The central symbol of the story, Bernice’s hair represents her femininity and selfhood as they waver between two different sets of values: those of her mother’s generation, represented by her long hair, and those of her own generation, represented by the bob haircut.
Long hair is broadly considered a symbol of femininity, and in inherited European tradition it refers specifically to a state of virgin girlhood, as a married woman in medieval Europe would cover or braid her hair. This correlates to Bernice’s childlike naivete at the beginning of the story, as she continues at age 18 to perform the infantilizing role of the “good girl” which her parents’ values instilled in her. She has none of Marjorie’s sexual knowledge, nor does she seek it; on the contrary, she feels bewildered and embarrassed when she is forced to consider such things. When Bernice opens herself up to Marjorie’s worldview, and starts to date boys—which is to say, when the question of her sexual availability enters the conversation between Bernice and her peers—the state of her hair also comes into question. Bernice’s teasing as to whether she will bob her hair is charged with risqué insinuation, even if she does not fully perceive or intend it. In the 1920s, after all, short bobbed hair had connotations of wild freedom and loose morals; Mrs. Harvey and several other characters comment on this.
When at last Bernice gets her hair cut, despite knowing that it will look bad, the experience is humiliating and violating and harmful. She has allowed her body, as she was most comfortable with it, to be shaped by her peers’ desires. Her femininity, likewise, is damaged—she looks bad, and more importantly, looks as she never wished to look. This parallels the many different ways in which teenage girls are pressured to perform certain versions of sexuality and femininity for their peers. When Bernice cuts Marjorie’s braids in the dead of night, sabotaging her haircut just as her own was sabotaged, she is striking at Marjorie’s ability to perform sexuality and femininity successfully, which throughout the story is a power that Marjorie holds over Bernice.
Hair Quotes in Bernice Bobs Her Hair
“Do you believe in bobbed hair?” asked G. Reece in the same undertone.
“I think it’s unmoral,” affirmed Bernice gravely. “But, of course, you’ve either got to amuse people or feed ‘em or shock ‘em.”
It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.
It was ugly as sin—she had known it would be ugly as sin. Her face’s chief charm had been a Madonna-like simplicity. Now that was gone and she was—well, frightfully mediocre—not stagy; only ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.
“Why, child,” cried Mrs. Harvey, “in her paper on ‘The Foibles of the Younger Generation’ that she read at the last meeting of the Thursday Club she devoted fifteen minutes to bobbed hair. It’s her pet abomination.”