The Unbearable Existentiality of Haircuts

At age seven, a young Jean-Paul Sartre went out with his grandfather to get a haircut. When his mother saw him for the first time afterward, she supposedly threw herself on her bed and sobbed. This moment, according to biographers, marks Sartre’s coming-to-terms with “the fact of my ugliness,” a recurring theme throughout his texts and a quality some suggest as indispensable to his philosophical queries.

I am a woman who doesn’t like to fuss. I pay bills on time, I wash my roommates’ dishes without leaving a note to say I did, and I can kill monster centipedes who surprise me in the shower when I’m naked and defenseless (more or less) without a flinch. I make a wicked mushroom lasagna; I make songs out of people’s last names, but I do not make a fuss.

Except for whenever I’m sitting in front of a giant vanity mirror with a Velcro cape snug around my neck, watching near-helplessly as a person I’m about to give a week of grocery money to snip at my hair and, along with it, my self-control. It happens almost every time, except for a few touched-by-an-angel moments, and I’ve given up trying to stifle the urge to punch and kick the vanity into the wall. Maybe it’s the setting that triggers my discomfort? A traumatic hair injury from infancy, still unresolved? Whatever it is, I’ll always exit a salon with a lump of remorse which, over the course of my returning home, will metastasize into flaming, stage-five, untempered, hide-the-knives RAGE. I want to scratch at the eyes of everyone I see – loved ones, even – especially the ones who say, “Oh, it’s not that bad”, or “It’s just hair.”

IT’S JUST HAIR. If I cut off the tip of your nose, you’d be pissed if someone said, “It’s just your face”! Noses grow back; hair grows back. But in the minutes and hours after a haircut, I become irrational. I cannot be reckoned with. The rage must run its course. Until either 1) my senses dull themselves to acceptance or 2) the hair grows out a sixteenth or so of an inch. By then, I’m able to move on and genuinely express remorse to those poor friends who happened to be home after my appointment.

Since most haircuts are so devastating – and my reactions to them so horrifyingly violent – I will put off the next one for an otherwise unreasonable length of time. Just enough time so that I will have forgotten most of my murderous feelings and will even look forward to getting a cut.

My most recent episode happened just this way. I had moved to a new neighborhood and was in serious need, it being over 6 months since anything had been pulled, shorn or taken off my head. I walked in the day of my appointment, shook hands with the stylist, and sat down at her DIY-themed and well-appliqued station.

And everything is going great. She is talkative and interesting; she perfectly balances out the lather/head massage part of the wash; and we go over – pretty thoroughly – what I want done. Yes, I’m trying to grow it out, something easy that I can hop out of the shower and tousle around. Maybe some styling cream. That’s all I use. Yes, just clean up the ends. No, leave the bangs. Yup.


The first sign that this conversation meant nothing to her happens when she starts cutting the hair that falls in front of my face at a downward slope. She’s doing face-framing layers. Did she mishear me? Just clean up the ends means no new layers, to you too, right? But it’s done so quickly, there’s no time to correct her. And I’m in the middle of debating how I should tell her to please not do those layers when she steps over my knees and does them. Just wipes out the other side in two long and one short snip. I have to consciously loosen my locked neck muscles. I stop thinking of things to ask her about her cat. I know where this is headed.

Later, I will go over this innocent conversation in my head looking for clues, as if I’d just gotten dumped by someone after we’d been on what I thought was a fun weekend trip together. How could it be possible not to realize we were experiencing two completely different things?

All hope for weekend trips with sexy new men dies around this time, and I can hear its last desperate gasps for breath – just a trim! – as she circles the scissors in undulating, rapid-fire snips near the crown of my head. I recognize this move, and my lips shrivel immediately. This is the haircut given to little girls and near-menopausal mothers. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the very first haircut a stylist learns. It’s probably described  in textbooks as “sassy,” “urban-inspired,” and a look that’s “textured.” It’s the haircut I was given at my town’s Cost Cutters in grades 7-9, before I upgraded to a nicer salon in the hopes that those stylists would know better. They didn’t. Though I might have – might still – expect that in the rural Midwest. But in Brooklyn? There is no excuse for this cut happening on anyone’s head. There’s no irony to it, no vintage ’90s feel. This was an unexpected blow, and I can see my face reddening in the mirror. There’s a numb feeling.

