I’m no stranger to a bob haircut. When my hair so much as tickles my shoulders, I get the itch to lop it all off. This compulsion of sorts has seen me try everything from the ‘Italian’ bob (chunky-ended and nonchalantly tossed to the side) to the ‘flipped French bob’ (which skims the jaw and boasts face framing layers). But in November last year, I got my shortest cut ever: The ‘boyfriend’ bob.
It’s my job to keep up with the ever-turning cycle of haircut trends, and at the time, this was one of the most googled thanks to its short, sharp edges inspired by '90s heartthrobs. I’ve previously described it as Nick Carter meets Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, with a dash of Natalie Imbruglia in her "Torn" era. Aside from trends, there’s always an urge to reinvent oneself ahead of a brand new year. You can imagine my partner’s surprise, then, when I returned home a whole four inches of hair lighter.
Alongside my new haircut came a shift in personality; I felt cooler and more confident. I revamped my wardrobe to include boxy blazers, structured shirts and tailored trousers so that I could lean into the androgynous vibe. I made a TikTok video of the haircut appointment and amassed compliments from friends and strangers alike. But it soon went viral and my hair began to divide opinion online.
The comparisons to Shrek’s villain, Lord Farquaad, were amusing. Honestly, I saw that one coming. But then someone hinted at a likeness to Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. One simply left the comment “It’s French”, alluding to the viral scene in Fleabag in which Claire is crying over the state of her (rather lopsided) new bob haircut. “I look like a pencil!” she cries. An anonymous commenter told me it looked "awful" on me. You’ve got to laugh. In fact, I tried to take no notice. They were merely Silly People On The Internet.
Fast forward to this September, and my hair has grown out considerably. In recent weeks, however, various friends and family members have made their true opinions known. My mum asked me not to cut my hair again. A friend pulled me to the side at a restaurant to tell me that she much prefers my hair long. They aren’t the only ones to express a delayed aversion to my short haircut. As more of my acquaintances revealed how they really felt, it made me question everything: Why did so many people hate my bob, and is the reason deeper than “It just doesn’t suit you”?
What is the history of the bob haircut?
The bob is one of the most searched-for haircuts with all manner of different shapes and styles flooding Google Trends every week. Interestingly, this month, ‘very short bob hairstyles’ is a breakout query, which means that the search term grew by more than 5000%. Despite its high search volume and various celebrity fans including Kim Kardashian and Zendaya, the bob has long courted controversy.
Bobbed hair spans centuries, but during the 1920s — the age of the flapper — it became emblematic of female strength and social rebellion just as much as fashion. “The flapper hairstyle of the 1920s was all about making a political and moral stand,” Dr Amy Boyington, a UK-based historian, tells R29. “Following the First World War, young women didn’t want to return to the traditional female roles in which they were subservient to men. They wanted to be liberated and to have more independence.” Dr Boyington says that the cutting of their long hair, which had been highly prized by previous generations, was seen as a shedding of traditional Victorian female values. “This threatened the status quo of the time. Men and older women were affronted and perceived flappers as morally and sexually promiscuous, uncontrollable, unladylike and somewhat wild,” says Dr Boyington.
In spite of the outcry, bobs soon became ardently stylish, with actresses like Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks sporting cropped hair. But subverting traditional gender norms didn’t go down well, especially with men. In their book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, professor Emma Tarlo writes that the bob haircut caused “domestic havoc” in 1920s America, particularly among fathers who were “traumatised by [the] loss” of their daughters’ hair. It was a similar story in Britain and France, writes Tarlo: “Every ploy was used to persuade young women of the dangers and iniquity of parting with long hair. There was the cautionary tale of Isabel Marginson, a 22-year-old weaver from Preston who drowned herself in the local canal because she could not bear the sight of her new bob.” This reaction seems draconian nowadays, but it is clear that rejecting conventional beauty standards intimidated people: “The cutting of women’s hair ate away at the very boundaries that distinguished men from women and women from men”, adds Tarlo.
Since the 1920s, the bob haircut has taken many different forms. In the 1960s, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon dreamt up the 'Sassoon bob', says hairstylist and trend forecaster Tom Smith. It was a revolutionary, short haircut for the contemporary woman. “Sassoon became famous for his precision and geometric style of cutting,” adds Smith, which was a break away from the soft, tousled and typically feminine styles of the decades that preceded it. In the ‘90s, bob haircuts became more androgynous still, with strong centre partings and blunt ends.
