Why Are We All So Fixated On A Post-Breakup Glow-Up?

A few years ago, about two weeks after a brutal break-up, I went into my bathroom, took a pair of scissors, and cut bangs.
Because of that experience, I feel it’s my duty to tell you to never — and I do mean never — cut bangs. You should especially never cut your own bangs without first even watching a tutorial or researching how to execute the job without it looking like a half-formed bowl cut.
But this isn’t about my ill-advised bang cutting. It’s about the force that drove me to pick up those scissors in the first place.
It’s not the first time I’ve drastically altered my hair post-break-up. Years earlier, I had dyed my dark brown hair blonde after my long-term relationship ended. And I know I’m not the only one who finds themselves wanting to shake something up in their lives after a major life event, whether it be a breakup, a job loss/change, a death or even a major holiday.
So, what drives us to change something — whether it be our hair, our wardrobe, or even our careers — after our worlds have been turned upside down?
“In the face of change, we often reshape our exterior lives in positive ways to mirror the transformation within,” explains psychologist Cameron Williams, adding that these types of changes can often lead to a newly developed sense of “profound self-awareness”.
Often, following events like a break-up, we come through the other side as a changed person. We are not who we were before. We might not even recognise that old version of ourselves, so it stands to reason then that we might be drawn to changing our appearance to suit the way we have changed internally.
In many ways, this physical change is a representation of the reclamation or a reshaping of our identities. So often, our relationships or careers are deeply tied with our sense of self, so when it's suddenly taken away from us, so too is that part of our identity.
Of course, we are independent people who continue to live independent lives within our relationships, but it's also inevitable that with intimacy, also comes a degree of enmeshed personalities. When what we are intertwined with suddenly vanishes, we’re left with holes in our identity, and sometimes even question who we really are. When we start to figure it out, then comes the drive to change our external appearance.
2013 study into the correlation between major life events and changes in appearance posited that “intentional self-change” is often enacted due to a desire to “individuate the self not only form others but also from one’s previous self”. The study confirmed people who underwent stressful life events were significantly more likely to change or consider changing their appearance than individuals who did not.
There’s also, of course, the idea that the change is a physical manifestation of a new beginning. You’re in the midst of a fresh start, and you want to feel fresh and new to match this internal shift.
But… why our hair?
Look, it's not always the hair. Sometimes, we might completely change our wardrobes and personal style, or move houses, replace physical items that we used or wore at a period of our lives that no longer serves us (homewares, accessories, a very specific hat you bought on holidays, you name it). The urge for physical transformation is not limited to the follicles on our heads, but the hair thing is a cliché for a reason.
It might boil down to the simple fact that hair is so prominent; it is one of the first things we see physically on another person, and therefore, it’s often the most obvious change we can enact on ourselves. And when you’re reclaiming your sense of self, or wanting to feel brand new, you want to go big or go home. You want your change to see, feel and be noticeable.
It’s worth considering that hair, unlike getting a post-break-up tattoo, isn’t permanent. Changing your hair is fairly low-stakes in the grand scheme of things because it grows back. It’s a shake-up of your own life, but also, it’s not going to completely derail it. And unlike toxic trends like "revenge" bodies, changing up your hair is rather painless, so long as it doesn't send you into an existential crisis. After all, there can be an element of comfort in making a change that you chose for yourself.
But is this drive to change a good thing? It’s hard to shake the notions of “winning the breakup” or questions about whether our changes are influenced by other people's perceptions of us and therefore, our own insecurities. Williams challenges this, pointing out that our ability to change can actually be a testament to our strength.
“Amid life’s storms, our capacity to redefine, rejuvenate and rediscover stands as a testament to our innate strength,” he tells Refinery29 Australia.
Because, even if hair does grow back, we still put ourselves out there with those bangs. Choosing to change yourself, even if it’s just with a new haircut, is a brave undertaking. It’s no small thing to reclaim or reshape our identity.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Hair