My hair does this funny thing where it likes to remind me about the lack of control I have in my life. On good days, it’s like a Pantene commercial and I feel more positive and ready to take on the day. On bad days, my hair gets frizzy, greasy, and becomes a trigger for mounting anxiety and irritation.
Once, while I was having doubts about a new relationship, I watched Netflix’s newest Gilmore Girls season where Emily Gilmore is cleaning out her house based on Marie Kondō’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. My house is going to stay the mess it is. I don’t mind. But my hair?
What if my hair has become this separate entity that reflects the mess that is my life?
Hear me out.
Sometimes, when I have an out of control hair day, it triggers an anxiety attack or depressive mood. I can take one look at my reflection and start spiraling …
Greasy hair? I don’t have my life together.
Frizziness? Experiencing total loss of control.
Multiple bad hair days — what if the problem is me?
There are some findings that suggest your hair’s appearance affects more than your mood. In a series of five studies on class inequality, researchers at Stanford found that memories of a bad hair day affected how participants viewed inequality. And that’s just memories —what about the actual day?
Bad hair days can cast downpour on your life like San Francisco fog. There’s no downpour, but it sprinkles, is gray, and gets in the way. According to Dr. Juli Fraga, a licensed psychologist in San Francisco, who specializes in women’s health concerns, “Bad hair, like a bad outfit, can affect mood because it impacts how we see ourselves.”
Hair as a barometer for mood, confidence, and esteem isn’t a new concept. I looked into the symbolism of hair, and it’s been tied to health — hair loss is a serious concern for men — and femininity for a long time.
In 1944, French women had their heads shaved as punishment for collaborating with Germans. Today, women who shave their heads get associated with cancer first. Even in pop culture, female celebrities who cut their hair short get sensationalized.
Entertainment Weekly had an exclusive on Emma Watson’s pixie cut — the day it was out. All of that still relays the same message to me: Appearances are part of the feedback loop that builds confidence and self-worth.
So, well-kept hair is a personal and external sign of control, but even learning how to control my hair took a while. Thankfully, my dilemma was a result of being too cheap and inconsistent.
Until I started working full-time, I would scour Craigslist for free cuts, rely on trainees who needed models, or look for budget places for under $20. Almost always, I would leave the salon feeling like I was wearing someone else’s skin.
If only someone had told me this: Your relationship with your hair stylist is kind of like your relationship with your doctor. The first few visits are awkward but necessary, as they get to know you.
Eventually, they’ll be able to rattle off styles that suit your face shape, good products for the health of your hair, and the ups and downs of your life.
But before I learned that, I had a long history of distrusting my hair stylists. I brought a photo to every session. Bangs? Zooey Deschanel. Shoulder-length hair? Alexa Chung. Layers? Some Instagram model. What I was really saying was … “Make me look like her.”
It wasn’t until two years after college that I decided to pay for a $60 haircut, as a former trainee had become full-time. For the first few sessions, I brought in photos of other hair stylists’ works. Then one day, while I had a photo of a YouTuber saved on my phone, my anxiety kicked in.
I got really nervous and started sweating. What if I’d been insulting her every time I showed a photo? What if all the hair stylists I’d ever been to were also insulted?
So I told her, “Just don’t cut too short,” and kept the picture hidden.
I don’t show photos to Nora anymore. In fact, I don’t show anyone examples before I get my hair cut, which has led to fewer comments like, “That doesn’t look like the photo you showed me.”
For me, it’s added up to less disappointment and no expectations to look like Alexa Chung. I like the fact that I just look like me, even if it took me several years to accept it.
Hair care as therapy should get more credit. For me, talking to friends just doesn’t cut it sometimes. Shopping is too temporary and I’m too nervous to get a therapist. But a haircut?
Getting a haircut for me is like talk therapy, retail therapy, and self-care rolled into a two-hour session of unplugged pampering. Yes, please. A really good haircut can last me longer than three months, if it’s cut right. And, at the end of the day, your hair stylist is kind of like the therapist you want —someone who’s always on your side, no matter how wild your story is.
I dated a boy who pet my hair all the time, in public and at home. Three months later, I found out he was also — for lack of a better euphemism — stroking other people’s hair. While deciding if the relationship was worth pursing, Marie Kondō came to mind.
“The best criterion for choosing what to keep and what to discard is whether keeping it will make you happy, whether it will bring you joy,” she says in the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”
So I broke up with him. A few months down the road, my friend stroked my hair as a joke. Instead of laughing, all I felt was an overwhelming sadness. It wasn’t until six months later, with the switch to a new team at work, that I felt like it was time to cut off the past and start anew.
Nora snipped six months off my shoulders, recolored my brassy oranges tones to an ashy-summer brown, massaged my scalp, and spritzed citrus-scented mist through my freshly cut hair. It was light and easy to manage, and I felt like a brand-new person.
My favorite part now is running my fingers through where the old layers used to be. Instead of memories and feelings, it’s just air.
Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline.com. She advises getting a haircut after a bad breakup and to never use “Marie Kondō said I should only keep the things in life that bring me joy” as a reason for breaking up. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.