By Cicily Bennion
Originally published in issue 38.1 of Inscape in 2018.
My wish for society is that someday we will collectively choose to elevate women with bad hair to their rightful place at the top. There would be no more looking askance at thirteen-year-olds with asymmetrical pompadours. Instead, we might enroll them in a special leadership course with an emphasis on geopolitical issues. A woman with a bad haircut is a woman who is willing to take risks. She is independent, a little impulsive, and—in many cases—frugal. She is farsighted and prepared to live with her (or her stylist’s) mistakes. She understands the impermanence of hair. It is almost certain that on more than one occasion, she has looked in the mirror and shrugged, reassured by the knowledge that hair grows back. She bears with patience the arduous period that is the transition between a pixie cut and a well-groomed bob, and she has no qualms about repelling men who prefer long hair.
First, allow me to clarify: when I say bad hair, I mean not only those haircuts that are poorly executed or objectively unflattering. I’m referring also to any hair cut or style that is bad in the sense that it is rebellious, somehow subverting a set of expectations, whether it be the expectations of the patriarchy, the beauty industry, or individuals. In my own life, bad hair has almost always come in the form of short hair, but I acknowledge that bad hair comes in many lengths and styles—we need only look to Farrah Fawcett to confirm this. While her hair may not have been bad when it was on Baywatch, it is certainly bad now.
I consider myself lucky to be numbered among those women who have worn particularly bad haircuts. I hold this in common with nearly every wildly successful woman, including Janet Reno, Joan of Arc, and Gwen Stefani. Whether by becoming the first female attorney general, leading the French army, or standing in as the voice and face of ’90s female angst, these women have each broken their own glass ceilings. I have not yet broken any glass ceilings, but I have been blessed with a certain restless disposition that lends itself to these sorts of fearless endeavors. This restlessness manifested itself early in life when a few days before I was to begin kindergarten, I snipped off a large section of fine, blonde hair from the back of my head.
When I confessed to my mother what I had done, she glanced up briefly from the bills and responded with a curt, “No you didn’t.” It wasn’t until I turned to leave that she, seeing the damage for the first time, screamed. A stylist finished the job later that afternoon. The end result earned me the nickname Mushroom Head at home and was the source of significant confusion for the elementary school librarian who, having thought she’d spotted a rowdy boy, scolded me for standing in the girl line on the first day of school.
I consider this early foray into bad haircuts one of my greatest blessings. If it weren’t for the irresistible compulsion to cut my hair at that tender age of six, I may have never been brave enough to do it again at sixteen. It was then that I took a love of Twiggy and a photo I’d clipped out of Vogue to the salon with my mother’s words ringing in my ears: “Please don’t do it.” But I was sixteen, and disobeying was my prerogative. When I came home, I was missing about ten inches of hair, which I had donated to the cleanup efforts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. My mother, upon seeing my new haircut, said only, “Boys aren’t going to like you anymore.”
To her credit, she was right. Boys didn’t like me anymore. The cute New Zealander in my class, with whom I had been flirtatiously texting, grew distant. In my small hometown in rural Wyoming, rumors circulated about my sexuality. For the most part, I didn’t allow these things to get to me, although I must admit I was a bit stung when I heard that the aforementioned New Zealander, upon seeing my new hair, had asked a mutual friend “what the crap” I’d done to my head. When I learned of this, I promptly ended our flirtation by sending him a text message that said only “Screw you,” which was, at sixteen, the strongest language I could muster. After that, I went on with life, people found other things to whisper about, my hair grew, and the rumors dissipated.
There were, of course, other bad haircuts in my life. Too many to list, even. And when they weren’t bad haircuts, they were bad hairstyles, such as my experimentation with gray hair or my late affinity for tight curls (I should note that these were not simultaneous endeavors). Looking back, I feel my experience with bad hair is best summed up by invoking Emerson: I cannot remember the bad haircuts I’ve had any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.
