When you’re 16 and insecure, good hair is a perfectly adequate substitute for a personality. Do you have the cool haircut, the kind that proves your membership in whichever subculture happens to be reigning the day? Or are you a normie, a muggle, a styleless loser with no taste?
When I was a teenager, the latter simply was not an option. You had to have good hair, and there was one hairstyle that ruled them all. The one that made every angsty adolescent heart skip a beat. The one that defined whether you were worth a second glance, earning countless MySpace youth their own internet followings:
Black side bangs that obscured one eye, impairing the wearer’s vision? Swoon. Those too-short layers at the top of the head that wisped up into wimpy little hair spikes? Be still my heart. Throw in some black eyeliner, multi-colored pieces of hair, maybe even a lip ring, and I… I felt things I didn’t know I could feel.
Emo hair could make up for any kind of face. Emo hair was a face. You could put emo hair onto a blobfish and it’d be hot. I’m not convinced that I didn’t date a couple of blobfish, made inexplicably attractive by a handful of emotional tendrils framing their faces.
I fell in love with every emo haircut I saw. Jeremy, an older boy who worked at the record store down the street and had a perfectly layered black haircut with side bangs, was the love of my life. We had never spent any time together outside of the store, but he was in a band, he knew more about music than I could ever dream of knowing, and he was a “scene kid.” So obviously we were a perfect match, destined to be together.
I spent hours of each day devouring information about the most obscure bands I could find online, downloading their albums, memorizing facts. I found excuses to walk to the record store, look for a CD by the least-known band I could find, and wait for Jeremy to be impressed. I pasted not-so-subtle lyrics about longing into my AIM away messages, hoping he would psychically absorb that it was about him.
Jeremy and I did end up hanging out, eventually, and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t be myself around him. He was cool.
Jeremy wasn’t the only Jeremy, of course. There was Dan, my internet boyfriend for whom I pretended to love The Cure, who, in retrospect, had some kind of severe personality disorder. There was Matt, the guy from that Really Cool Band who wasn’t actually fun to hang out with; didn’t matter, because he was one of the kings of the scene. If he was cool, and he liked me, that meant I was cool too. It was just math.
My typically teenage feelings of inadequacy were exacerbated by my mom’s refusal to let me cut my hair short or dye it black. I adopted the layers and the side bangs, but my long brown hair never felt quite emo enough. I never quite met the standards of cool. So, hungry for scraps of approval, I took them where I could get them. (Is my current, years-long black bob a subconscious byproduct of this era’s longing? Highly possible.)
One time, an emo girl whose name was probably Natasha punched me in the face as I stood outside a hardcore show. I’d never met her before, but I had just started hanging out with her ex-boyfriend, Luis, a scene kid I met on MySpace. She was, apparently, not pleased about this. Natasha tapped me on the shoulder and, as I turned around, declared, “You’ve got some blood on your face!” WHAP. She punched me, immediately scurrying away before anyone could react (or punch her back).
While I still applaud how top-notch this literal punchline was, the hit did not actually result in any blood on my face — a fact Luis and I reveled in later that night.
As retaliation, Luis pooped on a painting she’d painted him, set it on fire, and put a picture of the flaming poop painting up on LiveJournal for the entire scene to see. It was controversial. He’d chosen me. I’d never felt cooler.
He broke my heart a week later. I was devastated; the fact that I barely knew him was irrelevant.
The scene evolved and changed, as scenes are wont to do. Emo and hardcore evolved into indie bands and hipster hair, and then came the tidal wave of candy-colored hair, amassing a whole new generation enormous internet followings. I don’t have the energy to keep up with where it’s at now exactly, but I think it involves face tattoos.
As for me, the novelty of fashion-conscious boys in bands wore off after just a couple of years. And though my areas of interest evolved, and it was no longer the haircut that fooled me, it became the career, the talent, the social status, the resume, the temporarily dazzling wealth of knowledge in some particular area. Anything that presented as a ticket to the table where the cool scene kids sit, obscuring the inconvenient reality that the person underneath might kind of just… suck?
It would take me far too long to realize that, in the end, it’s all just emo hair.
But even now, somewhere deep down, the 16-year-old in me still swoons at the sight of side bangs.