There are but a handful of great, existential questions that have plagued the human psyche since the dawn of time: Is there life after death? Are people intrinsically good? Should I get bangs?
Beyond the obvious appeal of replicating a haircut you once saw on a woman who looks nothing like you, the impulse to get bangs — or to shear off your hair in some otherwise dramatic, transformative way — often finds its source in something far larger than aesthetics.
Earlier this year, I announced to a coworker that I was, at long last, taking the bangs plunge, to which he promptly replied, “Are you okay?” Nevermind the fact that this is an ill-mannered question in 98% of social scenarios. “Someone once told me that when girls say they’re getting bangs, you should always make sure they’re okay,” he clarified.
Tactlessness aside, there is, in fact, a measure of truth to this. At some indeterminable point in history, hacking off your hair became a hallmark of the quarter life crisis — the physical manifestation of internal calamity. It became a trope — a cliché even. LCD Soundsystem has a song entitled “Emotional Haircut.” You’ll find memes declaring things like, “Do I want bangs or do I need therapy?”
The shtick, of course, does not apply exclusively to bangs. In grade school, you may have given yourself a set of pointedly asymmetrical layers wielding a pair of safety scissors after a playdate gone awry. Perhaps you shed eight inches of hair in the midst of a breakup. Maybe you left behind a job or a city, and for whatever reason, the act of departure demanded hair of a new shape.
But for all the relevant instances within reach, the question persists: Why hair? And better yet, can we truly be saved, or at least soothed, by way of our hair salons?
My own bangs were spurred by a persistent nausea that had nested like an ulcer at the base of my stomach for weeks. As it turned out, this was neither an unclassified abdominal infection nor an alien fetus growing inside of me, but rather, an allergy to stasis. I was restless in a way that felt less like a prosaic inconvenience, and more like the sort of thing that eventually gives way to a full-body rash. It arose from a lethal cocktail of anxieties: a job characterized by monotony, a cluster of relationships that felt equally stifling, a litany of sad desk salads and a truly mortifying quantity of hours spent in unexceptional Bed-Stuy bars that I came to know so well, I could have located their bathrooms with my eyes closed. In short, I could not find a way to become unstuck. And so: a haircut.
Much to my chagrin, my bangs did not entirely alleviate my sense of impending doom. They also did not make me look like Alexa Chung in 2009, as I’d hoped. This is most likely a symptom of the fact that I bear no resemblance at all to Alexa Chung in 2009 — or any other year.
In truth, bangs do not suit me. They make my face itch, they’re utterly useless in all ponytail scenarios, and they often dry pointing in nine different directions, not unlike the surface of a pinecone. Also, they have awakened me to the knowledge that I have no idea how to use a blow dryer.
And yet, I still feel strangely gratified for having acquired what I like to call a “forehead moustache.” For the time being at least, I have ceased to find the topography of my own face uninteresting. I look different. There is something bizarrely remarkable to me about the fact that I possess the agency to revise the way I appear to myself instantaneously.
Yes, there are more permanent ways to enjoy this very same sensation — above my right elbow lives a stick-and-poke tattoo of a naked butt, and on that same wrist, a lightning bolt that cost me $13 on an otherwise forgettable Friday the 13th. It’s not that I regret these markers per se, but rather, that my hair changed the shape of me in a far more striking capacity. It shifted my silhouette.
“Your hair is definitely the first thing people will remember about you,” my younger brother, 18, told me last week, while painting kelly green liquid-liner onto my eyelids. As an aspiring drag queen, he spends a great deal of time in wigs, each of which he names and places back on a slightly disconcerting mannequin-head after use. “People always come right over and say something when I wear the blue one with the middle part,” he explained. “Not so much if I wear the long brunette one — it’s too normal. So obviously, I prefer the blue.”
It’s true that springing for shorter layers is not the equivalent to donning an azure blue wig to the bodega, but all the same, our hair is most often our primary descriptor. You’re that girl with the bob, the chick with the red hair, that one with the braids. This is part of your narrative.
“When I was little my mother would tell me that I should never cut my hair,” Lily, a friend with a long, blonde bob tells me. “When I cut it for the first time, she cried. Then, when she died, I couldn’t cut my hair. I didn’t make any changes. It got weird and ratty and sad. But after some time away from her passing, I went back to what I loved — my long bob. I don’t want this to be corny but, I get the whole Samson strength in hair. It’s the thing in our forward-facing selves we can most easily control.”
There are a litany of reasons we might choose to cut our hair. There are professional motives, and matters of personal maintenance. There are celebrations and lethal cases of lice — tragedies and their resolutions, alike. The constant is merely the sense of modulation. Of change that arrives in the instant.
“My haircuts are generally aspirational,” another friend, Emma, explains. “I recently opted for a blunt short bob spurred by the model who came in for a lookbook fitting at my office. I made an inspiration deck with 20+ hair references and had my hairdresser take a gander. Unnecessary, but on brand— I was just excited.”
Last month, my roommate shed several inches of hair to mark the start of a new job. Last week, my mother did the same, in honor of a new degree. Crises do not beget haircuts as a rule of thumb any more than bangs transform pedestrian women into Alexa Chung. Instead, a haircut marks a certain alacrity — a desire for change that is both overwhelming and instant. Not the quiet embellishment of a tattoo nor the slow burn of a fitness routine, but rather, some sort of full-fledged transfiguration that requires only scissors.
It’s expected that we seek out means of revision in the midst of crises — but our lust for personal alteration is not reserved for moments of tragedy. It comes tied up with the good things, too. And fortunately, the embossed leather of a salon chair awaits whether we’re exalting the end of winter or scissoring something far heavier away.
Either way, the outcome remains: We feel lighter.
Feature photo by Central Press/Getty Images; Collage by Emily Zirimis.