It’s all over between the stylist and I, and she knows it. She steps back to let me judge for myself. I look for a second or two and I make sure to avoid her eyes in the mirror’s reflection. Fifty strands – and I’m rounding up – dangle in admirable tandem at my cheeks. If someone were to draw my silhouette head-on from the neck up, it would be a lightening bolt curved into a downward frown. The ends are curling outward, searching; they know it’s not right. In a sudden show of intuition, the stylist senses my disappointment and exclaims, “Oh I’m not done!”

I can’t move, and I think I black out while she blow dries my hair, doing that curling-under “trick” with a round brush. My only thoughts are that she must be of an under-wordly spirit, or the girl-whose-boyfriend-I kissed-in-2nd grade’s guardian angel, because she is ruining everything in my life right this second.

Does anyone actually do this spider-arm thing on their own head? Not since 8th grade have I even attempted it, mostly because it’s impossible, but also because it gives shorter hair the affect of a surfer boy who knows way too much about styling products and loves Farrah Fawcett. This is an open plea to any hair stylists reading – as much as it may seem to the contrary, I respect what you do and I’m thankful for it. But WHY do you insist on ending like this? I know you’re using just as many hands as I have and your arms are coming out of the same spot as mine. But it’s not the same. I can’t do that. I don’t even want to do that!

I finally leave the salon after leaving a tip that says, “I don’t hate you, but HOW COULD YOU?” and get home to let my grown woman tantrum ensue. And then, a turning point: I start to wonder if I’ve been given this haircut not only once or twice, but dozens of times by trained professionals all around the country, not because they are so amazingly inept, but because they know something about me that I don’t. That they can sense something – in my dress, speech, behavior, who knows  – that says I’d wear that “sassy, urban-inspired, textured” look from the 90s reject bin, and wear it proudly, too. Without a fuss or care for any the universal hair laws against the bowl-cut layer and tapered front that makes the side of my scalp and profile look like I drunkenly pasted sideburns behind my ears instead of in front.

After I’ve sat on this a while, throwing back some chocolate peanuts and wine, I head back out into the world and buy a new pack of bobby pins at the drugstore down the block. I’ll cut anyone who thinks I’m in that aisle for butterfly clips. TC mark

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  • Rachel

    Oh girl I feel your pain. My mom used to cut my hair growing up (I recently found out she started cutting my dad's hair years back because she thought his stylist was a slut, I just thought it was cause my parents are cheap!) and once she chopped it all off. I fired her on the spot. But I'm just as afraid to go to a pro! And always regret not being more of a bitch about what I want! I'm such a bitch about everything else, what is it with hair cuts?

  • aklerc

    This is why I have cut my own hair for the past 4-5 years. Been through some awful haircuts, but at least it's MY fault.

  • Daniel Schealler

    We own a pair of clippers. I get my girlfriend to give me a number 3 blade all over every three months or so. I stopped paying for haircuts when we started dating – over two years ago.

    I just have absolutely no way to empathize with this article. I tried, and I suppose I can sympathize a bit. But I don't have an emotional pathway in to see the world this way.

    Damn, we manly menfolk have it so much easier – it's unfair.

    • karina

      Ha, this is funny, because I do actually know a fair bit of dudes who are as uneasy about haircuts and as displeased with the results – maybe not so extreme, but close…
      The thing is, I don't even understand my reaction to haircuts.. it's the one thing in my life with which I become a classic vain bitch. And since I don't plan on going to therapy to figure out why, I wrote this instead.

    • Greg Petliski

      No, thats just the price we pay for not being able to get laid at any second of any day.

  • Sarah

    I am exactly a year out from the Worst Haircut Ever (“you look like a Newsie” was the general consensus), so it is a bit gratifying to have someone word exactly how I feel about every haircut and that one in particular. Thank you.

  • a sensitive guy

    no one cares, i mean it, stop. please. females of the world, if you want guys to secretly resent you, please keep talking about your stupid fear of haircuts.

    • karina

      but maybe there's something to be said – as sartre and many others have suggested – for our physical appearance, especially a change to it, having a bearing in the physical, mental, or philosophical and phenomenologically-derived spheres we exist in. hair may be more malleable; but our physical looks are mostly inescapable. that's not a small fact when you consider how a person understands what it's like to “be” in the physical world.

      and i thought I warned against “It's just a haircut”.

