About three weeks after I had my heart broken, I looked in the mirror properly for the first time. I don’t remember much about that time – it’s mostly a blur of heavy sobbing, whisky and nicotine – but I’ll never forget not recognising the woman looking at me. My eyes, once the brightest part of my face, were shrunken and swollen. My lips were dry, furrows of dried blood nestled in the cracks. Clumps of unwashed hair sat in ugly, tangled lumps in the sink in front me. Like the rest of me, the strands of my hair felt too weak to cling on.
My boyfriend of six years ended our relationship in January and gradually moved his stuff out in cardboard boxes and endless streams of bin bags. As each box and bag disappeared from our home, a bit of me left with them. People looked as I cried on the Tube, in the shop, in the park on a Sunday morning – the park I don’t remember getting to or leaving. But I didn’t care what I looked like. The dark, heavy haze of my grief took up everything.
That’s why, when I stared at that hollow, broken face in the mirror, I knew something had to give. I didn’t want to be a stranger any more. I washed my hair three times, scrubbed my body, cleansed my face and carried out my daily make-up routine. With each lick of mascara, every dot of concealer, I felt stronger. But I also felt like I was just becoming “me” again – the same “me” that couldn’t make love last, that he didn’t love any more.
I didn’t want to look like that me any more. I was staring into a new start, terrified and tired and mending, and it suddenly felt vital that my appearance reflected this – that the outside I was displaying to the world showed I was still my own person on the inside, without him in my life. So, I picked up the phone, made an appointment at the hairdresser's and, when they asked, “What would you like done to your hair?”, I replied: “Whatever you want.”
As I watched the batches of clingfilm-wrapped hair change under the chemicals, and the rich reds and fresh coppers come through during drying, I felt new
It may sound drastic, but that’s how sure I was that I needed to look different, and psychotherapist Hilda Burke, who specialises in relationships, says this is more common than we might think. “We change our looks after a break-up in order to ‘be a different person’ and distance ourselves from the relationship, and from our ex,” she says. “So, changing our hair colour, dressing differently and getting a tattoo are ways of creating a ‘new us’, leaving the old version behind – the one that was in that relationship, and is experiencing such anguish because of its breakdown.”
So common is the post-split change-up that terms such as “break-up hair”, “divorce hair” and even “hair break-over” have been coined, and almost every hair stylist has performed one.
“I’ve lost count of how many break-up dyes and cuts I’ve done,” says colourist Jason Hogan at London’s Josh Wood salon. He’s painting parts of my medium-brown hair with bleach, parts with deep red dye, and separating the bleach with clingfilm to create a balayage effect. “Most big hair changes are because of a romantic split – and you have to be careful. I once dyed someone’s hair dark from blonde and she sobbed when she looked in the mirror! She was acting too much on impulse. Now, if a customer requests a drastic change, I always ask if they’ve properly thought it through and I’ve been known to turn people away if I don’t think they’re ready.”
But I knew I was ready. As I watched the batches of clingfilm-wrapped hair change under the chemicals, and the rich reds and fresh coppers come through during drying, I felt new. When five inches of malnourished, brittle hair fell to the floor, it was like some of the weak and weary parts of me were cut away, too. “Your eyes look happier,” said hair stylist Katherine De Rozario as she held the mirror up to my new hair. And they did.
My hair is my armour – a reminder that I’m not that battle-scarred stranger who looked in the mirror, and I’m not the woman who was in that relationship. I’m me, but I’m new
“A different hair style and/or colour is the most common change that people make after a break-up,” says behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings. “It’s quick, radical and symbolic, and I’ve recommended it to many of my broken-hearted clients to give that sense of catharsis and control, which helps ease the initial pain.”
And, from speaking to others, I can see that Hemmings is right – I’m not the only one to have found power in a post-break-up appearance overhaul. There’s Katie, the 29-year-old who was with her ex-boyfriend for almost a decade when he ended things with no prior warning. “I suddenly felt so out of control of my own life,” she says. “After four weeks, I cut four inches off my hair and had it bleached. I always said I’d never cut my hair, but I needed a change – something that I could do because I wanted to do it, without worrying what my boyfriend would think. It was the start of things changing for me.”
For others, it’s about feeling free from someone else’s coercion. “My ex used to try and control my appearance, from my clothes to make-up,” says 31-year-old Carly. “I felt like I was being carved into the sort of women he thought I should be. When I finally had enough after five years, the first thing I did was go to the hairdresser's and get my haircut into a super-short pixie cut. He would’ve hated it. It represented the power I finally had back over my own life.”
And, while it may be the most common change, it’s not just our hair we use to signify this new stage of our lives. After 23 years of marriage, Jennifer, 43, left her husband after finding out he was having an affair with her best friend. “I had my name tattooed on my foot in Arabic just two months after I left him,” she tells me. “It helped me remember who I was after being at someone else’s side for so long. It’s been five years now and it still makes me feel strong.”
When you’re trying to repair your withered self-esteem and battle such blindsiding loneliness, focusing on your appearance can seem vain and trivial. But, while the rest of my world felt like it was falling from underneath me, my appearance was something I had control over. My hair is my armour – a reminder that I’m not that battle-scarred stranger who looked in the mirror, and I’m not the woman who was in that relationship. I’m me, but I’m new.
5 products to make you feel like you've got brand new hair
to give yourself a colour refresh: Josh Wood Permanent Hair Colour
Josh Wood has made a reputation for himself as the best in the business for colouring hair (his clients include Elle MacPherson and Laura Bailey), but now he's put all of his genius into a hair-dye kit you can use at home and, at £10, it's a heck of a lot cheaper, too. The box comes complete with a colour activator, as well as all the extras you'll need – gloves, a protective barrier cream, a stain removal wipe and a deep-conditioning treatment, and for extra help, there's tons of advice and tutorials on how to use it on his website.
to strengthen limp hair: Schwarzkopf Omegaplex Colour Sealer Treatment
Schwarzkopf's Sealer Treatment works wonders at repairing the micro-bonds within our hair strands that are shaken up during colouring. Apply it once a week to wet hair and leave it to sink in for a minute for healthier hair that hangs on to colour for longer.
to boost curls: Bouclème Curl deFining Gel
This step adds two minutes to drying routines but makes a huge difference to how bouncy curls look. You only need a small amount (around a pea size) of product, so it lasts an age. Scrunch it through lengths, then leave it to dry naturally or wrap up in a towel while you watch telly, then release your curls for soft, defined waves.
to ruffle up "overly neat" hair: Hair By Sam McKnight Cool Girl Mist
Like Josh Wood, Sam McKnight is an expert in his field, having styled and cut hair for everyone, from Princess Diana to Kate Moss. Last year, he launched his own styling range of quick fixes that transform hair. The Cool Girl Barely There Texture Mist is just the thing to add a slight tousled texture for not-too-neat hair. It smells lovely and woody, too.
to bestow a super-shine: Aussie 3 Minute Miracle Shine
Universally loved for its shine-boosting abilities, Aussie's delicious-smelling 3 Minute Miracle is exactly that – a smoothing hair cure that works in less than the amount of time it takes to belt out your favourite shower tune. Australian ginseng helps boost cell turnover to encourage hair growth, while pearl powder gives hair a glossy shine.