Stylist’s Alexandra Jones has had the same long hair for over a decade. She charts the highs and lows of watching her identity fall to the floor
Photography: Republic of Photography
Growing-up, my mum was always of the opinion that little girls should have long hair. She was raised in the Seventies in (then-communist) Romania and pop culture wasn’t really a thing. Tradition reigned and tradition dictated that girls should be ‘pretty’ and ‘feminine’ and that meant long hair. So I had a waist-length mane of strong, dreamy blonde hair of which I was unabashedly proud. Until it started to fall out.
I was five years old and I had stopped eating. I can’t remember exactly why. There are probably chapters in child psychology books dedicated to this kind of phenomena. It was around the time that my parents split. I can make a pseudo-Freudian stab of a guess at the fact that maybe I was exerting some control over my circumstances.
But then, maybe I was just a brat. Anyway, the point is, after a few months of mealy-mouthed portions, of – to quote my nana – filling my cheeks “like a hamster before spitting it all back onto the plate”, my hair started to fall out. As I got thinner, so did my hair until my mum, despairing, cut it in the hope that it would somehow mean she’d stop finding limp locks on my pillow. Happily, I started eating again before I went bald. But that hair cut – all gathered into a skinny ponytail and snipped at the nape of the neck – was my first, and last, short hairstyle.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve never experimented. I’ve bleached my hair and dyed it pink, green and black. I’ve blow-dried it and curled it, and one time, when I was unemployed, didn’t wash it for 11 days (the shame). But I’ve never cut it above shoulder-length, and barely at all in the past 10 years.
In fact, more than just not cutting it, I developed something of a dependency on my long hair. I derived from it a kind of flirty self-confidence. There is something undeniably coquettish about it. Partly it’s that aura of youth, of carefree summers, of hippy-dippy insouciance. But also, to borrow a prejudice from my mum, it has a certain, particularly feminine, power. I had spent my 20s twirling it and flipping it and drawing it in a sunny curtain over my face; I retreated behind it.
In that resepct, my almost waist-length hair had the appeal of a safety blanket – sweet, a little tatty, dragged-up from childhood. This thought, more than any other, pushed me into the chop. At 27, it was time to put aside childish things and embrace a new version of me.
Once I’d resolved to cut it, I found myself lusting after choppy mid-lengths and blunt bobs. Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Alexa Chung all cut their hair and looked, quite frankly, like they could rule the world. The rejection of the tradition that long hair equals ladylike became an intoxicating thought.
Still, I decided to ease myself in: three cuts spread across three weeks. What follows is the diary of each one.
Week 1: The Midi-cut
From 22 inches – the tips just skim my waist – my hairdresser, Daniel, at Sanrizz on Park Lane, London, starts the process by cutting just four inches off.
I’m not as nervous as I thought I would be because, after having gone to him for the past five years, I know he won’t rush me into a drastic change. I end up with a choppier look, blunt at the edges, but totally within my comfort zone. I stand to look at myself, swishing my head this way and that. “I’m not sure,” I tell him. The cut is undeniably lovely and the effect is altogether sleeker and more ‘kept’. But is that who I am?
My hair itself looks instantly better – less dry, shinier, more volume – and the cut is minimal enough so that it doesn’t feel like a new style altogether. I send a picture to my mum, taken from the toilets when I get to work. Her reply, as blunt as my cut – ‘It’ll grow back’ – doesn’t fill me with confidence.
Throughout the week, I oscillate between being totally cool with it – “It’s really not that different,” I say to friends – to slightly unnerved. There’s something about this length that I can’t quite get on board with, but given how little has actually gone, I’m not sure what.
Even after washing, the effect is largely the same and it only takes an extra five minutes of prep. Because of my naturally straight hair, I’d got into the habit of washing it then just letting it dry by itself, et voilà, that was my ‘look’. Now I spend some time with a flat brush and hairdryer to smooth out the ends.
A few days later, I realise that what I have found most jarring about this (wholly inoffensive) middy length is that it feels so safe. The kempt smoothness seems somehow less striking, less of a ‘look’, than the slightly wild hippy hair I had been swishing around for the past few years. And while I think I’m ready to let that go, I’m not quite ready to be Kate Middleton.
Week 2: The Cob
The second cut is collarbone length – another four inches gone – and distinctly out of my comfort zone. The cut happens so quickly – a blur of too-bright salon lights and perfumed hair products – that I barely have time to take stock. It’s 10am and I have to stop in at Zara to check my reflection.
I don’t look carefree. I look like someone with a hairstyle, someone who has spent time thinking about their do. A tiny, grungy, teenage part of me protests. This seems much too grown-up and I feel tears prickling behind my eyes.
