How I Learned To Love My Sideburns

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
In the spring of 2015, sideburns had a fashion moment. Models at Marni strode the catwalk with hair slicked back like David Bowie in his Thin White Duke days, a few greasy, matted tendrils plastered to their cheeks. Leandra Medine pondered whether the sideburn might be the new side boob, Alexa Chung was papped with strands of hair in front of her ears and – boom! – a trend was declared.
Deep in the south London suburbs, where the only catwalk anyone cared about was the strip of pavement outside Wimpy, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, deliberating. Hair up, hair down. Hair up, hair down. It is a strange thing when an aspect of your appearance that has always bothered you becomes suddenly fashionable. The urge is to cast off your hang-ups, the accumulated smirks and self-consciousness, and dash into the street, exclaiming: "Look! LOOK! I am stylish! I am on trend! And I haven't had to do a thing!" Of course it is not that simple.
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My sideburns are not the delicate, wispy kind; they do not float ethereally around my face. Rather they are thick and dark, slithering down either cheek and curling beneath my jaw like the waxed tips of a gentleman's moustache. Too long to pass unnoticed, never long enough to tuck behind my ears; closer in substance to Abe Lincoln's whiskers or Bradley Wiggins' mutton chops.
As a teenager I grew so aware of my sideburns that I began to trim them with a pair of nail scissors, eventually graduating to a pink disposable razor pilfered from my mum's dressing table. I stopped only when a school friend cracked a joke about my stubble. From then on I wore my hair down as often as possible, save for at the gym where, I reasoned, my bright red face was enough to distract from the fur on my cheeks. Nonetheless, if I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the changing room mirror, I was dismayed by what I saw: unflattering, unfeminine, ungroomed.
Because despite those promising few weeks in 2015, sideburns did not catch on. They were never going to. In mainstream fashion, women are often encouraged to play against their prettiness, to muss up their femininity – a boxy jacket here, a heavy angular brow there – but temporarily, and within reason. A trend by its nature is wipe clean; take it off and – ta da! – there is the woman underneath. There is a world of difference between arranging a few strands of hair in front of your ears to emulate a catwalk look and the boy you fancy tugging on your face-huggers and asking if you've considered having them removed.
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It is 2019 but anything that blurs too greatly the distinction between 'masculine' and 'feminine' still makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It is why googling 'women with sideburns' returns articles advocating dubious methods of hair removal (turmeric! papaya! potatoes!) and a Reddit thread asking us gals with 'very noticeable' sideburns how we 'deal' with them. It is why the sideburn did not become the new side boob – an overspill of breast and an overgrowth of hair are suggestive to the male gaze in entirely different ways.
If popular culture was not going to provide me with examples of women flaunting their big hairy sideburns, then I was going to have to get over my insecurities on my own. Easier said than done. I began wearing my hair up again but cringed, still, when a friend posted a picture on Instagram that captured my face in profile. As I got older and the dark hairs crept further across my cheeks, I calculated the possibility of laser removal. It was only – and I realise that writing this makes me a 'bad' feminist – when I mentioned that possibility to my boyfriend, who replied "Why do you want to do that? I think your sideburns are lovely," that I began to consider an alternate perspective. One that wasn't filtered through my anxiety but through the eyes of someone who cared about me.
It is not very fashionable these days to admit to needing reassurance. Women are exhorted to celebrate every inch of themselves – the hairy bits, the lumpy bits, the not-the-same-size-as-everyone-else's bits – and I sometimes think that the pressure to do so is as crippling as the fear and self-consciousness that drive us to shrink out of the spotlight in the first place. Often we require a kind word or an unsolicited compliment to drag us out of the well of our anxiety.
Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
Please do not misunderstand me. This is neither an attempt to elicit sympathy nor the launch of a #sideburnspositivity movement. Sideburns are sideburns. We all have them. Mine are simply more prominent than most, and our prominent features tend to become the site of all our insecurities. Confronting those insecurities is difficult; the slightest encouragement can make an enormous difference. I learned to love my sideburns in the end and not because my boyfriend loves them. I love them because he helped me to see them in a different light. To think of them as something other than 'mutton chops'.
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