First Encounters is a series in which writers explore the media that inspired their first brush with their sexuality. Whether it was a book, a cartoon character, a film, or a painting, we all have one cultural artifact from our adolescence that informs how we think about our bodies and desires for the rest of our lives. Have a First Encounter you’d like to share? Send your story to email@example.com.
It started with the Hanson brothers and that inextinguishable summer hit made up of nonsense words that rang through 1997 like a virus. When I first heard it blaring out of my radio on the Top 40 countdown, I’d pictured a lithe group of brothers harmonizing, with their lean hips swinging like polyester-clad pendulums in a straight line. Sitting in my mother’s dank basement, I had no faces for the Hanson brothers. In my eight-year-old mind, they might as well have been the Jackson 5. The bumpin’, the groovin’, the moans, and breathy “oohs.” The song was good. I didn’t know what an mmmbop was, couldn’t conceive the precise unit of measurement an mmmbop could be contained in, but was certain of this: the singer was hot. The singer was hot, and he should be my boyfriend.
Weeks later, a surreptitiously screened half-hour of MTV videos gave me what I’d been craving — a glimpse at the face behind my favorite cheery, fruit-punch-pop voice. The brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma ambled around their hometown in the backs of cabs and on park benches, and goofed in front of a green screen and then casually rollerbladed through a parking lot. I found it sexy in that way where it isn’t sex-y at all. I hadn’t masturbated yet, had only felt inklings towards boys in class or at recess. Not to talk to them, just to watch from a distance without knowing where my wanting came from. As I watched Taylor Hanson — not kid-Zac, certainly not too old-Isaac — screech melodiously and slam on his keyboard, a warm and consuming frisson beamed in my stomach. My “type” was cemented. I liked boys with long hair.
I borrowed my sister’s Hanson cassette and played it over and over again on my Walkman. I stared into the yellow-orange glow of the picture on the tape case. There was Taylor’s face — bright and overexposed, his scrunched-up brow framed by a lion-like mane as he lay in the grass. His hair hung in his eyes a little, and yes, maybe he resembled a girl, but from then on, something about long locks caught my eye. I was still at the age where you didn’t necessarily want sex, you just wanted to crush your face against their cute face and feel the zing of a “hello,” as it passed by your locker. You wanted a distinct confirmation that the hearts around their initials on your Trapper Keeper were not only acceptable, but encouraged. In my case, you wanted strings of brassy hair falling in your face as they bent to tell you that your green corduroys were alright.
It brought me to purchase Snowed In — the rightfully forgotten Hanson Christmas album. I staged the funeral of my favorite stuffed animal mouse at recess so the boy with the chin-length hair would attend, perhaps eulogize his gray beaded body. It lead me to mount a hodgepodge magazine altar to my beloved long-haired men on the wall just left of my twin bed. There hung Gavin Rossdale, staring deep at me through his bleach-streaked greasy locks. There was Kurt Cobain, being Kurt Cobain. There was Jordan Catalano, who was really actually the actor Jared Leto, but to the fevered 8-year-old, he and the plaid-clad mysterious leaner who dated Angela Chase were one in the same. Each photo ripped from a teeny-bop magazine too trashy for me to read, each crinkled from times when I’d put my pointer finger to the page and began to long. All gazing at me urgently, forlornly through the visor of their non-haircuts, leaving rectangular Scotch tape stains my mother despised.
Gavin Rossdale, Jordan Catalano, and Johnny Depp were succeeded by any partial bad boy in a leather jacket whose hair came at least past the ear lobe in any scripted television show or movie. Men with long hair were the unknown. They were pretty-faced and pretty-backed, but they were still rugged and strange. At the same time, men with long hair were my twin. They say we’re attracted to people who resemble us, a residue of our essential narcissistic tendencies, and me with my mid-back length blonde hair wanted someone with the same disdain for grooming, the same carefree nature. Someone who doesn’t mind their hair blowing furiously in the wind or the fact that conditioner runs out often and remains expensive. It’s no surprise that I was drawn to the Beatles — four mouthy beatniks who practically originated the longhairs movement. In the teeming bubble of my early years, long hair was shorthand for sexual charisma. If there was a hair to frame a face, I wanted to be next to that face.
Haircuts were a prophylactic for me. They prohibited the good stuff. I couldn’t roam through a buzz cut or hastily run my fingers through any fellow fifth grader’s gelled spikes. Long hair meant play time. It meant longing. Lingering. Romance. Long hair has always been a cultural stand in for health, vitality, and youth. Long, lustrous locks implicitly tell people, “many, many children can spring from my loins.” But it also told me that the object of my affections was a rebel — ready to spin me around the wrong way on the tire swing and let me spiral around, my shoes flying off in opposite directions. Ready to watch Clerks with me under some plaid comforter in a basement and steal a peck. And, in later years, ready to give me that first, cough-inducing hit of pot in the woods behind campus, followed by a bite of a banana. For the cough.
I didn’t always need a man to have long hair to hold my attraction. As I aged into middle school, personalities outgrew the follicles, and it took more than a poorly attended-to bowl cut to strike my interest. Things caught my interest — voraciously, abundantly, changeably. But something still stirs when I see a man with hair dangling in his eyes on the street, whenever I watch old footage of George Harrison in his sitar days, and still whenever I hear the opening, pulsing “oh ah-oh,” of that song from those three blond brothers who were 14 months late for a trim.
There is a saying: “keep it in your pants.” That’s how we maintain our sense of propriety and power over our baser instincts, the urges that crawl over us from about age seven on. It was under the captivating thumb of long-haired men that I learned that my “it” could not be kept and was mostly unyielding. And over the years, despite attempts at high necklines, polite conversation, and layered haircuts, “it” has always remained out, floating somewhere indecently, curiously grasping away for a strange more — someone who knows, but doesn’t really care. Someone who is a mystery, but my twin. Sometimes with long hair, sometimes offering me the last subway seat, sometimes humbly sitting and reading in silence, waiting patiently for me to disturb it.