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Lifestyle

Why Older Women Are Opting for Longer Hair

The shift signifies something larger than just a beauty trend.

Woman admiring her long gray hair
Raúl Soria

When I was 6 years old, my mother took me to the beauty parlor and instructed the hairdresser to give me a pixie cut. I never forgave her. My hair was so short there was little to tuck into a bathing cap, though we were still forced to wear those awful rubber head coverings anyway. And the quarter-inch-long bangs led some critics to liken the look to a haircut someone who had not yet mastered the use of scissors had given herself.

The pixie was inspired by the gamine movie star Audrey Hepburn, and again a few years later by the willowy, waifish Mia Farrow. To a pudgy little girl whose cousin had nicknamed her Butterball, the pixie just reinforced I was anything but.

Thus began my lifelong love affair with long, luscious locks. Since grade school, my hair has never been higher than my shoulders.  I was not alone, of course. But through the years, busy lives and social pressures led lots of women to trim their tresses whether short hair looked good on them or not.

But a funny thing happened on the way out of the pandemic. As we emerged from our yearlong COVID-19 cocoons, it seemed that women everywhere had had a metamorphosis. Their hair had grown longer than it was in years because of a hiatus on visiting hair salons.

What’s more, so many of them liked what they saw, they decided to keep it that way.

Susan Feldman has noticed the trend as well from her perch as founder of GetInTheGroove.com, a digital fashion, beauty and health magazine for women 50 and older. “The pandemic gave us opportunities to do and try things we had not been willing to do in normal times,” Feldman says. “It was a perfect time in that way. You were by yourself; you could see how it feels. A lot of older women thought they had to cut their hair as they aged. They now realized, ‘No, I like it long.’”

In my 1973 high school yearbook, practically every girl in my graduating class wore her hair nearly down to her waist. Some of us thought it looked sexy; for others it offered a peace-love-rock-’n’-roll vibe. From Rapunzel and Cleopatra to Christie Brinkley and Farrah Fawcett, long hair lovers had lots of inspiration. At least for a while.  

As my female brethren began to move into the work world en masse for the first time in history and take on serious jobs, many turned to serious hairdos to match — shorter and more practical — especially after they began juggling jobs and children.

By middle age, even the long hair holdouts began mirroring their moms and shearing off their hair because that is what mature women did, lest they be accused of trying to look like their daughters.

But the pandemic and a burgeoning new take on what aging means to a generation of women who have been pioneers in everything they have done has given them license to experiment.

Take Nina Cortell, for example. A prominent Texas lawyer and mother of three grown daughters, Nina assiduously avoided visiting the hair salon for 11 months. Having a physician husband and daughter encouraged her to be extra vigilant. By the time Cortell got her second vaccination, her hair cascaded over her shoulders. It hadn’t been that long since her third year in law school — the year all female law students chopped their tresses no longer than ear length as they began interviewing for jobs. “It’s very freeing and a lot of fun,” she says of her new look. “It makes me regret I didn’t do it sooner.”

For Jean Hobby, the former chief operating officer of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, her newfound, post-pandemic long hair was a welcome surprise. Turns out, long hair was easier for her to manage than the short cut she had worn the past 20 years. It was flattering, as well. With all the new products on the market, even the thickest and waviest manes like Jean’s are no longer a chore, she says. She also discovered the ease of the ponytail after workouts. Previously, she washed her hair every day after exercising.

Without the pandemic, Hobby might never have gotten over the societal message that middle-aged women should wear their hair short like their mothers did, whether it suited them or not. That is the reason Jean had cut hers short when she turned 40. “I didn’t want to look like a silly middle-aged woman trying too hard to look young,” says Hobby, who is 60.     

To some cultural observers, this new longer hair wave among mature women signifies something larger than just a beauty trend. Feldman, of GetInTheGroove.com, sees it as a metaphor for this generation’s effort to redefine a lot of outdated rules for aging in general and for aging women in particular.

“Women have heard a lot of ‘you should do this’ and ‘you should do that,’ but they are learning to do what makes them feel good and what they think looks good,” says Feldman. “That’s been a silver lining of the pandemic.”

Black women have been undergoing a hair transformation that definitely picked up speed during the pandemic, says Teri Agins, 68, a former senior fashion writer for The Wall Street Journal.

“For many it began as a racial pride sort of thing, but during the pandemic everyone had to avoid the salon,” she said.

Agins embraced natural hair during the past year and never looked back. She used to go to the salon for chemical straightening every 10 to 12 weeks. Since she stopped, her hair has never been healthier and she now often wears it in two braids.

“COVID-19 has been such a traumatic experience,” she adds. “We are coming out of it with different values. I hope they’re lasting.”

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