You know mom hair when you see it. It’s short-ish, often in a bob. It’s definitely not fashionable, at least not in an edgy way. It’s reassuring, yet everyone disparages it. It’s practical. It’s often a construct reserved for white women. But how did moms, a diverse and hugely disparate group of people whose one similarity is that they have children, come to be defined and identified by their hair, or more specifically, a type of hairstyle?
The long answer is sexism. The short one is the 1996 presidential election.
Long hair has long been associated with youth, vitality, nubility. In other words, things a mom no longer has, right? Mom hair implies a certain frumpiness that is desirable because, despite the fact that many moms actually have sex to become moms, we definitely do not want our moms to be sexy.
Exhibit A is Kim Kardashian and her long, sleek, high-maintenance hair that is perched atop a body she displays on social media willingly and often. “We don’t seem to believe that a woman who looks and behaves as interested in sex as she does could possibly be a good mother,” writes Kim Brooks in an InStyle story titled “Kim Kardashian Is Sexualizing Motherhood.”
Brooks also writes of “the idea that mothers are their daughters’ primary role models, and therefore, a woman who flaunts her body and her sexuality and seems to enjoy sexual attention will inevitably raise daughters who flaunt their bodies and their sexuality and seem to enjoy sexual attention, or worse, sons who have an awareness that the women who raised them were sexual beings as well as mothers.” (See also: Peggy Bundy from Married With Children, she of the ’60s bouffant, tight leggings, and cleavage-baring tops, whose daughter Kelly turned out slutty. To be expected, with a mom like that!)
Having mom hair implies that your hair and appearance are not your main focus (the correct value, per society) because your children are. You don’t care what you look like; you only care about your family. Hair is an afterthought that should be easy and practical.
Despite the fact that we approve of this so-called value in moms, we still mock them for it, because moms really do have to have it all. Sex, sure, but not too much, do not admit to liking it, and definitely don’t advertise it on your head, for god’s sake. Be practical, but also have a sense of style — to a point, otherwise it’s vain. Be spontaneous, but don’t go nuts with that, okay? Do not waste 45 minutes putting your long hair into a complicated fishtail braid. You have to get your kid to soccer practice on time.
Which brings us to the modern origin of mom hair as a concept. Sure, TV moms like June Cleaver in the ’50s and Carol Brady in the ’70s had hair viewers understood to be momlike. But the modern iteration really took off because of “soccer moms.” The phrase became popular in 1996 during the presidential election, which pitted incumbent Bill Clinton against Republican Bob Dole. The soccer mom was considered the demographic to win over at the time, though later analyses proved that she didn’t really exist or, if she did, was too nebulous as a category. Either way, she was a big topic of conversation.
A 1996 New York Times article describes soccer moms’ appearance like this: “A soccer mom at her most flashy might be found in a television commercial, peddling an improved brand of tuna fish.” She drove a minivan and wore sneakers.
But as a voting bloc, “pollsters and demographers find the term useful as a catch-all for suburban women, most married and working at least part-time outside the home, with children under 18 — even if it distorts the role mothers perform in their children’s athletic lives. They find it enough for mothers to drive their kids to the field.” She was perceived to be a key swing voter, much like the white suburban women who ended up voting for Donald Trump in 2016.
The term became so overused that it was crowned a word of the year. That same year, William Safire broke down its meaning in his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine: “And as the soccer mom goes, so goes the election, if she’s not too tired to get to the polls.”
Coincidentally or not, the mother known only as “Mommy” in the then-ubiquitous newspaper comic “Family Circus” made a change to her hair that same year. The LA Times asked some local hairstylists for their take on Mommy’s new shaggy crop. Some approved and thought it looked modern, but one said, “I think the haircut is fitting for a middle-aged mother…”
None of the many soccer mom screeds at the time really mentioned her hair; instead, they focused on her general appearance. But many analyses of women and their appearance inevitably come down to hair. Through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, the terms “soccer mom hair” and “mom hair” became interchangeable, until the shorter version took precedence. The term started showing up in that newfangled online form of self-expression the blog.
