Not since the mullet has a men’s hairstyle provoked as much public debate as the man bun. Exactly like a normal bun, but for men, the style has earned the ire of Brigham Young University–Idaho’s honor code office and inspired comics to opine that a man who wears a bun looks like “an onion who’s also a dick” or a “pre-pubescent samurai.” But the style has its cheerleaders: The Instagram account Man Buns of Disneyland has more than 62,000 followers and its own merch.
While the look obviously isn’t new, public consternation over it has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, not least because of a terrifying Photoshopped picture of Donald Trump with a man bun that went viral. Google “man bun” and dozens of articles worrying over the style will materialize. The most prominent theme is probably the claim—floated in a Mic article and then widely repeated elsewhere—that man buns may be causing a condition called traction alopecia that threatens to destroy the thick locks they contain. Many of these articles smack of concern trolling—they seem almost gleeful over the possibility that the man bun can cause harm.
What’s the big deal? Why this haircut, and why now? Here, Slate writers Christina Cauterucci and Jacob Brogan hazard some guesses.
Christina: Jacob, you are a man. I sometimes wear a bun. Together, can we solve the riddle of the man bun?
Jacob: Let’s see. Generally speaking, trendy haircuts send normative masculinity into a panic.
Christina: I’ve always taken long hair to be a signifier of virility for men, though. Maybe it’s because I came of age in the era of Incubus—I had a sizable collage of Brandon Boyd photos on my bedroom wall for years, and he was an early adopter of the man bun. As long as it wasn’t too stringy, long dude-hair seemed like the pinnacle of manliness to me. It could be that it suggests hair growing in other manly places (like the, uh, chest?), and needing to pull it back suggests that the hair-bearer is doing something sexy and physical, like making furniture, or a baby, or in Boyd’s case, ’90s alt-funk metal.
Although Boyd made his bun out of white-people dreads for a while, which turned something beautiful and pure into an affront to common decency. Can you imagine if that became the next big trend? The Internet would implode.
Jacob: I think you’re on to something important. The man bun has its origins in a culturally legible sort of manliness—it’s right there in the name!—but the moment it becomes a thing, a look, it begins to undermine that very conceit. We often act as if a man who conforms too closely to a trend is somehow less than a man, perhaps because we equate trendiness with passivity, and passivity with the loss of the virility that you saw in longer men’s hair.
Man buns probably literally worked their way into the mainstream thanks to bartenders and others who had to get longish hair out of the way for purely practical reasons. When others take it up for its aesthetic appeal alone, it mostly loses its reason for being. We see them working hard for a look rather than working, and we judge them for it.
Christina: The New York Times was ahead of this trend, predicting man-bun supremacy in a piece that ran all the way back in January 2012. The article corroborates your bartender theory and gives props to chefs like Top Chef contestant Chris Jones, too. It also narrates the birth of a man bun in gloriously deadpan Times fashion:
Alexander Kellum, 31, a fine-arts painter and yoga teacher who lives in Williamsburg, bends forward and pulls his long chestnut hair in front of him; then he performs a twisting and wrapping motion until his hair is firmly tucked into a knot at the back of his head. Sometimes he’ll let a little hair poke out for an “abstract expressionist” flourish, he said.
Total Frat Move nailed the appeal of the man bun in a rant against the style a couple of months ago: “It’s one look that says jobless and successful all at once, and women love that.” (This is probably the only time I have ever or will ever agree with anything this site has published.) But, the author writes, “in almost every situation, a problem isn’t the originator, it’s the imitators.”
So it’s not objectionable when people who do actual physical work wear the bun, but when financial-sector guys in suits try to force the look, they’re posers? Buns make heads less sweaty, and our country could stand to be a little less sweaty.
Jacob: In this Los Angeles Times historical gallery of men’s hairstyles, the majority are disheveled or shaggy looks. It’s as if effort itself—even in relatively minimal forms—were somehow suspect.
Christina: But men’s style seems to forever oscillate between groomed and ungroomed. There was the metrosexual, the lumbersexual, the Mad Men early-’60s revisionist. I think it’s also telling that the man bun is en vogue, but not the ponytail, which seems to take less effort to achieve than a bun. The Times trend piece quotes a bartender who dismisses ponytails as the territory of “Steven Seagal, hippie uncles and the like,” to which I’d add Paul Revere and his contemporaries—as American and manly as any dudes in history.
Could disheveled man buns be a carefully carefree backlash to the utilitarian ponytail or the clean-cut tight fades that have been big in the past couple of years?
Jacob: Sure, but it might be hard to be carefree when you’re supposedly at risk for baldness. Here’s an article from almost a year ago purporting to warn Jared Leto about the dangers of traction alopecia. So it’s not like this is some new discovery, but now the trend has somehow completed its transformation from masculine signifier to feminizing force. When publications warn us about the risk of baldness, they’re really saying that men are unmanning themselves.
Christina: What’s funny about this whole debate is that a man bun is just a bun. The idea of a “man bun” exposes the superficiality of gender in the same way as those Bic “for her” pens and every single Axe product. Marie Claire got at this existential core, perhaps unintentionally, in a photo slideshow that asks readers to guess whether each pictured bun exists on the head of a man or a woman. Androgyny anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere, the thinking goes. But I’m all for anything that gives someone more options for shaping his appearance and gender expression. And I sometimes put my hair in a bun—it’s wonderful. My hair stays out of my face and off my neck! I want everyone to have that opportunity. Jacob, would you ever consider growing your hair out for the purposes of a bun?
Jacob: Looking through old pictures of myself recently, I realized that I’ve had some version of my current hairstyle ever since I cut off the ill-advised rat-tail that I had as a kid in the ’80s. My haircut is like my own private normcore. It’s probably time I shook things up, but I don’t think the bun’s going to work for me. Maybe I should try a side shave … ?