The 'Big Chop': Black Women On The Self-Love Of Short Hair

We were scared to cut our hair short. Now we can't see ourselves going back.
Before and after the crop: Habiba Katsha
Habiba Katsha
Before and after the crop: Habiba Katsha

“She has so much hair.” The first words the doctor said to my mother when I was born. Curly, thick black hair just like my mum’s. And it’s been an important part of my life ever since. From sitting in between my aunty’s legs getting my braids done to enduring relaxer, as a young girl I learned that doing your hair as a Black woman means time, effort – and some pain.

India Arie sang: “I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within.” And technically, it’s true. I am more than my hair. I’m the person who just happens to have this hair on her head. But reality hasn’t reflected that. Years of conditioning have tied my identity closely to whatever hairstyle I’m wearing that day, that month or that year.

If you’d ask me how I feel about my hair, I’d tell you I love it and this isn’t a lie. I do, especially as I was fortunate to be raised by a Black woman who affirmed my natural hair. In secondary school, I was always the girl with braids and to this day, they’re one of my favourite hairstyles. I would sometimes relax my hair, but only really for special occasions, and my mum forbid me from having weave until I was able to afford it. This meant I was forced to love my hair way before the natural hair movement asked me to – and it worked.

All those years of avoiding relaxers and keeping my hair in protective hairstyles like box braids meant my hair grew healthy and long. Whenever I had the chance to style it and wear it out I would. This meant I must love my hair, right?

The “big chop” was something I associated with hair that was unhealthy. I’d often flirted with the idea of cutting mine off but, in practice, the idea scared me. The length of my hair made me feel attractive and I relied on that feeling. I liked my natural hair, but that’s partly because it was long and similar to my braids and wigs. When we speak about European beauty standards within the Black community we forget that length is part of that conversation.

As a natural “girly girl”, I was also terrified that if I cut my hair, I’d somehow lose my femininity. Equally, I wanted to challenge myself and that very notion. And more importantly, I wanted to save some of the money I was spending on my hair. A new wig can cost around £200 and braids up to around £100.

So, just like that, one day in August, I took myself off to the local barbers, as recommended by a family friend, to cut and dye my hair. And it’s been one of the best trips I’ve made all year.

Keziah Ndouri understands the motivation. Ever since she was a child, she says, she’d internalised messages about beauty being tied to the length of your hair.

“I remember it being something all the Black mums and girls around me strived for. I especially remember the little girls on the Just 4 Me relaxer boxes, and wanting hair long enough to style like theirs,” she says.

But the 23-year old model and content creator from London was increasingly growing tired of doing her hair – especially after it started thinning.

I had just finished combing out some plaits when I stopped, grabbed my keys, left my house, went to the nearest barbershop, and demanded that the uncle cut my hair,” Ndouri tells me. “Best decision ever.”

Keziah Ndouri: 'Best decision ever'
Keziah Ndouri
Keziah Ndouri: 'Best decision ever'

On first walking into the barbers a few weeks ago, I definitely lost some of my bravado – this was evidently a space for men, unlike my aunty’s or the salon.

Nevertheless, the barber made me feel at ease and we got along well. Before he started work, he asked me if I was sure and, nervously, I said yes. Seeing my hair fall around me made me realise how much I actually had. As it shortened by the minute, I started to panic a bit. But the panic didn’t last. When he was finished and I looked into the mirror I liked what I saw: me.

Not only did I feel the most confident I have in years, I looked amazing. Now he’s my go-to man for my bi-weekly trims.

“Short hair makes me feel powerful and at my most beautiful.”

- Dakota Branch-Smith, 26

Dakota Branch-Smith, 26, an entertainment PR account executive from London, already had a positive relationship with her hair when she decided to go for the chop, she tells me. But since cutting it short, both that relationship – and her hair – have only got healthier.

“Short hair makes me feel powerful and at my most beautiful,” she says. Both the simple act of cutting her hair and the results have made her “1000% more confident”. Now she can’t see herself any other way than keeping it short.

“It’s made me do bolder things like try new colours and styles” (Branch-Smith is currently sporting a bleach blonde crop) “and just embrace my natural curls.”

