Like most people, I’ve had some awful haircuts. Even now, just thinking back on some of them makes me feel such intense embarrassment that I physically spasm with shame. There were my monk-like shaves in primary school (not too bad, really), followed by my bowl-shaped undercut phase (getting worse), to the ill-advised Disney prince look: a combed, down-the-middle bum-part that dominated my high school years.
I might’ve been Chinese, but all I really wanted were the same haircuts that the cool white boys had. It’s only later that you look back and realise you can’t just transplant good haircuts between races and expect it to work. Think of those Caucasian women who get their hair tightly braided and beaded by Ghanaian hairdressers on holiday and you’ll get my point. On me, these white boy haircuts were less “Disney Prince”, and more “Merry Little Hermaphrodite from Feudal China”. I never really got the cred I assumed a cool haircut would afford me.
As a teenager, I looked for coolness in other ways. I’d read British magazines like NME and The Face, and voraciously scanned their What’s-Cool (and What’s Not) listings. I actually took these things seriously. Were piercings in or out? What about mopeds? What were the critics saying about Portishead’s new album? Was Thom Yorke a genius or wanker? I needed to know. At that age, all I wanted—besides some magical sebum-controlling wand—was some advice and reassurance as to what was cool (or not), because I sure couldn’t figure it out myself.
There were some unshakable certainties, though. Everyone knew that the following things weren’t cool: undercut hairstyles (see above); shorts that sat above the knee; tight jeans; computers; Bill Murray. Cut to a decade later, and bam—like magic, every single thing I’d just listed is now roaringly popular. For a neurotic guy like me, these trend cycles are all very confusing and disorientating.
Still, I’m thankful that certain things, like skinny jeans, eventually became trendy. For an emaciated guy with a size 28 waist, it meant I could finally go clothes shopping at places besides the kid’s section of Myer, where I’d have to lurk around like some dreadful paedophile when all I really needed were shorts. Now I tend to shop at independently owned clothing boutiques staffed by exceptionally handsome and well-dressed young men with haircuts that intimidate the hell out of me.
Recently, I wandered in one of these shops with a horrible moustache I was growing for charity. The shop assistant—a model-handsome 20-something who looked like he’d been styled by The Sartorialist— had the same growth above his lip.
“Bro!” he said. “Are you, like, growing your moustache for Movember? Me too, dude!”
Secretly, I was thrilled that I had something in common with someone like him. As lame as it sounds, it made me feel—well, cool.
“How much money have you raised?” I asked, trying to make conversation.
“Money?” he said.
After a few confused minutes of clarification, the store clerk looked amazed.
“Wow,” he said. “I was totally growing my moustache for Movember, but I didn’t even know Movember was a charity!”
Jesus. If this is what “cool” was, I thought to myself, then I give up. Just shoot me in the face and leave me mutilated so I’ve got a legitimate excuse not to keep trying.
We spend so much time trying to pin down what is and isn’t cool, until we realise we have to draw up our own definitions. For me, the cool kids are the ones using their brains and doing something with their lives. A dozen of my friends are doing Masters or PhD degrees—complex, brain-melting exercises in intellect—and I adore them for taking up the challenge. One friend is in Cambodia working for the war crimes tribunal, and another has opened a café that makes the best bagels in the Southern Hemisphere. Some of my friends design homes for people to grow old in, and others composes song, books, plays and podcasts out of thin air. The fact they just happen to dress exceptionally well is incidental.
My hair worries me less nowadays, and eventually it’ll thin out, but I still want it to look good while I have it. The other week, I asked a new hairdresser to cut it however she liked, as long as it looked cool. She took the clippers down the sides and back, let the top hang over like a mop, and swept my fringe across my eyebrows. Essentially, she’d given me an undercut in the shape of a bowl. “Cool,” I thought.