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Has My Short Hair Made Me Undateable?

Photo Courtesy of Hannah Thompson.
When I cut nine inches off my hair almost 10 months ago, a few thoughts came to mind as great length of it fell to the salon floor: How much sleep would I have to sacrifice to style it every morning? Would that random patch of eczema I had on my neck the last time my hair was short come back? 
What wasn’t front and centre was how my new neck-grazing bob would affect my relationship status. But since noticing that my dating life has stagnated in the time since I went for the chop, my short hair — and perceived attractiveness to the cis-het men I date — is all I’ve been able to think about.
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The realisation hit me during a conversation with a friend, where I lamented the appalling state of my dating life. “When was the last time you were properly dating someone?” my friend asked as I counted back the months. “Around September,” I recalled almost instantly, “just before I cut my hair short.” The stark comparison to the year BH (before haircut), which involved a 12-month stint of back-to-back serial dating and situationships, compared to the two brief and uneventful dates I’d racked up AH (after haircut) was undeniable. Both on dating apps and in real life, the male attention that had been flowing in a steady and reliable stream with my long hair had diminished to a sparse few drops.
Was my apparent lack of male interest really as simple as straight men not finding my shorter hair attractive?

Do men actually prefer long hair?

Emma Donna, 25, cut her hair — which reached down her back — into a choppy bob last year. She told me about the noticeable difference in the amount of attention she received after losing inches from her long blonde lengths. “I was so excited to be out dating again, especially with hair that felt fresh and new, but I definitely got way fewer matches from men on Hinge after updating my profile to photos of me with short hair,” she tells me.
“The change in reaction that was most drastic would be simple interactions with men that I’d grown accustomed to, like baristas, waiters and bartenders,” says Donna. “It was like I had turned into a completely different person. Men started acting as if I didn’t exist. Before I would randomly be given free coffee, free drinks, and get chatted up in the street or in bars and pubs.” As Donna and countless other women have experienced, though, not all attention is welcome: “Thankfully, this happens much less now,” she adds.
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While there has been slow growth in progressive attitudes towards women’s bodies, our patriarchal society still teaches that men should feel entitled to freely give their opinions on a woman’s appearance — and expect us to present ourselves in accordance. While these ingrained ideologies have no place in 2024, research conducted into male preference for female features, including hair length, gives a biological insight into how long hair is perceived in comparison to short hair.

Both on dating apps and in real life, the male attention that had been flowing in a steady and reliable stream with my long hair had diminished to a sparse few drops.

A 2024 study in South Korea found that women with longer hair were perceived as more attractive by their husbands, and consequently had more frequent sex. Studies on female hair length have been carried out by various academics over the past 20 years, with the majority finding a link between longer hair and perceived youth, fertility and attractiveness. Dr Helen Damon, psychologist and senior lecturer in counselling psychology at City University, explains the potential biological drive behind this: “If someone has long, healthy hair, this is an indicator that they may be generally healthy,” she says, “so from a primal, reproductively focused perspective, that would be ‘a good thing’ [to men].”
That said, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, a beauty commentator and author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, doesn’t believe we should overstate cis-het men’s biological predispositions to signifiers of health and fertility and the influence this has on hair preference: “I think it's more about encoding,” says Whitefield-Madrano. “[If] you show the same thing as being sexually appealing enough times, most people will begin to find it sexually appealing,” she says. It makes sense: “If 90% of images of conventionally beautiful women were suddenly altered to show a pixie cut, I don’t think it would be long before you’d be asking why men find pixie cuts attractive,” adds Whitefield-Madrano.
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Photo Courtesy of Hannah Thompson.

Why is long hair associated with femininity?