Here is one from 2004 in which the writer is horrified to learn that she has soccer mom hair, described as “sensible” by a friend. A thread on a message board the same year debates what to call a haircut that the writer says was showing up on 30-something women on Match.com: “It’s not a bouffant, but it’s short, with all the hair in a ‘bulb’ above their head.” Responders called it “minivan hair,” “Mommy cut,” and, yes, “mom hair.”
The terms soccer mom hair and mom hair both first seem to appear on Urban Dictionary in 2008, the same year that we hit peak mom hair. That was when Kate Gosselin, the mom of eight who appeared in the TLC reality show Jon and Kate Plus 8, came fully into our collective consciousness. Her short, severely angled bob was streaked at least three different colors and featured a spiky crown in the back. It was a Frankenstein’s monster of a style and soon became shorthand for mom hair everywhere. It was understood not to be “good” hair.
In 2008, both outwardly aggressive and slyly suggestive articles started popping up to note when celebrities succumbed to mom hair. In a celebrity context, though, what constituted mom hair was more subtle. It was a bob or a lob (long bob), or really anything shorter than the bombshell waves usually associated with stars. Faith Hill became mom hair’s “latest tragedy.” Angelina Jolie’s bouncy, layered shoulder-length look was deemed, “... too ... ‘Mom-ish.’ Know what I mean?”
Eva Longoria’s mom hair was proclaimed as such before she ever had children; it was seen as a clue that she was perhaps about to become pregnant. Britney Spears went “shopping with new gross mom hair,” reads a 2009 URL. In 2015 Kate Middleton got a mom cut, then a year later was shamed for no longer having a mom cut. Even Beyoncé — Beyoncé! — got a mom cut. Twice.
Husbands had thoughts about mom hair too, putting the Madonna/whore dichotomy on full display. One dad blogger said of his wife:
Although she says she only got about 4 inches cut, to me it was as if someone had shaved her head. It literally made me stop, tilt my head and stare. She got the “Mom Bob.” I couldn’t believe it. She got the same haircut nearly every new mother gets. It’s sensible, short and maintenance-free. And so … plain! And short.
Mark Driscoll, the disgraced megachurch pastor, wrote in his 2013 book: “My pregnant wife came home with her previously long hair that I loved chopped off and replaced with a short, mommish haircut. She asked what I thought and could tell by my face. She had put a mom’s need for convenience before being a wife. She wept.”
In the SNL skit, which is the follow-up to the Tina Fey-era “mom jeans” fake ad, Brie Larson is at a baby shower surrounded by neighborhood moms with haircuts that all look suspiciously like that Family Circle Mommy cut. They ask her when she’s going to change her hair. “The cut that all moms have, that’s a soft waterfall in the front but knives in the back.” She protests, “I don’t think that look is for me.” But of course, it is.
The Times article, which was not intended as comedy, defined mom hair very specifically as “the longer-in-back, slightly–shorter-in-front bob that should read sleek but is inescapably frumpy.” It came during a historic election campaign in which the woman who sort of looked like a soccer mom in 1996 during her husband’s campaign for president was herself running for president. It managed to insult moms, noncity dwellers, and all women who cared about shaming other women based on their haircuts. The rebuttals came quickly and mercilessly.
Two years later, mom hair and its undertones persist, but it seems less blatant, perhaps because we are more sensitive about ripping women publicly for their appearance. But there are still conflicting and conflicted articles: Get a mom cut but without getting a mom cut. Don’t get a mom cut. Just a few weeks ago, after Kylie Jenner, age 20, gave birth to baby Stormi, she debuted a lob. Allure stopped short of calling it mom hair, but the subtext — “a freshly chopped blunt bob” — is there. And because we know that hair plays a huge role in the image a person presents to the world, people are likely still making judgments about moms and the hairstyles they choose.
This recent post on Kardashian-adjacent hairstylist Jen Atkins’s popular hair blog shows “the chicest mom hair on Instagram.” So while we’re still singling out moms as separate from the rest of womanhood, it’s notable that there is not a so-called mom cut among them. Moms are people (with hair) too.