Bodies Business in the Front, Rebellion in the Back
My childhood rat tail was a lesson on the borders of class and gender.
I must have been about seven years old when, sitting in the chair at the women’s hair salon, I asked the stylist to leave a little spot longer at the back.
My mother would take me there for periodic haircuts , where I can only remember ever opting for a straight buzz cut. Adrift in the black leather chair and plastic cloak, I made a choice. I didn’t even know the words, then, for what I wanted—the short, two-syllable phrase so universally disdained: rat tail . All I knew was that I wanted it.
The request was the Saint-Henri boys’ fault. Not that they pressured me into it—though we shared the same neighborhood, we spoke different languages and rarely interacted. Rather, they were a shimmering presence at the corner of my eye, southwest of nearby Station Lionel-Groulx, a group I was aware of and afraid of in equal measure. To an outsider, they may not have looked much different than me. We were both, after all, on the wrong side of the tracks. But to a shy, bookish, lonely anglophone growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in 1990s separatism-frenzied Montreal, they were everything my younger self was not: self-assured, powerful, numerous, authentic, and capital- F Francophone.
They probably came from working-class backgrounds; though my parents both had liberal arts degrees, the Saint-Henri boys probably grew up, as I did, in modest homes; maybe made do, as my family had, without a car; maybe made do, as we had, without new clothes or brand-name shoes.
Unlike me, however, their worlds were circumscribed by the steep hill you had to climb if you wanted to get from our neighborhood to the bright lights and bustle of downtown, or to the well-groomed, tree-lined avenues of Westmount. If Montreal was truly the Paris of North America, then its French-speaking poor to the south, east, and north of its center were the denizens of the banlieues. They may have fit into the neighborhood better than I did, but their ability to move through the city’s moneyed nucleus, with its glass skyscrapers and office jobs, was dictated not only by education and peer networks but by being able to speak English, the lingua franca of the rest of the continent.
As a shy kid with undiagnosed anxiety issues, most of my youth felt like a game of cat and mouse: Selfhood was less a question of desire and more a question of saying yes to the right opportunity at the right time. It would be decades before I started making more confident decisions about my life, whether the choice was a job or a haircut. All I knew then was I’d seen the Saint-Henri boys with rat tails, they looked different in a cool way, and a group of that size surely couldn’t be wrong about something like that. So I made my request to the hairdresser, a shaky declaration of agency, a step toward the making of the self.
A year or so later, my family moved north to lower Westmount in a feat of upward mobility. My father’s employer had gone public and offered stock options to its employees; my parents cashed them in and moved us into a beautiful ground-floor condo on cozy Grosvenor Street. I cried when they replaced our long-suffering floral-patterned couch, its frame covered in streaks of marker and battle scars inflicted by the cat we used to own. But it wasn’t very Westmount.
Though my new address was only a four-minute metro ride from the Saint-Henri bubble, the two felt universes apart, separated by a steep hill and the proverbial tracks. In Saint-Henri I’d been an awkward anglophone in a sea of francophony; in Westmount I was a poor kid interloping among the wealthy, from the scions of Montreal dynasties to the merely well-off. Always, I was bookish, nerdy, effeminate, and socially inept. Meanwhile, the rat tail continued to grow. I kept it on at successive haircuts, perhaps wanting to prove that I was still, even tenuously, Alex from the block, tied to my working-class roots by those swirling brown strands of rebellion.
Gradually, it became a physical manifestation of my ever-present feeling of being an outsider.
But as the rat tail grew, so too did the volume of the insults it attracted. My new classmates seemed to have a name for it before I did, a phrase that made the rounds like a bad joke or an urban legend. Rat tail . The least appetizing part of the least likeable animal. And each person also seemed to come to the same conclusion: My rat tail was bad .
