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A few months ago, while searching for a job after finishing graduate school, I cut my hair into a mullet. I sported the look – a tightly buzzed dome with a dangling blond mudflap at the back – with defiant pride.
The choice might seem contradictory, considering the “business in the front, party in the back” hairdo would probably have a negative impact on my employability. These days, mullets are considered tacky and uncouth, especially in more sophisticated circles. Better suited to a punk rocker than a young professional.
My mother, who despised the mullet, begged me to shave it off. I told her the haircut symbolized my individuality. That cutting my hair would be a concession to malevolent corporate forces, an example of forfeiting my autonomy to fit the norm. “If they won’t hire me because of my hair, then it’s not somewhere I want to work,” I told her, without a trace of irony. The mullet became a part of my identity.
The hairstyle has always been something of a mission statement. David Bowie rocked an orangutan-orange head ornament to affirm his androgynous, gender-blurring Ziggy Stardust persona; tennis player Andre Agassi wore his fluffed poodle mop as a middle finger to the country-club establishment; and Joe Dirt, the lovesick redneck David Spade played in the 2001 film, needed a mullet because the top of his head never formed as a baby.
Fully understanding my mullet involves some personal anthropology. I grew up in Calgary, which sits at the intersection of two pro-mullet domains: cowboy and hockey culture. In North America, from the late 1980s onward, the mullet became symbolic of the rural working-class ethos, largely through the aesthetic of popular country music. The Kentucky Waterfall, yet another name for the mullet, is nearly synonymous with beer-drinking, free-wheeling, Nascar-revving, yeehaw culture in the southern United States. Calgary, a Prairie city with a strong history of agriculture and ranching, shares this spirit. At the Calgary Stampede, mullets are a trademark of the 10-day romp, much like Wrangler jeans and crushed Budweiser cans.
Then there’s hockey, which holds a near-mythical place in Canadiana. The Calgary Flames haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1989, but the local devotion remains fervent. Puck players have a reputation for growing their “flow,” so there’s a compulsion for youngsters to don the haircut, too. The best example of hockey hair is the eternally youthful Czech winger, Jaromir Jagr, who wore the Platonic ideal of a mullet as a Pittsburgh Penguin.
In high school, my friend Nick and I grew mullets, which flowed out from underneath our Blue Jays ball caps. I suppose our matching haircuts were a bit of cheekiness crossbred with group signifying.
But when I decided to adopt the hairstyle again, at 26, instead of playing the part of rebellious teenager, I desperately sought gainful employment. Despite my fancy New York University degree, I had no job prospects. I spent most of my time sitting in Manhattan coffee shops, trying to drum up freelance writing gigs. Sure, it sounds romantic, like the Hallmark movie version of a writer’s life – snow falling outside of fogged windows, warm coffee beside a glowing computer screen – but the reality is bleak. Those freelance gigs pay much less than minimum wage. It all felt futile since it would probably take three years on a full-time salary – if I even found a job – to recoup my $80,000 tuition.
So, why would I get a goofy haircut and jeopardize my chances of getting a job? At the time, I’d convinced myself that the “soccer rocker” look struck a perfect balance between partying and professionalism, an essential duality for anyone shifting from party-filled post-adolescence into evening-news adulthood. I thought the mullet reflected an attempt to cling to the creativity of my college years, which would inevitably get sapped by the demands of a 9-to-5 gig. These were noble ideas. They suited my self-perception as a young artist railing against “the man.” They also suggested that my mullet represented a conscious protest, when, in reality, it was just a manifestation of my mid-20s insecurity.
To be frank, the hairstyle distracted from my male pattern baldness. By shaving the top and letting the back run wild, I could get rid of the spots where the follicles withered, while accentuating the areas where it still came in thick. Wearing a mullet gave me control over my looks. At least I could choose an ugly haircut instead of allowing myself to become unprettied by a genetic predisposition.
In other ways, the mullet was a form of self-sabotage. I feared that after all of my effort — internships, grad school, putting the “free” in freelance work — instead of finding a job in writing, I would be relegated to a mundane career with no artistic distinction. That after my parents and teachers fostered the notion that I was somehow special — which fed my work, by the way — all of my so-called talent would amount to nothing. So I grew a frickin’ mullet. Easier to wear a jokey, ironic haircut, feign disinterest in success and claim that I was protesting “corporate conformity” rather than facing reality. I tried to reject the establishment before it could do the same to me.
If I listened to my mother and dispatched the mullet, it would signify a step toward adulthood, an instance in which I put my ego aside to get the career that I had been working toward for years. If I kept the funky cut, I would be hiding my insecurity behind its false bravado.
Then I nabbed an important job interview at Toronto Life magazine and had to make a decision.
By the time the interview rolled around, I felt prepared. I had the necessary experience to succeed in the role. I dressed well. In the meeting, I established a decent rapport with the interviewer, rallying back and forth about the challenges of keeping journalism alive in the internet age. We spoke for about an hour, but it felt much shorter. We shook hands. I exited the building and caught a reflection of myself in a storefront window.
Without a mullet, I looked and felt different. I’d left my adolescence, and insecurities about my receding hairline, on the barbershop floor.
Mathew Silver lives in Toronto.