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Source: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

There’s an idea floating around that long hair on women is appealing to men—that mass of flowiness and texture supposedly trumpets femininity, adding to women’s appeal as the gentler sex. But the thing is, I've never found that to be true. I’ve had hair nearly to my waist and hair as short as an 8-year-old boy’s, and never have I noticed any particular difference in how men respond to me. In fact, I started growing out my hair again after a decade of fluctuating between a pixie and a bob cut, partly because I thought my then-boyfriend would like it. (He had a penchant for stroking my hair, like we were Victorian sisters or something.) But when I asked him about it, he said that he actually gravitated toward women with short hair. “It seems more like a choice, like the woman is more self-determined or something,” he said of this trait he finds universally appealing in women.

Certainly in our culture, hair length is a loose, societally structured form of sexual dimorphism, or a trait that differentiates between the sexes. Plenty of men have long hair, but it’s still seen as a countercultural statement—not necessarily a proclamation of a man aligning himself with femininity, but a statement about resisting traditional, mainstream forms of manhood. (It’s de rigueur for heavy metal musicians, but the genre partially defines itself in opposition to radio-friendly music.)

Traits indicating sexual dimorphism are indeed the sort of things that beauty research, particularly that of evolutionary psychology, supports as being attractive—darker lips and eyes on women, a square jaw on men. But men and women can both grow their hair long, and while there’s some evidence indicating that estrogen lengthens the period of hair growth known as the anagen phase (meaning that women’s hair may get somewhat longer before it naturally falls out), men’s hair doesn't just stop growing once it hits their ears. It doesn’t really differentiate the sexes.

So what does the research on hair length say? Well, it gets a little hairy. (Sorry.) Research from the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology indicates that a woman’s hair length doesn’t really affect her attractiveness that much. Study participants even judged short-haired figures as being more fertile, which contradicts the evolutionary-psych notion about long hair being an advertisement for reproductive suitability. Research from 2004, however, shows that men do perceive long-haired women as being healthier, which supports the evo-psych argument. But that same study also indicated that while long or medium-length hair can make a plain woman seem more attractive, the attractiveness of women whose faces were conventionally pretty was unaffected by their hair length.

None of this really helps someone hoping to do a romance hack via her hair. But I keep going back to what my ex said about short hair—that it made a woman look more self-determined. Sure enough, hair length may have an effect on how people perceive your personality, but this study suggests that my ex might be in the minority. It found that people regarded long- or short-haired women as being equally self-assured and independent, although women with long hair were perceived as being more feminine. You’d think they’d logically perceive long-haired women as possessing qualities we’ve traditionally associated with womanhood—passivity, empathy. That wasn’t the case. Long-haired women were seen as being more dominant and intelligent, while short-haired women were thought to be more honest, caring, and emotional. (It’s worth noting that this study stems from Hungary, where subtle connotations about hair length may differ from those in North America. That said, I point you to the Hungarian proverb Hosszú haj rövid ész, or “Long hair, short wit”—a proverb happily disputed by this research.)

But don’t forget that the eye of the beholder matters too: In this study, conservative women preferred men with shorter hair and more liberal women preferred men with longer hair. The study is from 1976 and a lot has changed since then, regarding both gender and hair. I’m guessing that the pattern would hold roughly true today, but by a slimmer margin than 40 years ago. The underlying idea holds true, though: Attractiveness isn’t a fixed trait within the object—the subject matters too.

Like so much of the research on human beauty, there’s enough conflicting evidence that the only firm conclusion we can draw is that there’s no conclusion yet. Science can't predict what makes someone alluring to us, and I’m happy to argue that the best thing any of us can do to be an attractive package is to do what feels right. It’s hard to be your most attractive self when you’re uncomfortable, so even if research showed that long-haired women are more attractive, long hair won't work for you if you don't find it comfortable. I’m not suggesting that any of us should slavishly follow the research in an effort to chase the beauty dragon. Grow your hair long, keep it short, or wear wigs if you like: Just know that beauty-wise, hair alone won’t ensure that any of us make the cut.

About the Author

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016). 

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