In sixth grade I looked up from my book one day and realized that every other girl in my class had grown out her bangs. It was as if it had happened overnight — last I'd checked, there was absolutely nothing about me that would set me apart from the crowd, either in a good or bad way. But now, the more closely I looked at all the 11-year-olds around me, the greater the discrepancy appeared to be. Me: thick bangs, chunky glasses, plain denim shorts and a Looney Toons sweatshirt. Everyone else: bright, plastic jewelry, hair spiking up from jaw clips, and fitted, sparkling tees.
Middle school for me was all about wanting to look right. The popular girls in my grade looked like the girls I saw on TV — spunky and pre-teen and carefree — but no matter how much I mimicked their style, something always seemed off when I looked in the mirror. Certainly I tried, spending all my babysitting money on chokers and glittery butterfly clips from Claire's, platform sneakers and slip-ons like the Spice Girls wore, spaghetti strap tank tops over baby tees. And oh, what a selection of baby tees I had: covered in meaningless phrases (sometimes in English, sometimes, bafflingly, in Chinese), the random graphics (stars, flowers, goofy hear/see/speak-no-evil monkeys), always flimsy cotton, always capped sleeves, always cut a little too high across the belly. I wasn't yet allowed to wear makeup, but I stocked up on drawers full of flavored ChapStick, frosted lip gloss, and roll-on body glitter. I got contact lenses. I grew out my bangs. It never felt right.
In high school, I was obsessed with figuring out a style around which I could build some kind of cohesive identity. I spent freshman year in Catholic school, i.e. in uniforms, so I relied on makeup and accessories to project "cool" or "edgy" or "you want to date me, I swear." I stacked cheap bangles up my arm which jangled as I walked down the hall. I pierced a diamond stud in the cartilage of my left ear, but the nuns made me cover it with a nude Band-Aid. Hell was being caught without a smudge of Kohl eyeliner across my bottom lids (I'd never even heard of liner on the top lid) and often it was the only makeup I wore.
In sophomore year, I switched to public school. I'd worked at the local library the summer before, and my coworker, Chelsea, told me all about the cool shit she and her friends got into — loitering in the parking lot outside of Starbucks, watching teenage bands at mysterious venues, making out with boyfriends and girlfriends in our town's rinky dink $2 theater. These were like siren songs pulling me toward that secular life, and with it, freedom from pleated skirts and men's shirts. Chelsea liked indie bands and pop-punk ("Do you listen to emo?" she'd asked once; I'd replied, "Oh, yeah, I think I've heard of them") so I followed suit, and decided I would complement my new cultural tastes with a wardrobe sourced entirely from Hot Topic and, once I started venturing into Manhattan, Urban Outfitters. And so irony entered my closet, in tee-shirts with sayings like "Getting Lucky In Kentucky" or "Ping Pong Hero." I swapped my backpack for a messenger bag and decorated the strap across my torso with a line of pins from concert merch tables.
But with this new freedom came new insecurities — I hated my stomach but, also, my back looked all wrong, and my eyes were too narrow, and, most vexingly, my forehead was entirely too small. The summer before senior year, I decided to cover it up, and asked a hairdresser to give me bangs once more. This time they were wispy, somewhat jagged, and side swept. In the weeks following the debut of my new look (and, truly, when I paraded through that Starbucks lot, it felt like a debut) my usually tame late night AIM conversations were suddenly peppered with awkward come-ons. "Your hair makes you look like a rock star" was a favorite. "You got really hot" was the most romantic thing 17-year-old me had ever heard.
How surprising, then, to discover the very thing that first triggered my awareness of being uncool became the key, six years later, to what I'd wanted all along: sexual appeal. My hair was black, thick, and long, falling halfway down my back, and I suddenly realized it was a valuable asset. Once — in that same Starbucks, of course — I let my crush pet it and when he told me how soft it was, I recorded my glee in my journal that night. My style and beauty evolution, I'd thought, had always been tied to searching for an identity, but it turned out that the most important part of that identity at the time was "attractive to guys" — which, I'd learn quickly, is an exhausting, thankless, and ultimately disappointing pursuit. So it was especially meaningful for me when, four years later, and despite many warnings of how unattractive it would be to men, I cut off and donated over a foot of hair and got the pixie cut I'd been fantasizing about since I saw Amelie.
I wore my hair like that through most of my twenties, and when I dropped out of college and started making good money waitressing, I was thrilled to pair the boy cut with cat-eye liquid liner and bright, high-femme, big-ticket (relatively speaking) items: yellow patent-leather peep-toe heels, a red draping Bebe minidress, neon orange MAC lipstick. It was the first time I had fun with my style, and the first time I felt like myself in it. (Minus the six-month period when I went platinum blonde, and for which I will never forgive the loved ones who let me do it.)
I've since grown my hair out, and I've held onto some of the sartorial remnants of my twenties, but mostly for sentiment. My style has become more minimal, both for changes in aesthetic preference and in priorities — which is to say, working and walking in the city means I value, above all else, comfort. I almost exclusively wear my long hair in a top bun; I switch between contacts and a pair of men's wireframe glasses, which I like to call my sexy Costanzas; my closet is mostly stretch denim, sack dresses, and button-ups, all neutrals. It feels right. It feels like me, today.
Still, lately I've been feeling that itch. I sent a photo of a bob to my boyfriend just last week, and asked: "Should I get bangs?" We'll see how I feel tomorrow.