A long history of ingrained societal and cultural norms surrounding long hair and femininity definitely come into play, as Dr Damon tells me: “In many cultures, including in ‘contemporary’ Britain, long(er) hair is seen as traditionally feminine/femme and short(er) hair as traditionally masculine/masc.” While fashions changed dramatically through different historical eras, long hair continued to be closely associated with femininity and viewed as women’s crowning glory, with this notion only seeing real challenge in the early 20th century. The 1920s, for example, became a decade synonymous with images of silent film stars and flappers with short hair. Both the bob and “Eton crop” coincided with a time of rapid social and political change for women. This phenomenon of female emancipation being tied up with shorter hair was seen again in the post-war 1940s and 1960s, when women’s liberation movements were at their most active. The message was clear: women were no longer to be controlled by men — and neither was their hair.

We’re not shown many women in the public eye who have very short hair but are also considered a sex symbol. Long hair has been associated with femininity for hundreds of years. That’s not something we can undo overnight.

Rachael Gibson, the Hair Historian
However, when you consider the perceptions of femininity still at the fore of modern culture, it’s easy to think we’ve not progressed at all. Take Love Island, for example, the reality TV show and cultural phenomenon that centres on a revolving cast of men and women who seemingly represent the most desirable and attractive standards of beauty, vying for each other’s romantic attention. While the women in the show come from an increasing array of careers and backgrounds, this year’s cast share one common trait: long, flowing, thick hair. Luscious hair has become as much of a trademark of Love Island as its infamous lexicon, with just a few female contestants sporting bob-length hair or shorter in its 11 UK seasons thus far.
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Writer and editor Rachael Gibson, aka The Hair Historian, agrees that current popular culture isn’t exemplary in its representation of progressive attitudes around beauty standards: “We’re not shown many women in the public eye who have very short hair but are also considered a sex symbol,” says Gibson. “Long hair has been associated with femininity for hundreds of years. That’s not something that we can undo overnight.”
While Gibson tells me that she has noticed a less binary approach to hair being considered masculine or feminine (such as a rise in non-gendered haircuts being offered at salons) she caveats that media representation still has a lot of catching up to do. The reaction when women with short hair are voted, quite literally, as the epitome of female beauty, shows that male entitlement toward our appearances is still pervasive. Just last year, Eve Gilles, the winner of Miss France 2024, received intense sexist abuse in the form of misogynistic comments upon receiving her title. The “reason” for their outrage: her pixie cut, deemed as a symbol of “woke-ness” on social media platforms such as X. Gilles was the first winner to be crowned with short hair in France’s 103-year run, and it seems that attitudes surrounding how women “should” present themselves to be perceived as beautiful remain worryingly entrenched in the views prevalent a century ago. 

Short hair is a threat to the male gaze

Gibson explains that women cutting their hair short has become associated with “taking control” and exacting agency over their appearance, which she believes feels threatening to the male gaze. If women are no longer subjecting their appearance to the pleasure of male onlookers, this puts men in unfamiliar territory. As a historian, Gibson has researched cultural reactions to women’s appearances across time periods. Mirroring the response to Miss France, she found that in historical eras such as the 1920s, women cutting their hair short was met with “horror”. “We really haven't come a long way,” she says. “People are still completely outraged by women cutting their hair short.”
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Such reactions are especially difficult for Black women, many of whom opt for the big chop to get rid of relaxed or chemically processed hair and embrace their natural hair texture. But as much as popular culture can still be a one-dimensional representation of female standards of beauty (not just with hair), the real-life experience of having short hair — particularly as a Black woman, and how this translates into love lives and identities — is far more complex.
Shadé Owomoyela, now 24, was 17 when she first cut her hair into her TWA (teeny weeny afro), after being left with “a Worzel Gummidge-esque ‘bob’ with chunks of hair missing and a scalp weeping from chemical burns.” She recalls the hairdresser asking her if she was sure she wanted to do it, an experience echoed by nearly all the women I spoke to. “In hindsight, that first cut did not look great,” she tells me. “It was un-styled and I didn’t know how to look after it, but I felt so liberated. My boyfriend at the time actively encouraged my decision to embrace my natural hair and never made me feel less beautiful for shaving it off,” she says.
Owomoyela adds, “My partner was always very supportive and complimentary of my short hair and I really don’t think it affected our relationship. However, there were two occasions out of the seven years we were together on which he had some less than complimentary things to say about it during an argument, which I do think affected my confidence slightly.”
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My short hair forced me to confront that, actually, I didn’t want attention from men anymore. I was tired, burnt out and unable to fathom the point behind another meaningless situationship.