Yet I wore it for years, alone in the quest of it. Why did I keep it, weathering the insults and embarrassment, when the world kept telling me to shear it off? It might just have started out as a refusal to admit I was wrong, the way children can be stubborn. Gradually, though, it became a physical manifestation of something more important: my ever-present feeling of being an outsider. At the time, I only understood this sensation in very personal terms. It made sense to me that my hair should also set me apart, warding off normies and welcoming weirdos. But, as the years passed, I came to understand how both class and gender were layered into the feeling—though, as I’d also learn, these readings can be contradictory.
As I’d intuited young, ha ircuts are signifiers of style and selfhood: punks get Mohawks; army recruits get buzz cuts. Butches go short, femmes go long. Office workers get No. 2s; fashionistas get high ’n’ tights; young children, before it makes sense to spend money on their looks, get bowl cuts. Many haircuts are, objectively, ridiculous: the fade, the devilock, the trihawk, the one where the barber buzzes a swoosh into the side of the head, the Chad Kroeger or the Deryck Whibley, the Flock of Seagulls, the comb-ov er. But haircuts are also context-specific, taking their meaning from the community that sees them and what they perceive as stylish or meaningful. In some cultures, boys might see long hair as a symbol of virility, haircuts as emblematic of castration. Growing your hair might be a religious duty, a sign of both obeisance and belonging. In other cases, the opposite will be true.
My mistake, it seemed, was transporting a mullet-adjacent haircut whose coolness was legible in one space—working-class, French-speaking Saint-Henri—up the hill to posh, stuffy anglophone Westmount. Living where I was, I felt an innate, unspoken understanding that the haircut was Bad because it was a low-class haircut. Students gave me the unpleasant nicknames of Alex Girly and Alex Not-So-Manly. People suggested I cut it off, lest they do it for me. In daydreams, I dodged a crew of scissor-wielding popular kids intent on a violence that, then and now, felt radically out of step with the severity of the offense.
The rat tail, like so many other cultural failures throughout history, is something of an orphan. On Urban Dictionary it’s ascribed, variously and crudely, to “rednecks, Germans, Latinos” or the children of ’80s and ’90s “gangster parents.” Google’s Ngram feature shows usage for the term spiking significantly in the 1940s and staying steadily popular ever since. Macmillan Dictionary claims people were referring to hair as “rats’ tails” as early as the first half of the nineteenth century but associates our contemporary understanding with Jet Li and ’80s manga.
Hairstylecamp.com, meanwhile, suggests rat tails are most popular in Australia and New Zealand and that, despite not being mainstream, they “are making a comeback.” The site offers the discerning browser twenty different variations on the rat-tail style, from the elaborate (Chignon, Fishtail Braid) to the classic (Curly Tail, Single Curl) to the ill-advised (one variant called “Rat Splat” makes the titular critter all too explicit). The photo evidence appears evenly split between professional soccer players in action, hair-salon glamor shots, and anonymous photos of unsuspecting children sitting in classrooms.
It’s this latter category that seems to dominate public perception: the rat tail is a haircut doomed to be surreptitiously photographed and mocked. It bespeaks no special talent on the part of the hairdresser and can easily be done on the cheap, if not for free. The lone Urban Dictionary description that verges on positive pegs it, a little desperately, as “one of the few hair styles that is still truly individualist”; the entry has 105 downvotes to only fifty upvotes, by far the worst ratio. When celebrities give it a whirl, like Shia LaBeouf did in 2015 for his role in American Honey , it’s often met with peanut-gallery laughter. Though a few men’s fashion sites responded with how-to content, one pest-control company offered the star $10,000 to cut it off as a PR stunt. They, like my schoolyard tormentors, couldn’t help but insist, That thing needs to go .
In addition to its class signification, the gendered aspect to the rat tail affects how the style and its wearers are perceived.
