The email was sent by a French fashion brand re: the online debut of their latest lookbook. But despite the fact that I clicked through and began scrolling immediately, I barely even noticed the clothes. Instead, I was captivated by the model who wore them. More to the point, I was captivated by her hair.
She had a short, dark, curly shag — the kind of cool, seemingly-but-probably-not-actually effortless hairstyle that has a not-insignificant percentage of the women who see her reaching for the nearest pair of scissors. Including plenty who, like me, had had precisely zero desire to cut their hair five seconds prior. (For good reason, in my case: I’d spent most of 2016 and 2017 growing out an objectively awful pageboy, the sad result of my under-considered decision to ask an under-qualified stylist to give me this haircut.)
I’ve been here many times before. Back in 1997, I was a college student with messy, light-brown waves that went well past my shoulders … until, that is, I received the inaugural issue of Jane Magazine and was instantly overcome by an irresistible urge to run out and copy cover girl Drew Barrymore’s very short, choppy ‘do. I chickened out on the bangs — ironic, given that bangs have long since become the closest thing I have to a signature look — and thus ended up with something more akin to the earlobe-length style sported by Kelly Macdonald in 1996’s Trainspotting. But that was fine with me. I’d still made a big leap toward voguish adulthood.
Unfortunately, the actual staff of Vogue didn’t entirely agree with my assessment. Shortly after I started working at the magazine, less than a year later, I was dispatched to a trendy midtown salon for a complimentary — and, perhaps, compulsory — makeover. Despite what you may have seen in the movies, this was not, in fact, standard procedure. My un-highlighted, fast-growing proto-lob (which I’d had neither the funds nor the wherewithal to deal with in the months after moving to New York) must have been bumming somebody out.
Two decades on, I’m not quite as interested in appearing older. But the sirenlike lure of the ill-advised short haircut is, it turns out, every bit as strong. Within an hour of opening that email, I’d texted a picture of the model — whose name, I learned, is Kathie Lam, and who looks, it should be said, less than nothing like me — to everyone from my BFF to my current hairstylist, Myrna Palacios of Rita Hazan. (She’s talented, having engineered my comeback from that tragic 2016 cut, but also tactful: “Hey,” she responded. “Your hair curls up like that?” It does not.)
Of course, I’m not the only woman who occasionally experiences the coiffure version of Freud’s death drive. My friend Sarah spent last summer not-so-idly wondering whether it might finally be time to bring back Gwyneth Paltrow’s iconic Sliding Doors crop, while my sister, who just got extensions, maintains a Pinterest board full of pictures of Michelle Williams’s various pixies. Even the editor who commissioned this story confessed to coveting the simple, short layered bob currently seen on Iris Law, Jude Law’s teenaged daughter.
Some of the motivations behind this urge are obvious: These women are beautiful! Of course, in our less self-accepting moments, we dream of looking like them … and of course, in our more self-accepting moments, we believe that a haircut might make it happen.
After all, we humans have more control over our hair than pretty much any other physical feature, at least when it comes to chopping it off. It’s the rare major change that can be made almost overnight, with the only real limitation being how long it takes you to work up your nerve (and to get an appointment at your salon).
But I don’t think the theoretical obtainability of these styles is the only thing that makes them so appealing. They’re also beguiling because of their brevity. Like that French clothing line’s October collection, they’re a little bit masculin, which gives them the hint of a political edge — a way of combating expectations about what women are supposed to look like.
And in the end, maybe that’s why I’m never going to stop lusting after hard-to-pull-off model bobs. Yes, a bad short haircut can feel like kind of a life-ruiner, especially if you are somewhat vain, as it turns out I am. And for most of us, getting a haircut — any haircut — in the hopes of looking more like a particular model or actress is not going to be a great idea. But getting it cut because you think it might look cool and/or take less time to dry? Why not?
To that end, I’ve located a different be-shagged European model whom I don’t resemble in the slightest to text pictures of to everyone I know. Who knows? Maybe this time it’ll work.