I Chopped Off My Hair & Came Face To Face With My Internalized Misogyny

I didn’t even realize I had it.

by Jennifer Li
Jennifer Li
long pixie cut jennifer li

My interest in the long pixie cut started, like many things, while I was mindlessly scrolling on Pinterest. It was after about two and a half hours when I saw it — a picture of a girl looking right into the camera in a relaxed tank top, her tousled dark curls cut close. The nape was cut soft and short, her bangs sitting closer to her hairline, as opposed to falling across her forehead. There was no hair for her to hide behind, no soft bends nor fabulous spray of wild curls for her to show off — only a modest little pixie and the delicate features of her face. So bold, yet so sweet. Yes, I thought to myself, repressing the memory of my first (impulsive and not so cute) pixie cut from my early college years. Yes, that’s it.

I did a little research and booked an appointment as soon as I could, running high on impulsive hair-cutting adrenaline, waiting eagerly for the day of my first appointment. When I walked out of the salon with a heavily razored long pixie (nearly a mullet, which was my attempt to keep some length, even while cutting my hair short), I forced myself to smile through the queasy panic that threatened to crawl up my throat.

I can make this work, I told myself a little hysterically, I can totally make this work. As soon as I came home, my boyfriend marveled over my close little crop, showering me with compliments of how cute I looked. All I could hear were ex-partners or crushes sighing over how sexy they found girls with long hair. I held onto my wavering confidence for about a week or so until my sister said I looked like a boy. That day, I was on TikTok, depressed and tearfully pining over 15-second clips of shiny blow-outs.

Pre-chopJennifer Li
Post-chopJennifer Li

Here’s the thing about having short hair: it’s a high-maintenance thing. It requires frequent hair cuts to maintain its shape, it sticks up in every direction in the mornings, and it requires additional styling beyond an easy air dry to look cute. Plus, I was never raised to express myself via my appearance, but rather to conform myself into obscurity, to never draw attention to whatever made me unique, and to disdain grooming beyond absolute basic necessity. Fussing over my appearance didn’t feel like an unnecessary hassle, but rather felt immoral and shameful. My immigrant mother set a strident example, and I was always caught between wishing to express myself and craving her approval.

My version of a middle ground was an unhealthy combination of trying to appreciate whatever I had control over (like my long hair and my eyes), while also disparaging my peers who used makeup or spent time doing their hair. In other words, I was a “pick me” girl: the type of girl who prides herself on “not being like other girls” and who disparages women who conform to traditional femininity. I can look back at this time of my life and roll my eyes at myself, but re-visiting the pixie cut triggered an internal dialogue that I didn’t imagine would ever re-surface the way it did.

It started off as frustration over how I now had to do my new short hair every morning, but slowly morphed into ugly, jabbing thoughts of how hopeless I looked. That soon bled into other aspects of my appearance — how I dressed for comfort at home and how my body had become bigger and more muscular as I found new hobbies. Whenever I went out for date nights with my partner, I’d restlessly pet the nape of my hair and scrunch the crown throughout the meal, anxious that the other patrons around me thought I looked ridiculous. I would disparage everything about myself, despite being completely aware of how my inner monologue was a by-product of the internalized misogyny modeled to me as a young adult. But I couldn’t help feeling disgusted with myself, especially whenever I looked at my partner and despaired over how both of us now had short hair. Now, no one has hair, I could hear a voice crying in my head. This looks terrible.

As the weather changed and warmed, fashion became more relaxed, and so did my internal voice. My closet, which had previously been relegated to oversized t-shirts and sweatpants (very much quarantine chic), suddenly seemed so much lighter and interesting. I re-discovered airy dresses, comfortably high-waisted shorts, semi-sheer tank tops. I would put on an outfit and for the first time in months, I thought oh, that’s so cute instead of I guess this works.

It was striking how all it took was a few pieces of clothing to make me re-evaluate myself. On one hand, it was a relief to actually like myself for a little bit. On the other, it troubled me that I had to dress in a distinctly “feminine” way to actually like the way I looked. If femininity had a spectrum, I pulled away from the traditional end when I cut my hair. I struggled through months of self-doubt, until I re-aligned myself as more traditionally feminine through my clothing choices. How deep did this discomfort run? What exactly was my relationship with my femininity? Where did my femininity sit with regards to how I saw myself? And why did being further away from it make me so uncomfortable?

Rushed dinner plans presented me with a new perspective. I was hunting for a casual dinner outfit one evening, and without thinking, I plucked my favorite tank top from a pile of laundry and some old hand-me-down overalls. My long pixie was growing out its initial shape, becoming shaggy and unstructured. I stared in the mirror, wanting nothing more than to just shove my hair back. Screw it, why not just try? I hadn’t tried styling my hair like this before, but I slicked down a center part with some product, threw some pearl-studded pins in my hair — and it wasn’t terrible. It was a little weird, and definitely not something I would usually have the nerve to try. But longer I stared at it, the more I warmed to it. In a span of five minutes, I went from it’s not terrible, to it’s actually kind of cute. How far away from femininity do you have to go before you feel like you’ve lost yourself, I mused while staring into the mirror, feeling unexpectedly pleased with my appearance. In almost four months, I could count how many times I liked my hair on a single hand. And yet here I was, with only a little product, pins, and nerve. How close to femininity do you have to be to feel safe?

Because there is a sense of safety in conforming to an overarching traditional beauty standard — long hair, a delicate figure, feminine dress — there’s a certain narrative associated with that conformity: Women who present in such a way are desired by men and accepted socially. Because who has created these beauty standards by which women are considered valued throughout history? The patriarchy. To distance yourself from patriarchal narratives is largely considered to be considered embarrassing, anathema, even dangerous. Look at the divided responses to Lizzo’s body positivity, or to Harry Styles’ Vogue cover.

And as someone who has a volume of work about accepting and loving one’s self as one is, I’m still a little shocked at how intensely I disliked myself as soon as I distanced myself from traditionally feminine hair, and by extension, that patriarchal narrative — how I felt embarrassed and ashamed for being even slightly “high maintenance” and how I felt like I didn’t understand who I was over something as simple as a haircut.

It’s taken me about six months to really fine-tune the shaping, styling, and accessorizing, but I think I’ve finally come to a place where I know exactly how to bring out the best in my pixie. And I’m glad that I figured out how to do it, instead of just giving up on pixies and mullets entirely. My pixie pushes me to be a bit more bold, and the extra effort that goes into doing my hair makes me feel like I’m showing up for myself, and not for anyone else. I like my short hair so much that I’m not even sure when I’ll want hair past my chin again. Maybe I’ll want to have long hair when I get married, or maybe I’ll decide long hair if I decide to have a child, simply for sake of ease and simplicity. But if and when I decide to grow out my hair, I’ll be doing it on my terms, and mine alone.