It’s not a bad week for bangs.
When Michelle Obama unveiled her brand-new fringe via Twitter three days before President Obama’s inauguration, the nation went berserk. Within hours, her bangs had taken over social media. Warring parties debated the merits and flaws of the do, while the new (unauthorized) Twitter account @FirstLadysBangs dished out giggles galore: “Just got a text from Hillary Clinton’s side-part.”
Everyone had an opinion. Karl Lagerfeld dismissed them as a “bad idea,” Allure editor in chief Linda Wells praised them as “flirty,” and Joan Rivers gave them a stern-eyed don’t-get-too-comfortable-up-there look. Topping all the shout-outs, however, was Obama’s husband, who proclaimed them “the most significant event of [the inaugural] weekend.” Suddenly, the new fringe was a force to be reckoned with. An inevitable analysis of the bangs ensued. Some were not impressed; the president was smitten. A moment in the inauguration-ball sun, then another during the State of the Union, and it seemed FLOTUS’s bangfest had expired.
Leave it to Rachael Ray to keep the fire burning.
In a Skype interview with the cooking diva, the first lady brought fringe fans and foes alike to a screeching halt when she made a confession. Her new look wasn’t simply a fashion statement, it was a (gasp!) manifestation of a midlife crisis. “This is my midlife crisis, the bangs,” she said. “I couldn’t get a sports car. They won’t let me bungee-jump. So instead, I cut my bangs.”
The first lady’s press secretary, Hannah August, assured me that the quip was nothing more than that. “She was joking around,” August says. Perhaps she was, but jokes have a way of leaking partial truths, and this one appears to be no exception. Obama’s statement revealed an important, albeit obvious, fact. In the midst of midlife crises, men buy things. Women, it seems, buy beauty.
Hair genius John Barrett, founder of the elite Bergdorf Goodman salon that bears his name, calls Obama’s focus on her appearance brave. “Many women I’ve known have had to be talked down from the ‘face-lift ledge’ during a midlife crisis,” he says. “I was relieved when Michelle Obama made an innocuous decision to simply evolve her hairstyle!” While Barrett was careful not to classify bangs as the “new face-lift,” he notes that the wispy tresses are powerful purveyors of youth. “If done correctly, [sporting bangs or deciding to add color] can shave years off of a woman’s appearance,” he says.
Marshall Lin, a stylist at the prestigious Frédéric Fekkai Salon in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, echoes Barrett. “Bangs can add a youthful, modern edge to a style,” he says. Lin acknowledged having seen many middle-aged female clients who come in yearning for a younger, fresher version of themselves. “I’ve had clients who are seeking to go in a totally new, fresh direction with their hair.” He calls the move a sign of self-assurance. “When a woman becomes older, she becomes more comfortable with herself, she has more confidence, and with that confidence she’s willing to change up her look, which can be transformative,” he says.
“The truth in all of it is, that we do need to have a certain look. We can’t really age-out, or people ... won’t believe us.”
Looking at the hairstyles of some of the women in FLOTUS’s playing field, it’s hard to argue with the stylists. From Kerry Washington to Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton to Gayle King, bangs are, well ... bangin’. When Nora Ephron famously convinced lobbyist Liz Robbins to say goodbye to her massive red locks and opt instead for a tamed, trendy bob, she didn’t do it out of shallowness. She did it because for so many high-profile women, appearance is still everything.
According to Marcia Reynolds, a certified master life coach and author of the book Wander Women: How High Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, women are virtually programmed to be image-conscious. That tendency can spiral in a midlife crisis, she says. “People make the mistake that we do it to be attractive,” she says. “We do it to stay relevant.”
“To be inspired to be yourself and look your best is great,” Reynolds says. Still, she was quick to remind me that anything taken to the extreme is dangerous. “To be obsessed with your appearance, and never get enough? Then it’s bad.” As I continue to bring up the term “midlife crisis,” I can almost hear Reynolds cringe through the phone. “It’s more of a midlife questioning,” she corrects me gently. “Are we on the right path? Are we making the difference we can make? These are the questions we’re asking ourselves.” No matter what we deem our calling, she says, the way we present ourselves—for better or worse—is critical to our success. “The truth in all of it is, that we do need to have a certain look. We can’t really age out, or people ... won’t believe us.”
When I ask Reynolds if she thinks Obama’s “midlife crisis” statement revealed a hidden relationship between midlife crises and bangs, she chuckled. “Well, I doubt it.” John Barrett, for his part, applauds the first lady’s daring spirit. “Bravo to Michelle Obama,” he says. “She looks stunning.”