Sara used to have lovely long hair until a week ago, when a hairdresser persuaded her to have it all cut off. Now she feels desperate when she looks in a mirror. She doesn't want to wear a wig, and she knows it'll grow back eventually, so why is she reacting as she does?

Ever since Samson's hair was cut off by Delilah, we've always seen hair as a symbol of power.

We talk of those American women with cascades of bouffant hair rolling down their shoulders as having "power hair". We talk of "bad hair days" when, simply because our hair isn't looking right, a whole day can seem to go wrong. Soldiers wear their hair cropped to show their great sense of strength and masculinity. Monks shave off their hair to show their reverence for God. Whenever we're low we're told to go out and get a new hairdo to make us feel better. How our hair is can not only change us inside; it can also be a metaphor for our very selves, and how we want our inner selves to be seen outside.

Small wonder poor Sarah is feeling suicidal. Is there, anywhere, a single woman who, after a visit to the hairdresser, doesn't run home and either rewash it, or run her fingers through it to calm it down and make it look more personal, more like "herself"?

Hairdressers are not camp jokes, as they're so often portrayed, but powerful figures, like doctors and dentists. Otherwise why would women confide so much in them? They have at their disposal a part of our body, and in ancient times, and even today in some tribes, to get a portion of your enemy's body, eg a nail-clipping or a hair, has often given great power. If a bad spell is cast using this scrap of a person's body, it can be very effective, they believe. Some people may believe that the fear involved in having your hair cut drastically is a psychic throw-back to ancient fears that, however civilised and sensible we may appear, we all suffer at some primitive level.

Marty, the heroine of Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, cut off all her hair to sell to a barber when her father was short of money. After she had done it, "She would not turn again to the little looking glass out of humanity to herself, knowing what a deflowered visage would look back at her and almost break her heart; she dreaded it as much as did her own ancestral goddess the reflection in the pool after the rape of her locks by Loke and Malicious", who, for a cruel joke, cut off the hair of the wife of Thor. When she meets the man she loves, who asks why her head looks like an "apple on a gatepost" she replies "I've made myself ugly - and hateful - that's why I've done." Practically, he replies, "You've only cut your hair - I see now."

Sara is not hateful, she just feels so. She feels she appears like a different person, that she presents a horrible face to the world. But in fact she has "only cut her hair". And she should remember that no one can be persuaded to do anything that a bit of them doesn't slightly want to do anyway. She may not like the bit that agreed with the hairdresser, but it's a bit of herself she must respect, and learn to love. It could be that it is a weak, childish bit of herself that she fears and loathes.

Or it could well be that it is a brave, positive and powerful bit of herself that frightens her - but, whatever, it is part of her, and it needs to be accepted.

what readers say

Just be glad your hair will grow again

Ten years ago, at the age of 13, I lost all my hair including eyebrows and eyelashes. I have had blood tests and seen specialists, who cannot explain my total alopecia. I wear a wig, which is undetectable even to my work colleagues. I am used to it now but cannot help feeling that you are very lucky to have hair.

Miss K Playle

Ilford, Essex

Seek counselling

This is not a trivial problem for Sara, so it is not a trivial problem. Her long hair was clearly her crowning glory, and it seems as if the loss may have triggered off "memories" of some earlier trauma. Changes of feeling and emotion are often clues that the body needs care and attention. What causes me concern is the depth of Sara's depression, and the fact that she mentions suicide. I would suggest counselling.

Nicholas E Gough, Swindon

Short hair is fun

Short hair within our society generally means that a woman is capable of leading an orderly life, whereas women with long hair are looked on as glamorous and full of mystery. This obviously is not the case in the real world, and models and actresses have proved that short hair is sexy and fun. So the next time you look in the mirror, think of Teri Hatcher, Meg Ryan and Ulrika Jonsson, and how great they look with short hair.

Ms M Aziz

London N11

Embrace the new you

I speak as a hairdresser. If you had been 100 per cent enamoured of your beautiful long hair, you would never have been persuaded to have it cut. I suspect you were anticipating a new you. It is a new you, Sara; look at different make-up, colours, etc. If you feel the cut is well done, enjoy it.

Janet Whittaker

Littlethorpe, Leicestershire

I know how you feel

My heart goes out to Sara.

All my life I have had long, thick, wavy hair, except for two occasions as a child when my mother cajoled me into having it cropped. Each time I was flattered and rewarded - only to feel bereft and desperate. Even now, aged 37, I am still petrified of having my hair cut.

Yet this is not out of vanity; what hurt was the loss of my identity. That is why Sara is grieving so badly. She says "I just don't look like me any more" and I'm sure she doesn't. Indeed, people use drastic haircuts in times of trauma, when they don't want to be their former selves any more.

I once went to a hairdresser who tried her hardest to persuade me to have it all cut off. Please note: her hair was very short. I think she was jealous. I did not give in. And I hope hers all fell out, the thoughtless cow.

Debbie Shimman Green (Mrs)

Hawkesbury Upton,

South Gloucestershire

Next week's dilemma

I recently did some tax work for my father-in-law. I spent several days on it. I saved them a huge amount of money, and all I got as a present was an egg-timer.

My in-laws are so mean and selfish - they've never offered to help our new baby, but we've had to entertain them and their distant relatives with four-course meals in four-star hotels. It's all take and no give. My husband says I should change, and not be so generous, and that they're just like this, but I was taught that meanness is sinful and it is Christian to be thoughtful of others and generous.

Now my father-in-law has just rung to ask for advice on shares he's giving his other grandchild - not ours. He's said that as we're Labour supporters we don't believe in shareholding. Should I shoot him or poison him? What do you suggest?


Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora.

Send your personal experiences or comments to me at the features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. And if you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.