, D.C.   (He is a Chaplain in the Civil War.) In another chapter, Jo accidentally burns off her sister Meg’s bangs with hair tongs before they attend a dance.

4.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Anna gets ill and all her beautiful hair has to be cut.  What is it about haircuts and illness in the 19th century?

5. The Summer Before the Dark by Doris Lessing.  At the end of a summer away from her husband and children, Kate comes to term with aging and stops buying into the consumer culture.  She resolves to stop cutting her hair and wear it in a bun,  but compromises by continuing to wear “nice” clothes so as to fit in with her family.  Her hair is just for her.


13 thoughts on “Did You Ever Cut Your Hair? Haircuts in Life and Literature”

  1. I have had many bad haircuts. I am used to them. Whereas you hair sticks out, mine lies down flat and will not get up and look alive. It is thin and much too fine grained. Yet like you I am a wash-and-go person with deep suspicion of hair products. Although I cannot recall them specifically right now, in a number of 19th century novels females have their hair cut because of or during an illness. Was it supposed to relive strain on the body somehow or was it just too difficult to maintain while confined to bed?

    1. Hair is definitely a problem! If I could use products, I would, but somehow they make my hair look worse. Maintenance seems a smart reason for 19th- century haircuts during illness. Somehow it’s part of the health regimen.

      Sent from my iPad


  2. Oh, my god! This is apparently a universal problem. I’ve been cutting my own hair for years, although the back and the left side are difficult (but, hey, I can’t see the back). It’s great hair, thick, a silvery-white that gets compliments, often from young women, curly if cut right, and very forgiving, so I find it puzzling that hairdressers seem to see it as a challenge to cut it in the most unflattering ways. I’ve had one hairdresser who was great at cutting it. Maybe the solution is hats, lots of hats.

    1. I love the hats solution! I do envy your ability to cut your great hair, and I do think it is an art. It is bizarre that so many of us have difficulty getting good hairdos (or do I mean “don’ts”?

      Sent from my iPad


  3. I have thick, fine, semi-wavy hair that defeats most stylists. They snip at it half heartedly and just make it stick out like a demented hedgehog. The only decent cuts I have ever had were by barber-trained cutters and unfortunately, they are rare. One disappeared after her house was struck twice by lightning in the same month, and the other had a breakdown and is somewhere under deep cover in a “place”. Its a good thing that my profession does not have a dress code or require me to look “nice”.

    1. Oh my! Those poor barber-trained haircutters! There must be a “conspiracy” of nature and mind to blast them out of society. There used to be many barber shops, and It is true I don’t see many around anymore. I wonder what happened?

  4. As a young pup in the New Wave ‘eighties I parodied that old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song as “Almost Grew My Hair.” Truth be told, I had long hair as an adolescent. I cut it off under the influence of the Sex Pistols. The thing about hair is that the longer it gets the more it can go wrong. There’s no real worry in a bad haircut when one’s hair is short – it’ll look much different in a couple of days.

    The greatest hair disaster in Canadian literature is found in Anne of Green Gables when the red-headed heroine uses die in an attempt to become a brunette. It turns green.

    As an old, tired dog, I’m grateful that I still have my hair.

    1. I have to laugh, remembering the Sex Pistols! As good as any reason to cut your hair, and it is practical. Honestly, these days I prefer short hair, and it is hard to ruin it, though I’ve been unlucky sometimes.
      Poor Anne! I had forgotten the green hair. I must reread the Anne of Green Gables books.

  5. What a good post! I’d forgotten Bernice Bobs Her Hair. I loved that story which I haven’t read for decades. Doesn’t Bernice lose all her beauty when she succumbs to a 1920’s bob? Must re-read it.

    1. Yes, poor Bernice does lose her beauty. I should reread this story, too. It’s been years.

      On Sun, Sep 22, 2019 at 1:57 PM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  6. I have had way too many bad haircuts at the salon. It is like the stylists intentionally wanted to cut it too short and uneven on purpose. I went a full year before I had my new boyfriend give me a haircut in his kitchen. E did a great job, I informed him that he was now my stylist and I was done with the salon. I take a seat every other month and he sets out a glass of wine, capes me, combs out, sections and pins up my hair. Letting it down and trimming it in 1/2” increments. He doesn’t put it in a ponytail or try to saw through the full thickness of my hair, he does it right. Great results every time. Saves me hundreds a year, with no bad hair days.

    1. I thought of Frank Churchill from Austen’s EMMA. He goes to London to get a hair cut, and others think it’s a waste to go so far and to spend so much. Of course the truth emerges….but the putative “hair cut” is evidence against him.

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