      • Brandypass

        I Like this. I didn't read it yet but I'm glad you showed some knowledge of existentialism. Way to go. :)

      • Brandypass

        p.s. Existentialism is my religion so I get pumped up when I see people talk about it, ha ha.

      • Greg Petliski

        You think and probably talk too much.

  • bear

    “Existentiality” should not have been used

    it gets me stoked that existentialism would actually be a relevant topic of the article


    • karina

      i think the term is ironic juxtaposition, or at least, a comedic one.. I'm sorry for misleading you…

      • whopper

        i think they meant that “existentiality” isn't the word you should have used. “existentialism” would make more sense. if you google “existentiality” this article is the 4th result.

  • idk

    I think I've gotten 1 good haircut in my life. Stylists look at the photos I bring in and promptly ignore them. I have to fix my hair afterward in my bathroom every time. Stylists always feel condescending and overbearing. I feel like they know I don't really know what I'm doing and just playing pretend at being a grown up/woman. Just realized I'm afraid of hairdressers. WHY CAN'T I BE NORMAL?!

  • Shewit Zerai

    Get a guy to cut your hair. I never, ever let girls touch my hair.
    They always seem to either give me a haircut that THEY would want or just go with the easiest, and not necessarily most appealing, haircut they know.
    Whereas one of my best friends (and maybe that's part of the reason) is a male hair stylist and he's been cutting my hair for the past 4 years.

    Side Note: I have pretty long hair, so it's always just a trim. I figure as long as I don't do anything drastic, no one can fuck my hair up.

  • Briana

    I can relate to this so well, it's extraordinary.

  • so

    My hair is always worst just as I leave the salon. Why do they say they're “adding volume” when really they're just making it poof?

    I will never understand; I never like a new hair cut until I shower all the product out of it.

  • Chloe Cheau

    the last haircut i got i ended up having half a mullet on the left hand side. argued with the lady showing how one side was 2 inches shorter than the other. almost screamed at her when she tried to cut the shorter side again. then when she saw i was upset, insisted that by straight ironing it would look good. I don't even blow dry my hair. I told her straight ironing would not make the lost hair reappear…

  • eric

    noses don't grow back

    please don't cut any noses

    it's kinda scary that you think noses could grow back

    your fingernails themselves bleed when clipped back and your brain is suspended on wires inside the dry dark cavity of your head and your eyeballs constantly rotate at slow speeds inside their sockets and your nose grows and grows and grows

    that is a short list of thoughts psychotic

    scary scary thoughts

    please don't cut any noses

  • Lindseycm

    totally agree. i'm afraid to be too controlling/bitchy at the beginning of the appointment because SHE HAS SCISSORS AND IS PREPARED TO USE THEM: DON'T PISS HER OFF! But then I end up with a haircut I don't want because I didn't make myself clear enough apparently. It's a no win situation. i just kept changing my stylist till i found someone whose default cut was the one I wanted…

  • Dan

    I go to this one nice asian dude in Brooklyn, he charges a reasonable amount and does a really good job on my hair. I'm a guy but trust me, I'm just as bitchy about haircuts as any woman, or more so. I once had a terrible terrible haircut at the local barbershop, it ended up being a bowlcut, because old Russian dudes don't know how to cut long hair on a guy. It was a traumatizing experience, and even though I go to a much better stylist nowadays, I'm still ever-so slightly afraid of getting a bad haircut.

    But thankfully, my current stylist never disappoints. I tell him what I want: layered sidebang, a billion layers, and thinning out the sides, and that's what he does. I don't trust anyone else with my hair.

  • Greg Petliski

    To the author: You're fuckin crazy. Thats why you're single, has nothing to do with your hair.

  • RamonaCC

    I always cry for a few days after a new haircut. I never end up liking it until at least two months later when it's grown into a more natural look. It all started when the “family hairdresser” cut all my hair off, a period my older sister likes to call “that time I had a little brother” horrible, horrible.

  • D~

    As a stylist, what I read in your words is, “I want you to read my mind and do as I want without me saying specifically what it is exactly that I want” I'd be happy if you didn't sit in my chair. no thanks ya nut.

    • Daniel Schealler

      Someone didn't read the article, I see.

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