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Every time a Foo Fighters song plays, I remember my first big breakup like it happened yesterday. He was in a band, I was a teenager who changed my personality entirely to be The Girlfriend Of A Musician, and I drove to the wrong coffee shop to meet him so he could end it (he called from the other one to ask where I was...tragic). The whole thing ended predictably, with me crying on the floor of my closet while blasting emo music on my iPod and debating which color blue to dye my dark brown hair so that he’d see me and realize I could be the rocker queen of his 17-year-old dreams.
There are certain rituals that go along with every breakup, no matter how serious: the teenage sobbing, debating whether or not to call him one last time, and the final resolution to wash that man right out of your hair with a radical chop. More than one woman has fallen prey to breakup hair, the age-defying desire to become a new person after a breakup and emerge unscathed from your salon-provided black cape like a newly single butterfly just looking to make out with a stranger.
That's not to say breakup hair is a bad thing—just a specific thing, according to a man who's made his name talking about hair's role in society. Kurt Stenn is the author of "Hair: A Human History" and a former professor of Pathology and Dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine who’s spent more than three decades studying hair. When he's not looking at the actual structure of the hair strand, Stenn makes it his business to understand the role hair has played in the development of the modern world—and to a lesser degree, breakups.
To understand why we chop our hair when it's time for a major personal change, know that hair is one of the fundamental unspoken languages of humanity in just the way a formal gown or a particularly tasty local meal is. According to Stenn, having the proper hairstyle for your class and culture has been a matter of life and death throughout history. He cites a larger-than-lIfe tale of Joseph Palmer, the abolitionist who was almost killed (and eventually jailed) for his refusal to shave his lush beard in a time when having a beard was pretty much unthinkable.
Luckily, there are no such stakes in the modern world. Short or long, it's pretty much live and let live when it comes to experimenting with new hair colors and lengths. But that doesn't mean your mane isn't saying anything about who you are. Today, we have the freedom to style our own hair and use as a form of self expression. Instead of staying in line with society, we can use those inches like a message board to tell the world how we’re feeling...which brings us to breakup hair.
You may think you're the queen of your own hair decisions, but Stenn says that's probably not the case. A world of online hair advice, celebrity Instagrams, and store shelves determine what you think are the right beauty choices for you. Make no mistake, each decision sends a message in a coded cultural language that we all unbelievably speak without ever consciously learning it. Sleek glass hair in a long bob might convey your seriousness about that law career and ability to keep up with the trends, while curly volume might indicate you're letting loose for the summer. Back in the 1970s, afros were a radical political statement about blackness in America. And finally, over it all lies a layer of sexual dynamics in which long, lush hair is a big old neon sign above your head reading, "Fertility, now open 24/7!"
When you change your hair after a breakup, you might tell yourself it’s a decision made solely for you—after all, it feels good to be coddled by a stylist in a luxe salon and to look in the mirror and see a woman who suddenly has bright blue hair. She looks nothing like the friend you just saw walking around with her ex. Nope! Not her. She doesn’t live here anymore.
According to Stenn, however, the desire to get rid of all that hair might actually come from the outside world. Breakup hair is yet another coded expression we all understand—after all, we’ve seen the movies. We know that after a particularly traumatic love affair you’re supposed to throw their things out the window and march down to the salon (bonus points if there’s bouncy Swedish pop playing in the background). When you cut those bangs, you’re telling the outside world: I’m new! Ask me about my breakup, which I am almost certainly not over but will insist that I am before giving you more details than you want about the situation. It’s part of the healing process.
Society aside, hair is all about control. For hundreds of years, we’ve used hair as a way to convey how civilized we are (a good cut never hurt anybody) and our sexuality, never forgetting that the most important part of hair is how other people see it. If you’re two glasses of wine in and debating giving yourself a trim, consider it a natural way of taking back control of your own life—although we’d rather you gave your stylist a call to avoid the dreaded uneven baby bangs of middle school.
Take that breakup hair idea and try it. Whether you’re a teen crying in her closet or a grown lady starting fresh, you’re just figuring it out as you go along—it’s normal!
Interested in changing up your look? Use our salon locator to book an appointment with a stylist near you.
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