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Middle school: where everyone suffers through terrible fashion choices, skin, and of course haircuts.  This, my friends, is a story about my worst haircut of all time.

It was 2005. I was in sixth grade. My parents had just gotten divorced. Inexplicably, I found myself obsessed with the movie Grease. I watched it dozens of times, bought the soundtrack  and made my parents play it constantly, and even recruited my friends to reenact certain scenes with me at every sleepover.

My favorite character in Grease was Rizzo.

I thought she was the coolest. She had the coolest outfits, the most “fuck it” attitude, and was a natural leader. Sandy sucks, she’s so lame, I thought. Rizzo is way better. And she has that cool short haircut! It rules! But I didn’t quite have the moxie or bravado to pull it off. That haircut was for braver, cooler girls than Erin Vail.

Perhaps in an attempt to be one of those brave, cool girls who could handle anything, I tried to dress “vintage” in sixth grade, busting out pencil skirts, full skirts, cardigans, and pink hi-tops. And what better complement to a pre-teen’s professional daywear than my new orthodontic accessories: metal braces and expander to make room for my crowded teeth. The expander was more than just a visual atrocity; it also forced me to make a disgusting slurping sound any time I needed to un-stuck some food caught in my teeth.

It was a full sensory experience.

One day, while I was living my best life and trying to stand out in preppy, suburban Pennsylvania, my mom’s monthly copy of Elle showed up on our doorstep. And who was on the cover but mid-aughts icon Keira Knightley.

This was not the Keira I knew. This new, improved Keira had a badass, short haircut. Shorter even than her bob in Bend it like Beckham. I was struck by inspiration. This is the cut I wanted. She looked so cool, so effortless, so chic, and so unique. I definitely had the confidence and bone structure to pull that off. Me, being twelve, with braces and baby fat and the roundest face of all time.

I couldn’t find the actual cover but this is the closest approximation of the cut.

This is Kiera Knightley.

I was so excited to show my hairdresser the picture.

I bet no one asks for cuts like this! I thought. But once the cut and styling were finished, I felt a sinking realization sweep over me: I am not actually Keira Knightley. And the cut looked nothing like it either.

This is NOT Keira Knightley.

This was the worst haircut.

As it grew out, I looked alternately like Kate Gosselin or Daniel Radcliffe in the third Harry Potter movie. Being in middle school was bad enough. Kids took every opportunity to pick on anyone who looked even the slightest bit different, so how would I possibly avoid the mockery of my peers and friends alike? How could I deal with this when it was so obviously terrible? There was no hiding this.

But you know what? It grew back. Because it’s hair, and that’s what it does! And looking back, I kind of cherish this awkward period. It was a real turning point for me, when I finally wasn’t afraid to go for it and be who I wanted to be, even if it produced disastrous results.

I learned another very valuable lesson: I now know that the shortest length I can confidently rock is a chin length bob. I’m also glad the haircut came at one of the most turbulent, insecure times in my life.If I can get through a bad haircut in the midst of raging hormones, heightened emotions, and braces, I can basically do anything. And so can Keira Knightley.

Erin Vail

Erin is the 2003 West Reading Elementary Geography Bee champion, a TV obsessive, and never not thinking about Buffalo sports.

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