‘The Smith Chop’: What’s in a mane?

  • Katie McGarry cut her hair into a bob to save time drying it in the mornings. FOR THE GAZETTE/GRACE JENSEN

  • Student Andy Smiley cut their waist-length hair when they arrived at Smith College. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHARLIE DIAZ

For the Gazette
Published: 12/3/2019 12:16:35 PM

The “Big Chop.” The “Buzz.” The “Young Leo DiCaprio.” The “I’m so tired of my wet hair freezing to my head in the dead of winter.” Whatever the motivation or inspiration, the “Smith chop” — when Smith College students dramatically change their hair sometime after enrolling — is a phenomenon that rests near and dear to the hearts of several generations of Smithies. Its possible origins are as fascinating and numerous as the reasons people get it. Even if it’s not listed in the glossy brochures of the college’s renowned traditions, the chop serves as a memorable event for many who pass through Smith’s ivy-laced campus.

Hair has long served as a vehicle for gender expression, rejection and fluidity. In American culture, women and gender non-conforming people have cut their hair short as a social statement since the early 20th century, when dancer Irene Castle shocked the country with her bob and Josephine Baker sported her iconic ‘Eton crop.’ It’s hard to pin down the start of the specific ‘Smith chop’ term, but alums from the ‘70s and before remember dramatic haircuts being popular — although at the time, they weren’t usually influenced by Smith-specific hair culture. In an online Facebook discussion between alums, several cited movie stars and celebrities such as Grace Jones, Jean Seberg and Mia Farrow as their haircut inspiration. Others remember embracing the new look as part of the general newfound freedom of college and the chance to break away from the expectations of family members.

What exactly makes this dramatic hair change popular at Smith? The communal aspect is one draw. Colleen Heaney-Mead, who graduated from Smith College with the class of 2008, remembers getting her hair cut by friends under a streetlamp near her residence house on the first weekend of her first year; Julie Hutto Petruzzi, class of 2002, and three housemates shaved their heads in order to win a dorm-wide scavenger hunt.

In the ‘90s and 2000s, students could head down to the campus event “Celebrations” for a quick haircut. The annual event began in 1992 after incidents of homophobic chalkings on campus, and it has since served as a night of vigil, dance and crafts celebrating LGBTQ students — including several years of head shaving booths.

Some enterprising students have also taken advantage of the trend by charging for their haircutting services. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, ArteMiscellaneous, a satirical lunchtime newsletter distributed by anonymous Smith students, gave people a space to advertise their services under names like “Irresponsible Haircuts Inc.” and “Sarah’s Psychedelic Scissors.” Now, those looking for a quick cut can turn to Smith’s Free & For Sale Facebook page, where students sell old textbooks and clothes to fellow students – or if they’re really lucky, stumble upon an impromptu haircut session in a house bathroom.

Still, many students look towards the expertise of hairdressers downtown. Amanda Childs of Pam’s KickinKuts has been working in Northampton for 18 years and says that when school is in session, the salon gets at least one dramatic chop request a week. “Sometimes it’s a buzz cut or sometimes it’s really close on the sides and with a little bit left on top,” Childs said when asked about the most popular cut. “But usually it’s all the way, like ‘get rid of it, shave it off, let’s do this.’ We do a lot of gender-neutral haircuts too and a lot of funky colors. We have a lot of customers who are actually faculty of Smith ... Sometimes they mention how they would have done [the Smith chop] back in the day.” In her almost two decades of experience here, she says the popularity of the chop is “pretty much the same. I think it’s become a little more common in the sense that it’s more accepted around here, everybody just does their own thing style-wise, so that’s definitely become more common.”

Although some consider the official ‘Smith chop’ a shaved head, it can just as well be a bob, pixie or color change. When Katie McGarry, who is an Ada Comstock scholar, cut her hair into a bob, it was in an effort to save time drying it in the mornings. When asked about reactions to her cut, she said, “It’s gone over super well ... it’s funny how much of my identity was rooted in my long hair.”

It’s not just about length, either. Naomi McKenzie Greene, class of 2008, said that during her time at Smith, she didn’t get a drastic cut.

“I did get my ‘big chop’, though — going from relaxed hair to natural hair — my senior year,” Greene said. “I’ve always felt comfortable and accepted around my Smithie friends and knew they’d embrace whatever it wound up looking like.”

One of the most important roles of the ‘Smith chop’ is the freedom it gives to explore gender and sexuality presentation. Andy Smiley had been planning to cut their waist-length hair a while before coming to Smith but wasn’t allowed to at their classical ballet studio. “I wanted to be more visible as a lesbian, and (cutting my hair) just wasn’t something I was comfortable doing (at home) because it meant that I would stick out. I hadn’t even seen a butch lesbian until I came to Smith. So now having short hair represents the part of my life that I left behind versus the part of my life that I’m in right now.” For a large number of LGBTQ Smithies, getting an androgynous or short cut is an easy way to signal queerness without having to explicitly come out.

Appearance changes are popular among college students across the country, but there seems to be something special about Smith and taking that personal risk, year after year. As McGarry said, “Smith is a place where I feel safe to experiment with my hair, so if it doesn’t work out I don’t feel like I’m going to be judged too harshly. And worst-case scenario, I could buzz it!”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Sophian, the student newspaper of Smith College.

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