'1000% more confident': Dakota Branch-Smith with her new hair
Dakota Branch-Smith
'1000% more confident': Dakota Branch-Smith with her new hair

I know what she means. Cutting my hair has completely rid me of any inherited European beauty ideals. It has reminded me that I am enough. And in terms of maintenance, I no longer have to deal with the stress of long wash days or worry about how I am going to style my hair.

Branch-Smith has kept hers short ever since the big chop and doesn’t think she’ll grow it any time soon. “It works so well for me and my lifestyle, as well as the fact it’s the one style that suits me the most.”

“It has reminded me that I am enough.”

But other women who’ve embraced short hair report a more rollercoaster journey to get there. In primary school, Chancy*, now a 28-year-old NHS administrator, was forced to cut her hair when it lost its health and still remembers being made fun out of by her classmates.

She later had to cut it a second time, now aged 13 and feeling even more self-conscious. “I spent most of my teen years hating my natural hair, its texture, its look, everything about it. I always preferred braids,” she tells me.

Chancy isn’t sure what influenced her to cut her hair short as an adult. All she knows is, this time round, it’s on her own terms and she feels confident.

Chancy: 'I feel like it suits my personality'
Chancy: 'I feel like it suits my personality'

I’ve maintained this hairstyle because of how low maintenance it and it’s easier for me to dye it,” she tells me. “I feel like it suits my personality. Now if anyone says I look like a boy, I just say, ‘Cool’. At least I have a better shape up.”

People like to have an opinion on your hair. So, what do those around me make of my new style? Well, my friends love it, telling me just what I need to hear (and meaning it too, I hope) – that my short hair suits me.

My older sister is also a big fan of the cut, but then she was a big influence during this whole process too, as someone who cut her hair in her own early 20s and has been a huge advocate ever since.

That time, our mother didn’t talk to her for a week, despite telling us that she also cut her hair short as a student. She seems more at peace with my cut.

“Cutting my hair has been the greatest exercise in self-love I could ever do.”

- Keziah Ndouri, 23

My sister now wants me to experiment with colour. Turns out, cropped hair is a canvas. And to my surprise, I’ve found more men compliment me now when I’m out than before, which goes against my idea I need length to feel attractive. Perhaps that’s because it has changed the way I see myself, inside and out.

It was still a nerve-wracking experience, though. Esther*, a 27-year-old garment technician from Essex, has always enjoyed the relationship she has with her hair, but she relates to those initial nerves.

“I felt like short hair would suit me more than having long hair,” she tells me of making the decision. But what took some confidence only gave her more. And ultimately, it was a liberating experience. “I like the freedom to do what I want at any time, plus I’m not precious with hair as it always grows back,” she says.

Esther: 'Hair is just hair and it will always grow back'
Esther: 'Hair is just hair and it will always grow back'

Some people will tell you short cuts only suit certain faces and heads, but Branch-Smith tells me she’s a huge advocate for anyone having a go, and Ndouri agrees that even if you’re nervous beforehand, just go for it.

Cutting my hair has been the greatest exercise in self-love I could ever do,” she says with hindsight. “As I cut mine at the beginning of lockdown, we weren’t going out, I wasn’t wearing makeup, so I really had to look at myself and get comfortable and grow in confidence. Which I did.

“I felt like I had reached a depth within myself that I had never reached, and the self-assurance and self-love that I found there, I won’t ever lose.”

It’s good for hair health too. “My hair being natural and damage-free (minus bleaching it) has been the best it’s been and it’s so much easier to manage. I think a lot of people see black hair as hard to tackle and take care of which is not the case,” she says. “Hair is just hair and it will always grow back.”

Esther, meanwhile, says it’s fine to ease yourself into what can still feel like a big decision. “It took me a year to finally cut my hair. What also helped was following short hair pages on Instagram and YouTubers who also did the big chop as well, just so I knew what potential styles I could do.”

Whether you’re cutting your hair out of pragmatism, frustration or self-love, the decision to do the big chop is a powerful one. I’m happy I finally made the plunge and I can’t wait to feel my confidence grow, even if my hair stays short.

* Some interviewees preferred not to give their surnames.