Last summer I got into a bar fight. As bar fights go, it was unimpressive—I didn’t break a chair over anyone’s back, and I didn’t grab a guy’s collar and slide him down the bar and out the window—but it was enough for me to get tossed. Since I like to pretend my life is important enough that I have to “atone” for things, I stopped drinking for 30 days afterwards, plus when I got home that night I took an electric trimmer and buzzed off my hair. It just seemed like the thing to do—kind of a visual reminder that I was rethinking my life, or at least pretending to. It certainly wasn’t supposed to look good—if anything, it was supposed to look bad—but my roommate at the time, an attractive woman who goes to clubs I’ve never heard of and couldn’t get into even if I had, told me it did. That struck me as odd, but I figured she just liked a very different type of guy (obviously, since she wouldn’t have been my roommate if she were even processing me as a sexual being).
But then another girl told me my hair looked good short. And then another, and another. In fact, pretty much 100% of girls said that my hair looked better short than it did when it was long. I wasn’t keeping score or anything (okay, yes I was), but I don’t recall even one woman ever saying that my hair was better long and that I should grow it back. I realize that people pretty much always tell you it looks good when you get a haircut just out of politeness, but this was a fairly radical change on my part. I’d had long hair every second of my life since about the fourth grade (except for that time in 1997 when I got a buzzcut because Bono did, but I’ve put that out of my mind, and I’d appreciate it if you would too). When someone makes a change that big, people don’t just reflexively compliment it. I looked different enough that some people didn’t even recognize me—a lot of my coworkers thought I was new. But the approval was so ubiquitous that when my hair started growing back out, I cut it short again, and then again. At this point, it’s been nearly five months, so I guess I just officially have short hair now.
And it’s really starting to freak me out.
For a while, when I met new people, I would find a way to work the fact that I had long hair until very recently into the conversation—like how you do right after you change jobs or move to a different neighborhood. But at this point, the social statute of limitations on mentioning that is pretty much expired. I am no longer in the state of having “just gotten” a short haircut—I just have a short haircut. I realize everyone thinks I look better this way, but to be honest, that’s what’s bothering me. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would work better as—or even be able to “pass” for—a short-haired man. Long hair was much more accurately indicative of everything about my personality: I’m a poet, I play the guitar, I hate sports, I’m sad all the time. Sporting “the Kurt Cobain” wasn’t just something I did all those years because I thought it framed my face well—it was the uniform of the team I played for. For a lot of guys, hair length is like what hair color is for a lot of women. If a brunette dyes her hair blonde for a Halloween costume or a role in a play, and then everyone tells her she works better as a blonde, she’d probably wonder why. And she might not want or feel prepared for all the changes that would come with being a blonde permanently.
Case in point: I met this girl I ended up dating for a while at the end of the summer when she came up and started talking to me in a bar. Already this was weird, because that never happens to me, or at least it never happened to me when I had long hair. On top of it, she tried to have a conversation with me about sports. When I said I didn’t care about sports, she was shocked, and I was shocked that she was shocked. Another night a few weeks later in the same bar, some girl I didn’t know just straight-up walked over and started feeling me and said she liked my muscles. Granted she was drunk, but it’s not like I’d never been in the same room as a drunk girl before. I was in the same rooms as drunk girls for fifteen years and they never did that, and I still had muscles. I just also had “the Kurt Cobain.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised? After all, the first thing a male acquaintance said to me the day after I first cut my hair was that the new look would open me up to “a whole new range of pussy.” But at the time, the only thing I took away from that comment was that I must apparently now look like the type of guy around whom other guys are comfortable using expressions like “a whole new range of pussy.” And frankly, I don’t want to look like that type of guy. This was another virtue of “the Kurt Cobain”—it wasn’t just a signal to girls that you’re sensitive, but also a signal to other guys that you’re probably not the type of guy it’s safe to say douchey things around. Short hair still feels like I’m in disguise as someone from another world, like when I used to work construction and occasionally another worker would see me from behind and start talking to me in Spanish, and then when I turned around we’d both be embarrassed.
