This story is part of Image issue 5, “Reverence,” an exploration of how LA does beauty. See the full package here.
A few months ago, I noticed that the part of my hairline that I had avoided, relaxing, regrown, hidden, smoothed all my life had quietly passed my timeline: sideburns. Suddenly, it seemed, the part of me that I hated growing up was everywhere; Everywhere I slipped or double-taped they were there – carefully and precisely shaped sideburns, slide and stitch sideburns, sideburns at the very end of wig transform videos I devoured.
I’ve never seen favorites highlighted in my feeds and given that kind of love – pushed forward and meant to be seen. Cinematography highlighted the levels: Camera angles – panning and cropping close together – emphasized the lengthening of the hair. Loose, carefully modified strands appeared to be cut and glued, creating the effect of a fuller, wispier paw. The hair, gelled and brushed, was delicately rendered into a single curl.
Hair is an exercise in alteration, in personalization. Color, style, shape, texture – there really are no limits. Over the years, baby hair has taken center stage as a playground for swirling and adorning the hairline. But the favorites were a kind of loose playing field not always taken into account. Their neglect is surprising when you see their power in action.
Favorites carry an attitude. Last year’s Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B sex-rap “WAP” cover art is punctuated by the display of their facial profiles. Their ’90s updos may have stolen the show (another time when sideburns were in the spotlight), but their simple, brushed sideburns are a reminder of how important sideburns are, adorned or not.
The finishing touch of sideburn style is crucial in framing the face. Short or long, we all work with some version of a favorite as part of our hair (isn’t that what we’re all trying to cling to?). Favorites are equal. So why do they feel so awkward?
Growing up, I never showed love to my favorites. It didn’t matter how I wore them; I never knew what to do with them. Sometimes they are flush with the face. Other times they looked curly, straight, frizzy. Barely long enough to slip behind my ear and too short to slip down, they never got the useful memo.
I never shaved my sideburns growing up, but it’s a miracle I never tried. Even with the braided styles, my biggest request to my stylist was to put as many of my sideburns hair into one braid as possible. When tiny Afro puffs took shape along my cheekbones, I started to roll my eyes. What am I supposed to do with this? It’s time to remove the gel. They were curly and short but luckily not too noticeable – until I was called for them.
“Whatever, Ashanti.” I still remember the search. Me, Ashanti. The 2002 platinum disc artist and Grammy Award-winning R&B singer and songwriter, who felt ubiquitous in my world during my teenage years. Ashanti. Was. Literally. Everywhere: “Always on Time”, alongside rapper Ja Rule, “What’s Luv?” and “Insane”. She was that girl. I was 12, and for black tweens like me, who had baby hair and sideburns, her name became a last word insult. College is all about one-liners. I got them – usually from the few black boys I went to school with in a suburb outside of Buffalo. I wondered about the mechanics of the snub. There was always that nuance – intentional or implied – that sideburns were masculine and, therefore, something that women shouldn’t want or have.
I became bored of having them. Since sideburns are often categorized as facial hair, I felt, like many women, that my sideburns were something that needed to be gotten rid of. Even now, the vast majority of YouTube videos I’ve seen focusing on women and favorites focus on how to shave them with a dermaplaner or use hair removal strips on them.
Favorites are detailed in portraits as a symbol of authority – usually for males – in various cultures. In earlier eras, men were encouraged to develop and preserve their sideburns or shape them into a style that would prove their hairiness. Wide, wide legs were stylish in the 1960s; in vintage photos on Tumblr, Paul McCartney appears next to guys with skinny jeans who appear to live in Highland Park.
Knowing that there is power in the hair on the side of my face is something I am learning to embrace. I’m grateful for this recent influx of women reflecting their confidence through their sideburns. And I’m grateful for how wigs creatively invoke that power. Sideburns can improve your face shape or draw attention to your best features. They can help create a distinct “you” or send a message, whatever it is. Perhaps the whiskers artifice on wigs points to a future where we can let go of the madness of hiding what has always been there.
Darian Symoné Harvin is a beauty and culture writer. She was born in Long Beach, California, raised in Buffalo, NY and lives in Los Angeles.