“Personally I believe wanting bangs is almost never about wanting bangs and if u want bangs u should go to therapy first,” the writer Allie Wach tweeted in February 2018. This personal belief was retweeted 15,000 times and received hundreds of replies. They were mostly from women tagging a friend, without explanation, to come see this truth universally known but slightly less frequently acknowledged: Cutting off the front of your hair is the ultimate expression of self-delusion, a desperate attempt to right something deeply wrong—with a pair of scissors.
This trope of emotional-distress bangs is almost upsettingly widespread. No one specific age group seems to be more familiar with it than any other. The Millennial fashion site Man Repeller has called “Should I get bangs?” one of the top three “existential questions that have plagued the human psyche since the dawn of time.” The New Yorker has printed a quiz titled “Are You Emotionally Stable Enough to Get Bangs?” Teenage YouTubers make videos such as “having a mental breakdown and cutting my own bangs,” and Michelle Obama referred to her own bangs as a “midlife crisis” in 2013. (I’ve given myself bangs more times than I can count or recall.)
The image of a woman coming undone just enough to do something strange and self-sabotaging—physically harmless, interfering maybe temporarily with her social life but not at all with her ability to perform at work—is a highly specific one. It comes from an online and American cultural context, but its origins are vague. And while this distorted image of a woman on the verge certainly seems dark, it can be deployed with joy and hilarity. Bangs, as a meme, have become an internet punch line—and it’s a joke that regularly lands.
All over the web, women are confessing to weighing their choices poorly: “I had a mental breakdown and cut bangs… please help!” they write. “Got cheated on, had a mental breakdown and got bangs. Immense regret followed, cheer me up pls :’).” Mostly, the humor is self-deprecating: women making fun of themselves for mistakes made. It calls up a caricature of modern womanhood: The try-hard has tried too hard, and now she’s cracking up, in a specifically feminine way, for the whole world to notice.
There’s a temptation to relegate bangs to the same trope as the breakup haircut. The comedian Alyssa Limperis, who has had her own viral tweet about bangs versus therapy, tells me that whenever she feels like she should be making life changes, she sees two choices in front of her. Option 1: “Do the work and the exercise and call friends and do things that are healthy and good for me in the long run.” Option 2: “Pay $200 for a haircut that will make me cry for the next six months.”
The haircut is faster, so it always wins. After a particularly gnarly post-college breakup, Limperis says she had her hair cut super short to reflect how different she felt internally. The hairdresser told her he didn’t like it, but she says she felt “so deeply free watching it fall to the ground.”
Here’s the problem, though: Nobody talks about bangs like that. Bangs are not liberating; they’re a pothole. A breakup haircut is much less mysterious than bangs. It has a clear cause. I got my most recent breakup haircut proactively—chin-length, for the first time since elementary school—three days before a premeditated conversation in which I would explain I am emotionally unwell and it’s a career year. This may have been stupid, but it wasn’t irrational. I reasoned it would be a kindness to sport an ugly haircut while I was dumping someone. “Now you don’t have to pretend to like my haircut!” I announced.
A breakup haircut, unlike emotional-distress bangs, can also look good. Shortly after the pop star Selena Gomez broke up with Justin Bieber, she made a dramatic change with an exceptional chin-length bob that Cosmopolitan referred to as “iconic.” Compare that to the cantaloupe-slice-shaped bangs Liz Lemon gets in the episode of 30 Rock where she starts crying out of her mouth instead of her eyes.
Bangs—which The Cut calls a “rock-bottom move”—fit better in the category of breakdown haircut than they do breakup haircut. Part of the distinction is that women often talk about giving themselves bangs—the emotional stakes of the situation render them incapable of making an appointment and waiting several days for a professional to slot them in and relieve them of the front of their hair. “A key component of the breakdown haircut seems to be the impulsiveness,” Amada Nottage, the editor of the hairdresser trade magazine Creative HEAD, wrote in an email. “The drive to take scissors and do it yourself to yourself ... that is more of a signifier that something else internally is going on.”
Nottage pointed out that the breakdown haircut has become “something of a lazy fictional trope,” citing Hannah Horvath’s horrible impulse-cut on Girls. But it has real-life precedent: The 2007 incident in which Britney Spears shaved her head in full view of more than 70 photographers was “the most high-profile example of a breakdown haircut situation,” according to Nora Drake, a communications director who wrote her master’s thesis on Spears. “Hair is such a symbol of femininity, and when you get rid of it entirely it shocks and scares people.”
Today’s bangs distinguish themselves even further than simply as a breakdown haircut, though: As a meme, bangs are supposed to be funny, not terrifying or genuinely sad. The internet’s jokes about impulse bangs have a whisper of darkness—required to fit in with the gallows humor of the day—but most references are still manically good-natured.