However, for a time, I moved away from such hair play. When I began this piece, I was a reasonably self-assured woman with a rather bland mid-length bob, but as the weeks passed and this essay sat unfinished, something about these reflections overcame me, and one sunny afternoon in March, I left my stale office job early to make a visit to the salon. An hour later, mounds of my hair were on the floor and what was left on my head was tightly cropped on the sides with just a few inches of length on top. The next day at work, a guy from IT thought I was new in the office, and people no longer confused me with Jessica, another blonde a few desks down.
My reasons for the change were various and complex—things like the spring weather and my writing certainly were factors, but there was something else at play, something that loomed in the back of my mind—a completely unreasonable and irrational motivator that nevertheless played a large role. In November, Donald Trump had unexpectedly won the election, and I’d spent the months since consumed by an anxiety-fueled nightmare, wondering might happen if I ever bumped into him in real life, perhaps at the grocery store or on a bus with Billy Bush. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that this scenario ever occupied my mind, but despite knowing that it was distinctly outside of the realm of conceivable scenarios, I fretted about it. Nothing could assuage me. While I knew it was distinctly unlikely that I would ever have any direct interaction with Donald Trump, I also knew that it was not impossible, and I continued to ruminate about it. I couldn’t settle on what I would do or say in such a situation, but I fantasized about flipping him off while his Secret Service detail looked the other way. I knew one thing for certain, though: I did not want to have a mid-length bob in such an encounter. Instead, I wanted to look like the type of woman Donald Trump should be afraid of, someone he wouldn’t dare grab by the pussy.
Of course, to think shorter hair might protect me from the objectifying gaze of anyone, let alone our president, is ridiculous, but it didn’t stop me and several other women in the country from doing it. Less than a month after the election, New York Magazine reported that hairstylists in Washington DC were seeing a surge of women coming into the salon to demand drastic changes—often opting for darker or shorter hair. In interviews, these women explained their motivations. One said, “I wanted to do something defiant,” while another said, “I don’t want to be that person people see as sexual; I want to be seen as strong.” These reports did not go unnoticed by the rightwing media, which, just two days later, issued its own report with the headline, “Weepy Leftist Women Cutting Their Hair, Traumatizing Their Children,” publishing the same quotes from the same women, but this time with snide commentary about their attempts to “reclaim power over their own bodies or something.”
If my haircut was—as this article assumes—only a silly attempt to reclaim power over my body, I’ve failed. I knew I’d failed when the other day on my way to school, there was a man on the train platform checking me out. As I walked by, he looked me up and down and I felt my body seething. When I was past him, I turned back to see if he was still looking at me, only for him to unabashedly meet my gaze, pull a stick of string cheese from its wrapper, and take a large bite off the top. Revulsion coursed through me and I imagined grabbing him by the nape of his neck and forcing him to spit that mouthful of mozzarella out, but I could only stand there and pretend I didn’t know he was looking. This isn’t supposed to happen to me anymore, I thought. Not when I am wearing short hair and a linen dress that goes to the floor. It’s true that misogyny wants to mandate the length of your hair and hemline, but ultimately, it is indifferent, and it will use and abuse you just the same. Short hair, long hair, modest, immodest—it doesn’t really matter. This is a hard but necessary lesson to learn.
I’ve tried a few times to write a nice, neat paragraph here to sum up what really are my motivations for being a serial hair cutter, but the truth is that I don’t know. Maybe I want to be one of those women who belongs at the top—brave and indifferent to what other people think. Perhaps I like the control it gives me. Twice, I’ve done the deed myself—once when I was six and again in my senior year of college. This was the ultimate control, ultimate autonomy, ultimate exhilaration. Or maybe it really is a way for me to claim what’s mine, all these hairs on my head. I obsessively twirl and twist them between my fingers; the way these fine strands form a smooth cord together never fails to offer a sense of release, so I spin and rub my hair hundreds of times a day. When it’s long enough and I think nobody is looking, I take a strand and rub it over my lips—eyes closed, intent on feeling each individual silk against the thin skin of my lips—and slowly I begin to blow air out of my mouth, first only a small stream but soon a great sigh that empties my lungs entirely, and as I exhale, each hair flies up and away like a downy flare only to gradually and inevitably fall back to the place where it’s tethered.