Sure, there are other ways to mark yourself as a sensitive guy besides having long hair. Academics grow beards. Hipsters are really skinny. But long hair was the only way that worked on me. I wouldn’t look right with a beard, and have never tried (except for that time in 1998 when I had a goatee, because everyone was required to have one, because it was 1998). And my body doesn’t do the David Bowie “really skinny guy” thing. I have a wrestler build—I can either work out and have muscles, or not work out and be totally physically unremarkable, so I choose to work out. This was always fine in the past, because I also had long hair to offset the muscles. But now I have both muscles and short hair—in other words, I now look like the type of guy that other guys think won’t bat an eyelash if they casually use “pussy” as a collective noun for all women. But I’m not. Yes, I opened this article by mentioning that I got into a bar fight, but it was because someone was yelling out the answers at trivia night, so I’m pretty sure I still don’t count as a badass.
The other day I told a girl I’m currently dating that I wished I still had long hair. She asked why, and (of course) told me she thought I looked better with short hair. I really had to think about my answer. Long hair just feels like who I am for so many reasons, but I was having trouble putting it into words. The first thing that came out of my mouth was that short hair keeps making people think I like sports—which, I have to admit, sounded ridiculous even to me when I heard myself saying it. She asked why it bothered me if people thought I liked sports, and said that the type of person I am is still obvious once someone starts talking to me.
But the thing is, only a small fraction of the people who see you ever actually talk to you. I told her that I had a bad time of it in high school, and that even though I’m not there anymore, I don’t like the idea of looking like the people who made it a bad time. I don’t like knowing that other people who had a bad time of it in high school and pass me on the street now perceive me as someone who would have been mean to them. They’d know I wasn’t if I talked to them, but I can’t talk to everybody—and the people I’m talking about are precisely the least likely to talk to someone they don’t know who has big muscles and short hair. Sure, I may be more attractive this way, but I suspect I’m the wrong kind of attractive. A friend once told me that muscles “disqualify” me socially in the types of bars where intellectuals hang out, the same way that having giant fake boobs might disqualify a woman—and short hair is just sealing the deal. Yes, in other types of bars it’s making women who wouldn’t have talked to me before come up and talk to me—or even start randomly groping me—but I have to wonder, how many people whom I would have liked better is it causing to not come talk to me?
It’s easy to say “Who cares what strangers think?”, but deep down we all know that’s a cop-out. If I asked you to walk down the street wearing a Nazi armband, or a KKK hood, or a t-shirt that said “John Grisham is better than Shakespeare,” you wouldn’t do it. There are some things that are so offensive, we couldn’t stand to have anyone associate them with us, even strangers we’ll never see again. I know it shouldn’t, but short hair feels that way to me. Everyone likes it, so I guess I’m wrong, but still.
It’s also easy to say “Well, what do you like better?”, but that’s a cop-out too. Everyone says we should dress for ourselves instead of others, but if anybody really believed that, then we would all wear sweatpants every day. What does it matter what I like better? I’m not trying to have sex with myself. I can do that no matter what haircut I have.
I knew it would be crazy to go back to long hair if everyone likes the short hair better. But I still needed to find a way to deal with it. And eventually, I found one: I started wearing my glasses all the time, even though I never thought I’d do that either. As important as it was to me to look sensitive, for some reason I was always terrified to wear my glasses in public. I now think this was because the long hair plus the glasses was overkill, like wearing a pin with the name of a band you like pinned onto a t-shirt for the same band. But the glasses with the short hair kind of works. People are sometimes a little surprised when I say I don’t like sports, but not too surprised. Plus, feeling like I can’t project my personality visually anymore has caused me to start talking to people more often. When I went to the same bar I got tossed from for yet another trivia night—wearing my glasses into a bar for the first time—I walked up and joined a team of people I didn’t know. When I asked if they were any good, they joked that they weren’t as good as that buff guy who was there last week and knew everything. When I said that was me, they were surprised.
Apparently, the glasses are just as good a disguise as the long hair was. So maybe Lois Lane isn’t as stupid as everyone says. I mean, how could she be? She’s a brunette.