As I watched my hair fall to the grey tiles in frizzy, scattered piles, I felt a sudden wave of panic. The stylist took scissors, then clippers, to the long strands that once fell down my lower back, cutting everything off to ear level — and I knew she wasn’t finished. I had requested shaved sides with only a tuft of curls at the top of my head. As a fat woman, I had never allowed myself to cut my hair this short. Even on this day, despite years of immersion in fat-positive and body-positive advocacy, I still worried about challenging the idea of beauty in relation to my fat body. Would I feel less feminine with my short back and sides? Would the world around me grow even more cruel, more judgmental? Would my female identity be compromised?
Somewhere between childhood (when I realised my 'baby fat' wasn’t going anywhere) and adulthood (when I actively decided to live at peace with this), I internalised the pressure put on fat women and femmes to present themselves in a hyper-feminine way. It’s as though by rocking pristine foundation or vintage-inspired dresses we can 'make up' for the space we occupy. At least a little. We can be viewed as individuals who are 'making an effort' in categories outside of our figures. Oftentimes, we’re treated with more kindness as a result.
I had dabbled in shoulder-length cuts before and remembered feeling somewhat liberated by them — as if a metaphorical weight had been lifted off my shoulders. However, those cuts were still safe. They remained feminine, by most people’s definition of the term. They were comfortable, and while many people did not like my fatness, they did like my feminine, curly hair.
My new cut certainly didn’t feel comfortable, though. At least not initially. The second I felt the clippers hit my scalp, I began questioning what femininity actually means to me, and if it even matters. I asked myself whether I really am happy to take up space, or whether I am only happy to do so when I feel like I’m compensating for my fatness in other ways. I reflected on the type of attention that makes me feel good and the type that makes me feel bad, and how I might react to changes in the attention I receive after walking out of the salon.
Even though I do not believe that fat women and femmes must have long hair in order to be presentable, worthy of respect or beautiful, I came face to face with the effects of this construct on my own presentation on the day I finally made the big chop. I was emboldened by a friend cutting off her own locks a couple of seats over; emboldened by the desire to challenge any lingering fatphobic constructs I may have been applying to myself.
As I gazed upon my falling hair, I realised that I’d been using it as my armour for years — a practice many fat women fall into. "At university I grew my hair out to the longest it had ever been and hid behind it in despair and guilt at having gained back all the weight I'd lost with my eating disorder," explains Ragini Nag Rao, a plus-size fashion blogger. "It was the sort of hair I'd dreamed of as a child, but once I finally had it, I used it as a barrier to shut out the world."
Many fat women and femmes experience this pressure, particularly if they exist at the intersection of multiple marginalised identities. "I felt plenty of unspoken pressure to keep my hair long," says plus-size model and writer, Lydia Okello. "Being both black and fat, there was an unspoken narrative that desirability resides in pursuing traditional beauty norms. Long hair was a big one, particularly where 'good' and 'bad' black hair were concerned."
Despite genuinely loving cutting her thick strands into a pixie crop (noting that her very first pixie at 18 was "sleek and styled" and made her feel "like a '60s starlet"), Ragini says she was at a point in her life where she'd eschewed social acceptance in favour of being an eccentric. "That haircut helped cement my status as the hot, crazy chick," she says. "I still have a tendency to hide behind my hair whenever it's long and use it to conceal my face fat, especially in photos. Half the time I'm not even aware that's what I'm doing. It's such a reflexive, ingrained behaviour from having been fat all my life."
In allowing my long hair to serve as my armour, I eventually grew to correlate it with my identity in ways that weren’t necessarily benefiting me. I assumed that if it ever went, so too would my femininity, or the strength I derive from traditionally 'feminine' things like makeup, dresses or domestic badassery. Deep down, I suppose I knew that I’d face more judgment from internet and IRL trolls if I did opt for a more masculine or androgynous hairstyle. I recognised that there were people out there willing to give my size a pass so long as I made an effort to look cute in other ways, and I worried about being the target of even more fatphobia than I already was.
In truth, I wasn’t wrong. Since cutting off my hair, the stares and whispers have increased. Kerbside "fat ass" or "fat b*tch" or "fat c*nt" remarks are on the rise, as the presence of the male gaze in my everyday interactions is on the decline. I simultaneously notice myself being looked at more and less, and having to combat the importance I place on others' opinions of me more deeply than I have in years.
This is something Ratnadevi Manokaran, plus-size influencer and cofounder of plus-size clothing brand The Curve Cult, knows all too well. She shaved her head at 23 — a moment she found extremely liberating. As she got older, however, she similarly found that cutting your hair short when you are a woman, and particularly when you are a fat woman, engenders this sudden absence of male attention; the kind of male attention women and femmes are generally taught to aspire to.
"As I grew older, I started to feel like I had to perform for men to be attractive for them, and [choosing] to have short hair meant I wasn’t interested in keeping them, or having them be attracted to me," she explains. "My layers had to be unpacked when I was much older and when I wore my hair short, I truly understood that I did it for myself and not for people to be more accepting of how I looked or how I choose to present myself."
Ultimately, I cannot help but feel this kind of unpacking is a positive thing. If we never challenge the armour we use, some of us may struggle to grasp our value outside of it. Without trusting in our value, we may further struggle to set healthy boundaries, to distance ourselves from toxic relationships, to fight for what we know we deserve, to say no when we want to say no, or yes when we want to say yes. Without understanding our value, we are often quicker to accept mistreatment from others and from ourselves.
It’s a lot to put on a haircut and I certainly don’t think any new style single-handedly has the power to reframe our sense of worth. It can be a start, though, as Okello says: "I’ve felt my most beautiful with short hair. There's nothing to hide behind and nothing to hide."