In this day and age, you’d think attitudes might have changed, but women’s short hair continues to ruffle feathers. In a 2018 article for Refinery29, beauty writer Parisa Hashempour explored why all of the men in her life were so angry with her for cutting her long hair. She concluded that hair “acts as a marker of gender identity and it seems that when women choose to subvert this, they become a threat”. Years later, things remain unchanged. On TikTok, one woman reveals that her boyfriend vehemently dislikes her bob haircut. This year, TikToker A. Marie alluded to the bob as a man-repeller: “Every time I don’t want to be bothered by men, I get a bob,” she captioned a video. It isn’t just men who seem to dislike bobbed hair, though. I know a friend of a friend whose sister threatened to leave her out of her wedding photos — and revoke maid of honour duty — if her bobbed hair didn’t grow back in time for the big day. In fact, most of the negative comments about my haircut came from women.
What is the ‘fuck ass bob’?
Bob trends have evolved throughout history, and today, there’s only one style on everyone’s lips. Enter: the ‘fuck ass bob’ aka the FAB. According to one Urban Dictionary entry, a fuck ass bob is a short bob that is cut bluntly above chin length and worn in a centre parting. (My bob haircut exactly.) Another entry calls it an “ear-length, horrendous bob haircut.” If the internet is anything to go by, the fuck ass bob occupies a space between sophisticated and absolutely terrible. Even Kim Kardashian has recently fallen foul of the online discourse around the FAB. Countless TikTokers have trolled her face-cupping bob; others have stitched videos of Kardashian to reveal their “bad” past bob haircuts (many of which were cut against their will as children). The Cut said it was “too coiffed for comfort”. The fuck ass bob has even become a meme.
The FAB in particular is unapologetically bold. It has a lot of personality, says Manu, founder of The_Bob _Haircut, a popular Instagram account which showcases the very best bobs from around the world. Sure enough, a cut like this exudes self-assurance: “I regret cutting my hair to a short bob because now everywhere I go I’m the main character,” jokes TikToker Lea Francesca in a recent video where she rocks a short, sharp bob. I can’t help but question whether the confidence it takes to rock a bob like this comes across as ostentatious to others.
Basically, you have to own your bob haircut, regardless of what others think. Immediately after her wedding in 2022, beauty journalist and makeup artist Mollie Charlotte Burdell chopped her long hair into a jaw-skimming bob. She hasn’t looked back since. “Now a bob is part of my identity,” she tells me. “With my décolletage out, I feel like the sexiest woman in the world. It’s how I feel most confident.” Mollie sees her bob as a personality trait. “I can’t imagine ever going back.”
Qualified aesthetician and beauty writer, Alicia Lartey, who has afro hair, recently got a silk-pressed bob: “I had really long, thick, curly hair and I just could not do it anymore,” she tells me. “I wanted a style that would look good when curly and short. I also wanted it to be a tiny bit more androgynous as I got to terms with my sexuality this year, and it gave me more of a reach into the non-binary aspects of me.” Hair is a thing of pride for Lartey and it allows her to explore her personality. “My bob makes me feel like I’m in charge. I feel like I could run an entire empire when my bob is in tip top condition. I get to spend more time living and not focusing on my hair as much, too.” Freelance beauty editor and content creator Rebecca Fearn agrees that the bob is liberating: “My hair looks so much healthier, thicker and shinier — and that’s the hair I want to have. I had a really short bob at one time and now I have more of a longer one. But it’s a vibe and I love it. It’s the hairstyle that makes me feel most confident.”
Why do we comment on other people’s hair?
I know that like Kardashian, and various TikTokers with bobs, putting myself out there on the internet makes me vulnerable to comments from strangers about my hair. But what about my close friends and family? Dr Bridget Bradley, a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of St Andrews, says that while our hair is a personal part of our identity, it also connects us with others. In her research among families dealing with hair loss due to trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder), Dr Bradley found that mothers experience a kind of grieving for their daughters who have cut their hair short to manage hair loss. “This can represent a loss of their daughter’s identity,” says Dr Bradley. “In some ways, what we do with our hair can be felt quite intensely by those around us for different reasons, and therefore, hair can be a way to understand the bonds within social relationships.”
Dr Bradley says that these reflections on hair’s social connections are one way to make sense of public reactions to some women cutting their hair. “The example of Britney Spears shaving her head in 2007 always comes to mind when examining public responses to haircutting, since this was seen by many as a clear sign of mental illness, but we could easily have interpreted this act as one of personal freedom or resistance,” says Dr Bradley. Of course, sometimes, we may read too much into hair symbolism, adds Dr Bradley. “For some women, short hair might simply be a practical choice, as a more manageable hairstyle for certain professions, or for mothers with young children who like to grab and chew on everything within arms reach.”
Whatever your reason, it takes guts to get a bob. In spite of all the negative comments, this haircut taught me something positive: A bob leaves no space to hide. Being confronted with my features like my nose (which I’ve had surgery on previously), as well as my strong jawline, just so happened to be a step in the right direction towards self-acceptance. In fact, I'm booked in for another trim at the end of the month. Hair always grows back and most importantly, it's mine.