It doesn’t help that friends, colleagues, my boyfriend and my family had each told me, at one point or another, not to go shorter. “Your hair’s your thing,” exclaimed one pal emphatically between drags on a rollie in the smoking area of our local pub.
I’d love to say that I am, like, totally immune to the asinine opinions of people in pubs, but that would be a spectacular lie. That night, I actually had a nightmare about cutting my hair: every time Daniel snipped a lock, I’d scoop it off the salon floor and stick it back with a hot glue gun. I cried the whole time, as if I was losing something profound, and woke up feeling overly emotional.
Despite my reticence, the reactions to this length are blisteringly positive: “It’s so chic”; “You look really ‘on-it’”. The one mixed review I get is, predictably, from a man. “Whoa, it goes to show how long hair makes you look at a woman differently. You look a lot more serious now.” I take this comment and run with it: whirling around my mind are self-doubts and recriminations. ‘I look too serious, too severe. I’m only 27! I don’t look fun any more.’ And when I reach for a lock to pull across my face – a nervous habit I’ve had for years – I come up short and feel a sense of loss wholly disproportionate to the reality of the cut.
Week 3: The Bob
“Make it different, but maybe not… shorter,” I instruct Daniel.
“What does that mean? I thought we were going for it?” He asks.
“I don’t know…” I chew my lip. My collarbone length has grown on me. More than grown on me.
Seeing my discomfort, Daniel sets to work on a choppy Jennifer Lawrence-inspired bob – another three inches off the length (and a whole foot shorter than when I started). The more he snips the more I fidget. The tinny-metallic crunch of steel through hair strands sounds unnaturally loud to my overwrought senses. “It feels like a lot,” I keep saying.
I end up with pretty much the exact cut I’d admired so much when J-Law debuted it. I love the feel of it but as I flip my hair around, change the parting and shake my head, I can’t get one thought out of my mind: “It doesn’t look like me.”
I am cripplingly self-conscious – I keep tugging at the ends and running my hands through it, always coming to a too-abrupt end. At the office, people stand up at their desks to check out the new look and in a particularly out-of-character move (I’m usually all for being the centre of attention) I fold into my chair, bury my head in my arms and, quiet-voiced, ask them to “please stop staring”. I may cry. Not because I hate it, but because I feel so exposed. I have looked pretty much the same since I was a teenager. Now I don’t know the person staring back at me from the mirror – the proportions of her face seem different, and a little off.
For half a day, I wonder whether the mane was really the source of all of my self-confidence. I find it hard to look people in the eye because I’m unsure of what they’re seeing when they look back. “I’m ugly,” I say to my boyfriend, who immediately calls me ridiculous and says he prefers the shorter style.
“It looks so much healthier,” people exclaim when they see me. I can’t help but feel cheated by this comment. Like when you’ve put on weight and Aunty Val says, “Oh, don’t you look healthy,” but you know what she secretly means is “Jesus, what have you been eating.” “I really wish people would stop saying that,” I snap at a colleague. “We all know that means it doesn’t suit me.” She pats me on the arm reassuringly.
Two weeks later
It has taken another two weeks but I’m getting to grips with the shorter style. That tousled, don’t-give-a-f***, just-rolled-out-of-bed crop that Alexa does so well? Yeah, well, it takes loads of effort. I’ve had to reacquaint myself with the curling tongs and seek out some texturising products so that my naturally flat, straight hair doesn’t just hang in limp curtains by my face. Having said that, I’ve come to appreciate the joy in choosing your look, rather than having it choose you.
I don’t plan on growing it back. This look is different, more effortful, more ‘put-together’. I’ve found that it’s prompted me to abandon some of my tatty old jumpers and opt for sleeker shirts or dresses. It took me a while to get used to it but my mission was always to let go of the hair-twirling, giggly, dreamy-eyed girl – that’s not who I am any more. And this do has done that, without being too ‘safe’. I guess I also wanted to exorcise some of the demons I’d obviously dragged with me from the time I was unceremoniously shorn at the age of six. So, mission accomplished.
While the pragmatic part of me says that I shouldn’t spend too long equating hair length to maturity or self-confidence, after all those years of using it as a prop – both physically and metaphorically – I can’t help but feel a profound sense of progress, of ‘moving-on’ now that it’s gone. An email from a colleague brought the mourning period to a definitive end. I re-read it every time I feel a pang for the foot of hair that I’ve lost. “Take that unease and turn it into a September-new-pencil-case-new-hope feeling. Not a new you. Not a different you. Just the next chapter of you.” It’s an exciting prospect.