The story behind my peroxide crop: an obstinate little feminist rebellion

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Harriet Hall
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Every week, looks at the layer of personal meanings that frame our beauty choices. This week, writer Harriet Hall shares the inspiration behind her short peroxide crop

I was 12 when I first saw Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach video. There was something so badass about her dishevelled, grown-out peroxide pixie cut that turned her into my overnight style icon. That, and the fact she was totally keeping her baby. 

A year later, I watched Sliding Doors and the moment Gwyneth Paltrow transformed her mousey brown locks into that neat little blonde crop, I was desperate to do the same. It didn’t matter that her character died at the end (sorry, spoiler). She was the one I wanted to be – the free, fun one who leaves her scumbag cheating boyfriend behind.

The more I saw of popular culture, the more I began to associate women with short hair with rebellion and assertiveness. My female style icons included Edie Sedgwick, Jean Seberg and Twiggy, who all shared short hair and a tomboyish appeal. I loved that Mia Farrow cut off all her hair with a pair of nail scissors in 1965, before Vidal Sassoon neatened it up. And the scene in GI Jane when Demi More took a razor to her head to prove she was just as capable as the men, remains one of my all-time favourites. 

In the 1920s, women began cutting their hair after the war to assert their new-found liberation – having proved their capabilities on the land and in the factories whilst the men fought on the front line. The flappers were wild young things, brazenly applying their make-up in public and coquettishly peering from behind tight finger curls. I wanted to align myself with them and reject the idea that beauty had to be something imposed by a patriarchal idea of attractiveness - one that said long hair was beautiful.

Traditionally, society has dictated that long hair is feminine, beautiful, sexy (apart from the brief time when long hair symbolised prostitution and therefore 'loose morals'). But short hair accentuates the cheekbones, elongates the neck and has an air of androgynous sexiness that long hair doesn’t provide. Women like Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder seemed to look even more beautiful with short hair than long. They looked, somehow, more feminine.

The flappers exposed the curve of their newly tanned spines with their short hairstyles. It was risqué. It revealed a beauty that transcended the need to appear attractive to men.

Even today, many traditional women view short hair as a strange choice. I’ve had close friends tell me that the reason I was single was because my hair wasn’t sexy or feminine enough. Just last weekend a woman at a wedding said to me I’d get more catcalls if I had long hair (I wasn’t quite sure where to begin with how problematic and offensive this statement was).

And people often call me brave, which is a strange and clearly inappropriate use of the word, as if It takes courage to risk appearing unconventionally attractive, in a day and age when women’s emancipation has surely overcome all that.

I remember thinking of my long hair as a burden. It was thick and wavy and a complete nightmare to look after. I straightened it obsessively (come on, it was the noughties), tied it up in giant plaits and had a lot of fun with it, but I pretty much had to wake up for school about an hour earlier just to deal with it in some way. I spent all my Saturday earnings on expensive blowdrys, in a bid to look like Rachel from Friends and in summer, I dreamed of shaving it all off just to reduce my body temperature. 

So cutting it all off wasn’t a difficult decision for me – I was desperate to get rid of it. But strangely enough, it was other people that got in the way. My friends were appalled at the idea of me cutting it all off, as if it were blasphemy, and several hairdressers flat out refused to do it. Eventually, to avoid a Britney Spears-style head-shaving incident, I had to adopt a strategy in which I started with a bob, and gradually cut it shorter and shorter each time I went to the salon.

When I eventually achieved my pixie cut, it felt like a weight had been lifted. My head was lighter, my step a little springier.

Not to mention how much easier it made life to have short hair. I felt as if this was some great secret I’d been let in on. I woke up in the morning, my hair was done, I wore a hat – no problem, I was late for work – it didn’t matter. And I saved a bucket load on shampoo.

Now, when I get my haircut, I get a little thrill every time I hear the buzzing sound of the clippers. 

Strangely enough, after years of being the small, mousey brown girl, I was now a young woman with an identity (I bleached it too - to go the whole hog). I felt like people started to notice me more, to comment on my style or my face. My first boyfriend even told me he hadn’t noticed I existed in school until I cut my hair short (what a charmer).

It was as if I’d come out of a shell- that my long hair had been holding me back.

A few years ago I tried to grow my hair again and I felt invisible, unattractive. When I cut it short again and arrived at the pub to meet a friend, she said ‘Yay, Harri’s back!’ I immediately felt confident again. 

So, who knows, maybe one day I will grow my hair again and enjoy the process of twisting and blowdrying but, for now, short hair is an important part of my identity, and an obstinate little feminist rebellion.

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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.