by Cicily Bennion
My wish for society is that someday we will collectively choose to elevate girls and 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, 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 longer hair.
Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Take, for example, this curious series of events: a month after the 2016 presidential election, The Cut reported that hairstylists in Washington, D.C. were seeing a surge of women coming into the salon to demand drastic changes, often opting for shorter or darker 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” (Mitchell). But here’s the interesting part: just two days later, a man who calls himself “Bushrod Washington” published his own report of these events in The Federalist Papers, a right-wing media outlet. This article included the same quotes from the same women but this time with snide commentary and a headline that read “Weepy Leftist Women Cutting Their Hair, Traumatizing Their Children In [sic] Post-Election Trump’s America.”
Paradoxically, it is exactly this sort of vehement disapproval which gives bad hair its power. When I say “bad hair,” I am referring not only to those haircuts which are poorly executed or objectively unflattering but also those haircuts which subvert a set of expectations––whether it be those of the beauty industry, of friends, of family, or the likes of Bushrod (shall we call them weepy right-wing men?). I don’t know if those women originally quoted in The Cut ever found the second article, but I assume that if they had, they might have felt discouraged or upset. Ultimately, though, Bushrod’s outrage at a few women who went against the norm by radically altering their appearance stands as evidence that bad hair is indeed powerful.
So 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 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 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 count this experience as one of my greatest blessings; if it weren’t for the irresistible compulsion to cut my hair at the tender age of six, I may never have 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 Vogueto 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. In my small hometown, rumors circulated about my sexuality. The cute New Zealander in my class, with whom I had been flirtatiously texting, grew distant, and I soon heard that upon seeing my new hair, he’d 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 (fortunately, 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.
I’ve tried a few times to write a nice, neat paragraph here to sum up what my motivations really are 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 sense of power it brings. When masses of hair fall to the floor, I find that it feels like ultimate control, ultimate autonomy, ultimate exhilaration. Or maybe it 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 together form a smooth cord never fails to comfort me, 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 the air from my lungs, first a small stream, then a great sigh, and as I do, each hair flies up and away like a downy flare only to gradually and inevitably fall back to the place where it’s tethered.
Mitchell, Heidi. “The Post-Trump Haircut.” The Cut, 5 Dec. 2016, thecut.com/2016/12/women-make-dramatic-beauty-moves-after-trumps-victory.html. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.
Washington, Bushrod. “Weepy Leftist Women Cutting Their Hair, Traumatizing Their Children In Post-Election Trump’s America.” The Federalist Papers, 7 Dec. 2016, thefederalistpapers.org/us/weepy-leftist-women-cutting-their-hair-traumatizing-their-children-in-post-election-trumps-america. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.