In Sickness, Health, and Bangs

Changing your hair can give you a sense of control in a chaotic world.

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A few months ago, I woke up in that Hmm, should I get bangs? state. Your friends always say no. The Internet mostly says no. But those who say yes are loud, passionate. Guys who don't know what a topknot is know how they feel about bangs. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is right. The anti-bangs camp claims victory over Kate Middleton's rumored regret about her bangs. They point to Michelle Obama's return to life without bangs as proof that she also thought fringe was a mistake. The pro-bangers offer pictures of the New Queen of Bangs, Zooey Deschanel. The anti-bangers counter, they brandish the very same photos, they scream at us: You are not Zooey Deschanel, and you will not look like her if you get bangs. And my favorite of late: the adorable three-year-old girl who steals the scissors to shorten her bangs and give herself a meme-worthy mullet.

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Her defense of bangs is simple, playful, spirited. "I was just practicing!"

With any decision pertaining to your body, the advice leads you back to you, to what feels right in your skin. I was fixated on this sensation that my hair wanted to go forward. You know how it is. One day you're a productive member of society, the next day you start pulling the hair forward and trying to figure out how the bangs would look. Then you see a random picture of your young self with bangs, and my God, look how they framed your face. Look how they work! And then it's back to the Internet, where you are warned of this dangerous path that starts with your mistaking your childhood face for your adulthood face. The Internet says you can't get bangs because of a second-grade classroom photo. Oh well.

I was driving myself crazy, and it was a waste, because this isn't life or death. It's fucking bangs.

A sudden flash of my dad, back when he had just been recently diagnosed with bladder cancer, asking the oncologist if he would lose his hair during chemo. Probably not. My dad was excited about that, a true optimist. Stage IV cancer and he's nodding, raising his eyebrows, this was good news about the hair. And then he started chemo, and it was horrible. ER trips and vomit, decreasing health, weight loss, hell on earth. But he didn't lose his hair. And he would brush it in this way that was so specific and tender, like he was thanking it with his eyes, focusing on it, treasuring it, believing it, the way it whispered, What do these doctors know about anything? Look at me, look at you, you're gonna be fine. It let him crack jokes about losing his life and keeping his hair. Hair is comforting. It's warmth, shelter. This is why it's tragic for people when it goes away.

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So now this was a philosophical debate. I could go through life like, It's just hair! It grows out. Be one of those YOLO people, stop scouring the Internet for pros and cons. Just be grateful that I have hair. Health. Why waste my precious time thinking about hair? Well … we all know why: It's. Your. Hair. You can be dying, but if your hair looks good, you feel good. Also, you deal with your hair every day. This isn't should-I-buy-that-dress or even should-I-get-that-tattoo, this is in the aching middle. And then the crescendo into meta-melodrama: BANGS WILL RUIN YOUR FUCKING LIFE AND YOU WILL WANT TO DIE BECAUSE YES. YOLO IS RIGHT. YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE AND IMAGINE WASTING YOUR LIFE PINNING YOUR BANGS BACK WITH BOBBY PINS THAT ARE TOO DARK FOR YOUR HAIR?

Why waste my precious time thinking about hair?

My brother was in town during my Pre-Holiday-Season Bangs Crisis of 2015. We went out to lunch, and he's talking about the Lamborghini parked by the restaurant, and I'm like, Do you think I should get bangs? And he's like, Sure! We finished lunch. I dragged him to a hair salon, promising it would be quick. And then I got bangs. Thick, true bangs. That first walk down the street past the Lamborghini was a mind fuck. I was shaking.

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I forgot about what it feels like when they blow up off your forehead, even though I read about this, have sense memories of this. It's not that they looked so bad, but it's that in-your-skin feeling, the sensation of having these many short hairs, knowing you're going to have to deal with them.

More bad news: I would have to go to salons to get them trimmed. I am not a blowout/salon person. Most salons are not like Truvy's in Steel Magnolias. They're not oozing with the appealingly relaxed malaise of the Roseanne episodes where she's sweeping the floors of Arthur's Beauty Parlor, building her confidence. Nowhere do I feel less authoritative and communicative than in a fucking hair salon when I'm trying to describe long layers. I leave feeling like a tired toddler. Depleted. I know all this, but still I went and got bangs, which is like signing up for weekly trips to the salon.

I know all this, but still I went and got bangs, which is like signing up for weekly trips to the salon.

A flash of college: the time I tried to trim my long hair with fabric scissors and wound up with an accidental bob and little above-the-brow bangs. Like way above the brow.

A flash of middle school: that day I stubbornly got a Big Bad Bangs Perm. I cried. My mom tried to comfort me with that it-will-grow-out logic. But who cares about what will happen when you look like a poodle? She promised me I didn't look like a dog, and I promised her she was wrong. We got home, and I heard her whisper to my dad, Go easy. She's upset.

And then he saw me. He hit the mute button on the remote. At first he didn't say anything. He smiled, he furrowed his brow. But then he started barking. Like a dog. We were a laughing family, lots of teasing. I knew he was being funny, trying to distract me, lighten the mood. My mom tried to keep a straight face — not easy, because I did look like a poodle. But I fought to hold my ground, railing against this inconsiderate, inhumane barking! How dare they make light of this tragedy? I wanted to be mad, serious. When you mess up your hair, there's a special kind of darkness. You failed to listen to the most important voice of all, the one in your head whispering, Don't get a perm, you won't look like Elizabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting. It's on you.

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In spite of all this, of course I'll get bangs again someday. You mess with your hair because it's there, it's yours, and you think you know best. Never mind the commercials that tell us that we have the goods and we just need the products, or the stylists who tell us that we need their skills, or the websites providing simple instructions (ha-ha) for a fishtail braid that will change your life. When your hair is on point, it's a sublime, volatile answer. It's a temporary outer peace.

You mess with your hair because it's there, it's yours, and you think you know best.

Another flash of my dad: sicker now. In the weeds with spreading disease, barely moving. His hair started to get wiry. It wasn't falling out, but it was changing. It was turning his back on him. It was as if he had secretly thought he was going to be OK because of his hair, no matter what the doctors said. Now it sighed: Sorry, buddy, it's not gonna work out for us after all. My dad didn't talk about it much, didn't brush with the same gusto. I could see that he was different. Something in his hair reached him and spoke to him when nothing else did.

Right now I'm in the weeds in my low-stakes hair battle, growing out the bangs, so life is all wisps and bobby pins. Not so many blowouts, because those were disorienting. I look in the mirror, Who is that? I overthink and marvel, How do they use your hair to make you look like a different person? Hair is creepy contradiction, Medusa, Cher, back and forth. If you screw it up with a bad cut, if you go and catch a nasty cancer, if you commit a murder and leave a telltale strand, or if you spawn a child, whatever you do, your hair holds your identity. It's with you every day, reflecting your vitamin deficiency in a mirror, your insides, things you decide like bangs, things you had no say in, disease, your home life/proximity to scissors without parental supervision, everything, all of you, all the time. No wonder we get a little sensitive with our hair. In sickness and in health, in bangs.

Caroline Kepnes is the author of You and Hidden Bodies.

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