Long Reads

“I had my hair chopped off 10 days after a major break-up – but was it a good idea?”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Cropped Image Of Hairdresser Cutting Hair Of Woman

The number one reason behind all bad hair decisions is heartbreak. Apparently.

“I love you, but…”

They are the three words everyone wants to hear more than anything else in the world, followed by the one word that always spells trouble. And so, when my partner of six years dropped the bombshell that he loved me but only as a friend, I went zooming off the rails with all the intensity and drama of an out-of-control freight train. I staggered around a city park in my pyjamas, hair dishevelled, eyes red and blotchy. I swigged wine straight from the bottle, much to the bemusement of two nearby police officers – who took one look at me and decided I was too terrifying to approach. I commandeered my best friend’s spare bedroom, causing her alarmed neighbour to wonder if a banshee had moved in next door (whenever she wasn’t there, and whenever she was, I wept – loudly, and noisily, and ridiculously). I didn’t sleep, I barely ate, and I forgot to do any number of useful human activities: indeed, it wasn’t until my friend sat me down and bluntly informed me that I really, desperately needed to take a shower that I allowed myself to be gently pushed into the bathroom.

At work, I found myself unable to hold a meeting without my voice wavering – primarily because I felt so bloody small, and weak, and pathetic. To quote the indomitable Bridget Jones: “When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you created together collapses, and that everything you see or do reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts which adds up to you got stamped REJECT by the one you love.

“How can you not be left with the personal confidence of a passed-over British Rail sandwich?”

So, yes, there were lots of things I couldn’t – and didn’t do – during my first few days aboard the “he dumped me” rollercoaster. I did, however, find myself partaking in three equally toxic activities: for example, I penned about 1,093,011 “of course it’s normal to get cold feet the week before you exchange contracts on a new home” texts to my ex – because, yes, the best way to convince someone to give your relationship another go is to behave like a psychotic stalker. I also spent many, many hours wondering what I had done wrong, going back over every WhatsApp message, every conversation, every single encounter, every moment we had shared over the years we had spent together.

Worst of all, though, is that I began picking my collar bone-length hair with a fierce intensity.

I’m no newbie to hair picking: it’s something I’ve occasionally dabbled in, usually in moments of extreme stress or anxiety. This time, though, I upgraded my hobbyist status to full-time membership: whenever I had a few seconds to myself, I pulled at my hair, snapped off the ends, stripped the split ends up to the root, plucked strands out of my head. One morning, I looked down at my desk and realised, with a start, that it was littered with handfuls and handfuls of hair.

When I visited my mum – a staunch supporter of the long hair movement – she was horrified. She popped a home dye on my hair, to try and bring it back to life, but was forced to admit that the colour hadn’t taken to the lengths at all. “I think it might be too damaged – you need to stop picking at it,” she told me.

Thanks a lot, Captain Obvious, I thought to myself – before immediately falling back to picking. It was a compulsion, one which I couldn’t shake, no matter how bad it was for me. If I could see the hair, if I could feel it around my face, I had to pull at it. The only solution, I decided, was for me to get my hair chopped as short as possible. And fast.

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I’m not sure this decision was completely due to my picking habit: whether you end a relationship or not, there is a lack of control that comes with a break-up. And, depending on the how long you have been together, there is usually major life adjustment that accompanies heartbreak. It makes sense, then, that we all start wondering how we can regain some sense of owning our s**t – or, as clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany puts it, “many women feel like their hair or appearance is still that one thing they have absolute control over. So, when they decide to chop off their [hair], it is mostly to adopt a new, fresher identity. She feels an intense need to move on and hence, the need to look different and new.”

Exactly. So, without informing my loved ones of my plans, I booked myself an appointment at the salon. It just so happens that my hairdresser has not-so-subtly been nudging me back towards a pixie cut for some time, and so, when I turned up at his salon looking pale and interesting (if, by ‘interesting’, we mean ‘miserable and extremely dishevelled’), he eased me into a chair, brought me a cup of herbal tea, and gently asked a few questions. Namely: how short were we talking?

I stabbed my finger at a picture of Emma Willis, patron saint of all short haired women everywhere, and he nodded approvingly.

“Normally I’d encourage someone to go away and think about it before going for the chop,” he told me, “but we know you’ll suit this.”

What followed was the hairdressing experience I’ve always dreamed of. Naturally awkward, I’ve always found it difficult to handle the small talk phase, but my hairdresser handed me over to his colleague for a colour and a wash. As we chatted, I quickly learned that she, too, had gone through a big breakup – but she’s several stages of grief ahead of me (me, shock and denial. Her, acceptance and hope). My tint, therefore, came with a pep talk. And, instead of disappearing downstairs as I waited for my colour to set, she pulled up a chair next to me and let me… well, let me just talk about it. Properly. And then she gave me her number and told me that a) I could text her whenever I needed, b) she would be sending me through useful articles and empowering Instagram quotes whenever she stumbled across them, and c) we would go for wine together.

Life achievement unlocked, I thought to myself. New friend acquired.

Colour rinsed away, my hairdresser reappeared with his scissors and clippers. He’d overheard that this was a heartbreak cut, sure, but he didn’t probe. Instead, he stuck to our usual conversational diet of books, politics, The Handmaid’s Tale (“have you been watching?” he asked me innocently, clearly unaware that it’s all I wrote about at that time), and the general state of the world today. As he talked, large chunks of my damaged hair fell to the floor and onto my lap – and I picked up a piece in my hands, twirled it around my fingers. It didn’t feel like a part of me, and I didn’t feel anything like remorse looking at it. I actually felt… well, free.

Once the cut was finished, he caught my eye in the mirror and gave me a nod. “You look like yourself again,” he said. He wasn’t wrong: with all my tired ends gone, I looked fresher, sharper, more put together. The shorter length framed my face like never before. The new colour lifted my complexion and, generally, put a stop to my ‘Victorian woman with consumption’ persona.

In short, I was me, but I was me in high-definition. And I loved it. 

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My friends and family were blown away by the transformation. Even my mum, who has always turned her nose up at short hair, was forced to admit that I looked better for joining Team Pixie. When I bumped into my ex at a wedding, he promptly admitted that my new ‘do was “amazing”. And my colleagues were ridiculously complimentary, too – no small thing, when you work with some of the most stylish people on the magazine circuit. 

“I can’t imagine you any other way,” said my editor. “It’s like this has always been your look.”

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So what of the hair picking, I hear you ask? Well, my hands did scrabble at thin air for the first few weeks – but it seems cutting my hair off has solved the problem for now (I can’t pick at what I can’t easily get at, after all). In terms of personal confidence, I admit that I’m not quite at delectable macaron status – not yet – but I’ve definitely moved on from my days as a passed-over British Rail sandwich. I can look people in the eye again, confront my own reflection without sobbing uncontrollably, and speak to a large group of people without stammering or stumbling over my words.

And that, in my opinion, is well worth the price of a bloody haircut.

While occasional picking and cutting of the ends of your hair can be just a mindless time-waster, for others it’s a form of an impulse control disorder called trichotillomania. This condition is just one Body Focused Repetitive Behaviour (BFRB) – others include hair pulling and skin picking, which can easily become chronic.

Research suggests about 1 in 50 people experience trichotillomania in their lifetime. Over 80% of those people are women, and it usually begins in early puberty. To find out more about it, visit the NHS website now. And, for more help and advice, visit Trichotillomania Support.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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