A crisis of confidence can often go hand in hand with a shorter cut. Refinery29’s Deputy Beauty Director Jacqueline Kilikita recalls the panic she experienced in the days after she cut her hair into a super-short bob which made her question her partner’s perceived attractiveness towards her. “I loved my bob when I first had it cut; I felt so powerful. But when I posted it to TikTok, I received some really negative comments. While my partner gave me no reason to doubt myself at all (in fact, he loved my new cut and really hyped me up) I was convinced he might eventually go off me.” Kilikita adds, “Growing up, we were conditioned to believe that long hair was a marker of true beauty, for example in fairy tales and Disney movies. Looking back on it now, it’s sad to have measured my attractiveness in this way but as women, we’ve long been taught that male validation is important — and it’s difficult to shake ingrained beauty standards.”
Unexpectedly, Owomoyela says that in the seven years since cropping her hair, she’s been approached more than ever. “I think I knew that I would feel less desirable to men after cutting my hair, but the need to do something for myself and kick the beauty standard I’d felt so stifled by was more important to me. I expected to receive less attention and [I was] okay with that.” However, the lack of male attention wasn’t universally viewed by the women I spoke to as a negative thing. Grace Conover, 28, cut her hair from just above her waist to the nape of her neck last year. “I noticed quickly after the haircut how little attention I get now from strangers who are men, and I feel like this is because I look less ‘feminine’,” she says. “I feel a lot safer going for runs and walks by myself as I don’t get the attention. Men no longer beep, whistle or shout at me from their cars when I’m running. It wasn’t something I factored into my initial decision, but it’s now one of the main reasons I maintain the short length.”
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Owomoyela admits that it took her time to become comfortable with her short hair, telling me she only truly began feeling “unapologetically confident” in the last few months. She also says that the trials of being back in the dating scene has taken its toll: “Since being single I have worried about whether my short hair is off-putting to men,” she says. “I think cutting my hair during a relationship and having such a positive response from my partner gave me a lot of external validation that disappeared when we broke up. I didn’t have somebody to prove that even with a shaved head, I was capable of getting a partner. That knocked my confidence quite significantly.”
Ironically, there seem to be growing pains that short hair will force you to go through, with all the women telling me that without their longer hair, they felt confronted by themselves in a way they hadn’t been before. “[The most positive experience] was the self-confidence I suddenly had from not being able to hide behind my hair or blend in with everyone else,” says Conover. Donna shares a similar feeling of growth: “I feel very different to the person I was with long hair. I’m definitely a lot more confident in myself. That’s not to say I wasn’t confident before, but it’s a different type of self-assurance,” she tells me.
Reading through their experiences made me come face to face with some realisations of my own. Yes, the attention I’d been receiving from men had significantly dried up. But my short hair forced me to confront that, actually, I didn’t want attention from men anymore. I was tired, burnt out and unable to fathom the point behind another meaningless situationship. There was no denying that my previous year of dating had drained me emotionally. In an attempt to break the cycle, it struck me that my choice to cut my hair may have been tangled in a subconscious desire to deter any further male attention. If I couldn’t cut myself off from the toxic cycle of dating apps, I could at least cut my hair off.
A short haircut can be a double-edged sword — or pair of scissors. Though cutting my hair short has been liberating and enlightening in many ways, it’s seemingly apparent that short hair continues to factor into cis-het men’s assessment of women as romantic partners. But if you too find yourself trying to navigate the effects of your new crop on your love life, I’ll pass on Owomoyela’s sage advice: “Listen to the song ‘I Am Not My Hair’ by India Arie. It’s life-changing.” 

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