A Little Happier: Patti Smith and the Haircut that Changed Her Life

This story doesn’t make me happier, exactly, but sometimes, in a story or in life, some small, seemingly insignificant detail or anecdote will suggest to me some deep truth about human nature. Encountering this kind of revelatory detail always brings me a beautiful sense of elevation.

I came across an anecdote like this years ago, when I read the brilliant, award-winning, bestselling memoir Just Kids by the writer, musician, and artist Patti Smith. (Amazon, Bookshop)

There’s one curious little story that particularly sticks out in my mind. 

Patti Smith is in her early twenties. She’d gone with Robert Mapplethorpe to see the rushes of the movie Trash, and she reports that as she was leaving, she spoke to Fred Hughes, who managed the Factory for Andy Warhol. Hughes said to her in a condescending voice, “Ohhh, your hair is very Joan Baez. Are you a folksinger?”

Patti Smith writes that even though she admired Joan Baez, she was annoyed by his comment. Some nights later, when she was ruminating over bothersome things, she recalled what Fred Hughes had said.

She looked at herself in the mirror and realized that she hadn’t changed her hair since she was a teenager. She got some magazines, studied the photos of rock star Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and cut her hair – “machete-ing my way out of the folk era,” she describes it.

She writes:

My haircut caused quite a stir. I couldn’t believe all the fuss over it. Though I was still the same person, my social status suddenly elevated. My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet…Opportunities suddenly arose.

To me, this story was memorable, and I have to admit, somewhat unsettling. It makes me uneasy to think that people’s perceptions of Patti Smith were changed so dramatically by something as seemingly superficial as a haircut. I’ve thought a lot about what this story reveals about human nature.

Is it that…

  • That people make assumptions about us, especially based on the aspects of appearance that we can control and choose, such as clothes and hair? That they’ll use those aspects, perhaps even unconsciously, as cues to try to understand us?
  • That when Patti Smith decided to take action to bring her appearance more into line with her true interests and nature, opportunity followed?
  • I should remember to look past people’s appearances, to look for their true character and potential, and not be distracted by superficial details?

I’m not sure.

Patti Smith gave herself that haircut more than fifty years ago. I can’t forget it.




Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.