Last year, Mantra magazine, which describes itself as leading a “self-acceptance revolution” and has more than 480,000 followers on an Instagram account dedicated solely to quippy quotes on peach backgrounds, shared the advice “IDK WHO NEEDS TO HEAR THIS RIGHT NOW, BUT IF YOU’RE GOING THROUGH A ROUGH TIME, DON’T CUT YOUR BANGS,” and captioned it with half a dozen “rolling on the floor laughing” emoji.
Because the greatest imperative for content on social platforms is that it be “relatable,” it can be hard to say which came first—a common human experience or the perception that a human experience is common. One viral Facebook post that advises, “Move to a new city, switch careers, get a regrettable tattoo—just don’t cut your own bangs” seems to have originated in a tweet from a man who writes novelty quotes and history books. It’s reverse-engineered to be “lol so me.” And the “having a mental breakdown and cutting my own bangs” videos on YouTube rarely seem to depict anything like an actual breakdown. They’re usually fun, and the women in them say stuff like “Stay impulsive!” or perform elaborate skits in which their boyfriends try to grab scissors out of their hands.
These videos and posts are making the jokes because they’re funny—kidding around is certainly not the same thing as lying. But as jokes on the internet tend to do, this one scrubs away at the ability to determine how often an activity really takes place, while at the same time solidifying the assumption that it does.
Lauryn Lingenfelter, an aspiring YouTube vlogger with a few hundred subscribers, was the only young woman on the platform who agreed to talk with me about her bangs. She titled her (very fun) 2019 entry into the genre “CUTTING MY OWN BANGS ♡ mental breakdown ♡♡,” but told me that she wasn’t experiencing anything other than her average level of generalized anxiety about school and romance at the time it was filmed. She chose the title because it was “clickable, and people relate to it,” and she cut her bangs herself because she thought it would be “a good fit for YouTube.”
Lingenfelter says her friends tried to dissuade her from cutting her own hair in a series of discouraging phone calls. She didn’t tell her mom about the haircut either, knowing she would want her to go to a salon. The resistance, while harmless in Lingenfelter’s case, speaks to the degree of community participation that can go into women’s appearances. When a woman cuts her bangs, she has lost it, no matter what she says. We regret ever trusting her to be near a shearing implement.
“I felt like I wasn’t supposed to cut my own bangs for some reason,” Lingenfelter told me. She added that, when she thinks about it, every haircut she’s ever gotten has felt kind of like a mild mental breakdown, but she doesn’t know why.
Women in America had little autonomy to change their hair much at all until the 1920s. Up to that point, notes Rachael Gibson, better known as The Hair Historian, women would grow their hair long, then wear it up after marriage. When the famous flapper bob—frequently worn with bangs—came into style, women who got it were seen as rebellious and maybe a little insane. “That short hair was almost a full-on breakup with society’s norms,” Gibson says. “There are even stories about fathers suing hairdressers who cut their daughters’ hair, because they thought they’d never get married.”
Bangs had several other moments of fame in the middle of the 20th century—pinup girls’ curled micro-bangs in the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn’s short, dark bangs and Brigitte Bardot’s blond, middle-parted bangs in the ’60s, followed by razored and feathered Farrah Fawcett bangs in the ’70s—but they were rarely the most controversial or important component of any haircut. Even 20 years ago, a fresh pair of bangs was not inherently unsettling. Throughout the aughts, Zooey Deschanel made several styles of schoolgirl bangs seem cool for at least a few years, around the same time that pop-punk heroine Hayley Williams was making side-swept “emo” bangs seem even cooler. The supermodel Kate Moss got hot-girl bangs in 2007, and three years later, reportedly started cutting them herself. As far as I know, nobody assumed this was cause for an emotional intervention.
While Gibson acknowledges that bangs’ turn to a sign of emotional distress is “a relatively recent phenomenon,” the moment when bangs became scary, I’m sorry to say, is impossible to pinpoint. The backlash against the “manic pixie dream girl” stock character led a fair number of people to turn on Deschanel and the twee aesthetic she’d dabbled in, maybe solidifying the association between bangs and undesirable “quirkiness.” Still, to call any one set of bangs the bangs that ruined bangs seems both rude and impossible to prove.
Regardless of the exact origins, “getting bangs” as a shorthand for “needing therapy” is exemplary of the paradoxical way women so often find themselves talking about themselves and one another online. Cutting our bangs is taking action, a way of being in control of stress. But that would also be a silly thing to believe, which is where reflexive self-deprecation comes in. This see-saw between “empowerment” and infantilization is widespread: Women are “boss bitches” who are also uniformly overtaxed. We say swear words and then coo ourselves into a self-care bath; the general idea is that we are working so hard out in public, and when we get home we dissolve into something that has to be babied.
Getting bangs is much easier (and cheaper) than going to therapy. That’s funny! And sad. Yet getting bangs also does nothing that therapy does. The big joke of bangs is that we’re unhappy enough to get them, and the big crime is that everyone has to see.