7 People Share How Their Hair Became An Expression of Their Identity
Have you ever felt your mood improve when someone compliments you on a fresh cut? Or enjoyed a boost of confidence after styling it just right? It may seem superficial, but the mental effect is much deeper than a bit of external validation. The decisions we make about our hair are intricately linked to our moods and how we want the world to perceive us.
"Hair is one of the few attributes of our appearance that we have significant influence over," says Rebecca Newman, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia. "Genetics play a major role in our hair's baseline — its natural color, texture, and thickness — but we have complete autonomy to change those things relatively easily. We can decide whether to dye, cut, or treat it." Or leave it just the way it is. With freedom comes personal identity.
Of course, our hair doesn't completely define who we are. But it can be an extension of our personalities and a reflection of how we feel internally. And when we aren't able to wear our hair the way we want, it can feel like a loss. "When people can't exercise their stylistic choices, they can feel disoriented," says Newman. "Sometimes they say they don't feel like themselves or they no longer stand out positively." (Related: 11 Black Women Get Real About Natural Hair at Job Interviews)
On the flip side, "hairstyles let you channel your expressive side," says Ebony Butler, Ph.D., a psychologist in Texas. "In therapy, it can be very healing for people to tap into their creativity and make something. The ability to go from an idea to something tangible brings people a great deal of joy and confidence. Styling your hair can do that."
It's also a way to embrace your culture. More representation of different styles, colors, and textures can help dispute the preconceived notions of youthful, Eurocentric beauty being the standard. It enables people to honor all the traits that make them unique. "Seeing your hair type represented and celebrated makes you feel validated. It proves what we've known about ourselves for years. We deserve to be here and take up space," says Butler. "More inclusion of us as people of color, our hairstyles, and our likeness reinforces that we can be who we are without conforming."
Personal hairstyling can be fun and experimental, but it can ultimately serve as a way for people to find self love. "[Our hair can] release us from the pressure to be something we are not. In fact, strengthening our relation hip with it may strengthen the relationship we have with ourselves, our bodies — and other Black women and women of color." That credo can extend to all the ways we identify: acceptance is a universal exercise.
"I'd been trying to grow out my hair for almost 20 years, but it never quite went past my shoulders. During quarantine, like many people, I had time to think, and it dawned on me that I had to change it. Then I saw a photo of my hair in a scrunchie, and most of the strands had fallen out because they were so broken. Straightening my hair into a bun for ballet class throughout my childhood and then wearing a sleek bob had caught up. Those styles felt like a standard of beauty that I needed to maintain, and it led to longterm hair damage. I grew up in a predominantly white area, and I had a fear about my hair being different from my friends. I was scared that a wig or braid would fall off at school. I just wanted to blend in. Then as an adult, I wasn't really properly caring for my hair. Often I was covering it in a scarf because I didn't want to tackle it. My hair was an aspect of myself that I couldn't connect with anymore.
So I cut it off. Doing so liberated my mind from the bounds that society has placed on Black beauty and how that reflected onto me. Now I'm starting over from the roots, taking care of it, and thinking about what I want to do with it. I was never experimental, but now I'm excited to try wigs and braids and twists. Black hair is absolutely incredible. And mine represents my ever-evolving self." (Related: Fun, Short Natural Hairstyles to Change Up Your Look)
"At first, the reason I decided to dye my hair blue was because I needed to stand out at model castings. Whenever I'd go to them, I'd see that so many models had blonde hair. So I changed mine. To me, dyeing my hair this bold color is about freedom, power, and being a little bit punk. Now when I arrive at a casting or photo shoot, everyone knows that Mary is here. Also, this particular blue is more than just a striking color; it's my personal favorite. It reminds me of the ocean, and when it's combined with my wavy texture, it resembles the water. When I look at my hair, I think, 'This is me; this is who I want to be.'"
"I was born male, and in high school, wearing clothes from American Apparel helped me fight gender norms and embrace my femininity. I'd wear high-waisted jeans that defined my waist and experiment with other shapes to show off my body. But I would still feel like a boy because I had short hair. I always considered growing it out, thinking that it would be the finishing touch to the feminine look that I wanted. Seven years ago, I went for it. It took years for it to get long enough for me to be even halfway happy with it, but now I'm obsessed.
It's what I've always wanted to look like, so I wear it down every day — I didn't grow it out to wear it up! It's become part of my personality. Whenever I make a joke, I flip my hair to add some drama. When I walk down the street, I move my head back and forth subtly so my hair bounces side to side. In a way, it was the missing piece to who I am. I don't question myself as I did when I was young. This goes beyond gender: I identify as free. I am who I want to be and authentically myself. That's something we should all feel."
"I've dyed my hair so many colors. I've been honey, black, red, blonde — one time I was half-red and half-blonde. I was drawn to throwing fun color in it, and I've always had my own personal style. Societal pressures and social media haven't really had an effect on me. But when my hair started falling out after a drastic dye job for a fashion show I was modeling in, it ended up being the first step to me embracing a more holistic lifestyle. I decided that I no longer wanted to put chemicals in my hair, so I cut it all off and let it grow in naturally. That spurred me to think about the food I'm eating and more.
It's been a ripple effect and a worthwhile journey. And I love my hair more than ever. I define myself as a queen, and my hair — no matter the color, length, or style — separates me from the crowd. I like having my Afro out; people see it before they see me, so it definitely adds to my entrance and presence."
"In my 20s, I found a picture of a girl who had a shaved head with spikes on top; she looked really badass. I thought to myself, I'm going to do this. I'll look like an edgy Sex Pistols fan, and everyone will think I'm really powerful. So I did it, and right away I knew that I didn't look edgy — I just looked stupid. Everyone was trying to be nice, saying it looked good. But my crush said, 'Yeah, it's cool. But your head looks like a piece of broccoli.' So I bleached it, and it looked like a cauliflower.
What I've learned since is that my hair just wants to be long and straight. So I've accepted it even if it doesn't capture who I am. My feeling is that I'm in this skin and this hair for life. The first thing people see is my external look, but I can hit them with words and actions right away to shift the perception of what I'm bringing to the world. I'm still a badass, powerful person, even if my hair doesn't convey it. As I've aged, I've learned that it doesn't matter what I'm wearing or what my hair is doing because I already see myself clearly and feel myself intensely. Knowing yourself so well is one great thing no one tells you about getting older. Aging is great."
Photographed by Dana Scruggs. Styling by Jenn Barthole; hair by Ro Morgan/The Wall Group for Bumble & Bumble; makeup by LB Charles for NARS. Models from We Speak Model Management (@wespeakmodels), Elite Model Management (@elitenyc), and Q Models (@qmodels). Photo Director: Toni Paciello Loggia. Bookings Editor: David Baratta.