Why, unlike Emily’s, my trauma bangs aren’t a cry for help

Written by Olivia Petter

When Olivia Petter decided to get bangs cut on New Year’s Eve, she worried she’d be accused of taking her emotions out on her hair. But are we getting spontaneous hair transformations all wrong? 

When I looked in the mirror, my reflection made me wince. “Do you think I look like a librarian?” I asked the hairdresser. “There’s nothing wrong with librarians,” she replied, sternly. “No, no. Of course not. I just meant… you know, can we make it a little more like this?” I promptly unlocked my phone and showed her the photograph of Margot Robbie I’d come in with. The hairdresser sighed and reached for her scissors.

It was New Year’s Eve and I’d decided to spontaneously book myself in for a haircut. Specifically, a fringe cut. Or ‘trauma bangs’, which is exactly what it’s called in the new season of Emily In Paris, when the titular character responds to workplace and romantic dramas by sinking a bottle of rosé and cutting her hair. Cue countless memes and imitations across the internet.

Later, when asked about her new ’do by her on-off love interest, aka “the hot chef” (played by Lucas Bravo), Emily (Lily Collins) responds somewhat manically: “They’re just bangs! Sometimes people cut bangs when everything’s fine!” confirming that, as suspected by the chef, everything is very much not fine.

In times of turmoil, getting a new hairstyle is hardly revolutionary. When Mr Big abandoned Carrie on their wedding day, she became a brunette. After Lily’s breakup with Marshall on How I Met Your Mother, she too dyed her hair darker. Even Grey’s Anatomy’s George O’Malley decided to chop off his curls following yet another romantic rejection from Meredith Grey. It seems that when times get tough, we reach for hair dye. Or, as in George’s case, a pair of cuticle scissors.

The thing all of these circumstances have in common, of course, is love. Or rather, a lack thereof. There are good reasons for this; many psychologists have argued that changing your hair can offer you a boost in confidence, something that’s often needed more than ever during times of romantic turbulence. Some have even said that going for the big chop can help reaffirm a sense of self. But unlike what Emily’s trajectory might suggest, none of this is necessarily a sign of negativity or an indication that someone’s life is spiralling out of control. In fact, I’d say the opposite is true.

Few life experiences shake us up quite like a breakup. And while that’s not exactly why I decided it was time for my very own trauma bangs, it certainly had a lot to do with it. It’s been several months since I broke up with my ex. Since then, a lot has happened. I’ve moved house twice (I know). Taken on new work projects, and waved goodbye to others. Made some new friends, and lost touch with old ones. Such is the cycle of life. 

For many reasons, Christmas was particularly difficult. And having caught the flu, I found myself spending a lot of time alone with my own thoughts – and several Olbas Oil inhalers. Eventually, I reached my lowest ebb: a darkness so consuming it felt like I might not make it out.

It was mum’s idea to change my hair. The fringe was something I’d tried before when times had been tough. Though, like Emily, I’d only ever cut it myself after a few too many glasses of wine. Still, having a new look helped, like I was sending out a signal that I was moving into a different headspace, so to speak. The idea being that by changing something in myself externally, I might also change something internally.

That’s how I found myself sitting in my local hairdresser on New Year’s Eve with a photograph of Margot Robbie. When I went out that night and friends noticed I looked different, I started to feel like things might also be. It’s the attitude I’ve entered 2023 with: new year, new start – as the cliché goes. And then I decided to take things one step further.

I went back to the hairdresser. The salon was better (Hari’s in South Kensington), the photograph less blurry – and of Jennifer Aniston. “I just want everything to be a bit lighter,” I told my colourist, Francesca, as I gesticulated around my head and said several words that sounded like “balayage” – I couldn’t quite remember what it was called. She nodded in a way that reassured me she knew this was about a lot more than just hair. It always is, isn’t it?

As Phoebe Waller-Bridge famously said in Fleabag, her award-winning comedy: “Hair is everything.” It’s something we’d like to dismiss as superficial or silly, as if people shouldn’t care about such ostensibly trivial matters, particularly not if they also call themselves ‘feminists’. But in reality, our hair can represent a lot about who we are and how we relate to the world. It’s the reason why, in I Hate Suzie Too, Billie Piper’s character undergoes several self-induced hair transformations as her mental health deteriorates, ultimately ending the series with no hair at all. Of course, it can also be political, as it was in Iran last year when women protested against the country’s strict morality laws by cutting their hair in public.

So yes, hair is important. Nonetheless, I’ll admit that I have been wary about sharing photographs of my new ’do on social media, as if it will act as an indicator to others that, like Emily, everything is not really OK. But that’s not what this is about for me; this has been a positive choice. One that, I hope, will indicate growth and personal development as opposed to decline. Besides, as humans, haven’t we always relied on small symbolic gestures as demarcations of something new?

Writing this now, with my new, lighter look, I feel peaceful. Like someone has flushed the toilet in my brain. It’s a small thing, but it has been a way of waving goodbye to old feelings and old selves and making room for new ones. I know it might sound silly, to think that something as superficial as a hair transformation can offer some sort of deep inner healing. But there’s a reason why people do this so often. And it doesn’t have to be a cry for help. If anything, I think it’s a declaration of strength. 

Images: Netflix, Olivia Petter

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