In the 1961 movie Splendor In The Grass, young Deenie, memorably portrayed by Natalie Wood, has a nervous breakdown brought on by sexual desire for her boyfriend, Bud (Warren Beatty), who insists that she remain a “good girl.” One of the first indicators of Deenie’s break is when she attacks her head with a pair of scissors, cutting off her long hair into a daring bob. Deenie’s is just one in a series of stress-induced haircuts that have been a shorthand to indicate narrative trauma, particularly for young girls on television. Racked points out today that these new hairstyles occur “often after a traumatic experience, whether that looks like a mental breakdown for Hannah Horvath on Girls, a reaction to bullying in the movie Odd Girl Out, or Jenny’s coming out on The L Word.”
Most recently, the main character on 13 Reasons Why embraces her new hairstyle as a commitment to life, an impetus to change: “‘I’m giving life one more chance,’ Hannah’s voice-over says, and it’s almost as if the haircut speaks for her choice to seek help one last time.” This act of ceremony is so prevalent it’s even listed on the TV Tropes site under “Important Haircut.”
The Racked article ventures outside the TV world to see if other women have used a haircut as a catalyst for change. They’ve found that some favor a dramatic haircut after an acute breakup, or a significant life change like coming out, or even after a history of abuse. Therapist Rachel Kazez “believes there’s something powerful for trauma survivors who choose to get a haircut as part of their healing process… ‘The road to recovery is cyclical. It’s definitely a process. If getting a haircut is part of that process, awesome.’” That new appearance can then add confidence to a damaged psyche:
“Our appearance is the first thing others see,” says Desiree Marshall, a Brooklyn-based barber who caters primarily to the queer, trans, and gender non-conforming community. “It can serve as a marker for our identities. It’s an intimate form of expression that everyone sees. It can leave you vulnerable. When your expression is of your own making, and not one that other people or society dictates to you, your confidence levels can go up.”
It’s worth noting, however, that one of the most famous TV haircuts of all took place completely off screen and was the choice of the actor, not the character: Few new TV hairstyles had the impact of Keri Russell cutting off all of her curly locks on Felicity.