Even my partner, upon seeing the photograph on the Wikipedia page for the rat tail, expressed her revulsion despite my having just said, “Honestly, this looks like it could have been me in the ’90s.” In addition to its class signification, the gendered aspect to the rat tail—a lock of long, lustrous femininity breaking through the masculine crop—affects how the style and its wearers are perceived. That it mixes together two nominally opposite, even competing gendered understandings of hair means it lives in a kind of nether zone. On the one hand, it’s a haircut associated with a certain version of white American masculinity—LaBeouf’s, for instance, was thick, braided, and tied off at the end with a rubber band, tough and terse. But on me, a skinny nerd with no pretensions to machismo, a wispy rat tail’s more effeminate qualities were much more pronounced.
I hadn’t thought it possible, but by the start of high school, the anti–rat tail sentiment had intensified from the middling disgust my hair aroused in elementary school. Faced with a new crop of students and no longer among the school’s eldest, I was easily placed on the bottommost rung of the pecking order.
The school was located in Montreal West, a sleepy suburb less rich than Westmount but not without its upper-class pretensions. I was still a year or two shy of my growth spurt and had no musculature to speak of. My social skills were still crawling out of the pubescent soup of my developing brain. I clung to the strands of my dignity and got the tail cut down to about half its length near the end of the school year, but that dignity was dwindling.
One night in early August of 2001, as I tried to fall asleep, I found myself imagining the upcoming school year. I envisioned myself stoically trying to make it through another year of having no friends, hearing insults in computer class, feeling a jerk at the base of my skull as I stood reading something on a bulletin board, turning to find an older student laughing.
My mind swelled up like a wave, forming a single, solitary sentence, the logical conclusion of a long, inexorable uphill march through the bullshit gateways society erects on behalf of the capitalist heteropatriarchy to exclude, sand down, disempower, and crush the spirits of people who don’t conform:
If I have to go through another year of this, I’m going to kill myself .
I was six weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday. Propelled by a force I did not know myself to possess, I strode quickly to the bathroom. Before second thoughts or sentimentality could stop me, I dug my mother’s scissors from a drawer and chopped off my rat tail at the spot where my spine met my skull.
My mother wandered in, I think, and consoled me when she realized what had happened. We swept the hairs into an envelope and tucked the furry little corpse at the bottom of my chest of drawers. It stayed there until I moved out; I probably still have it somewhere, buried in some box full of other memories.
What didn’t change, over the years, was that sense of being an outsider, a weirdo. After I came out as nonbinary at thirty-one, my years-long willingness to hold fast to a haircut against the tide of public sentiment, a style for men that was tinged with female-coded flair, that only a fear of dying could convince me to part with, finally clarified my younger self’s persistence.
I thought about something my grade school friend Tadzeo had said, how he’d advised me to keep it, that it made me unique. His words had made sense to me at the time, because when I wore the rat tail, it was as a badge of outsider pride, a sort of queerness avant la lettre. For many years after I moved to Westmount, I was the only person I knew or saw who had one. As I began to make my way in the world of social interactions, the specter of the rat tail became little more than a skeleton in my closet, a childhood foible I hoped my high school friends wouldn’t reveal to new acquaintances.
But I understand now that having the rat tail didn’t single me out as anything so much as fashion-unconsciously poor. The tough kids I used to watch from a distance are making their way through a world much harder for them to move through than it was for me. If I’d really wanted, I could have just cut my hair and blended in, strands slipping from my neck to reveal a normal, middle-class white kid whose parents had managed to squirrel enough away to pay for a university education, a rat deserting a sinking class signifier.
The last time I saw something that looked like a rat tail online, it was in a meme claiming “When this haircut shows up in your Hood/it means your rent is about to increase,” accompanied by four young white people rocking looks that melded TERF bangs in the front with, well, party in the back—a sort of rat tail/mullet hybrid that seemed like middle-class kids winking at the cut’s working-class connotations.
Well-off white kids appropriating poverty is hardly new—something like that, after all, was what was going on when I got my rat tail—but the ease with which the haircut could become a symbol not of the poor but of those displacing them was jarring to me. But that’s how style and class intermingle—a snake swallowing a rat gnawing at its own tail.