Whenever Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress, one issue cuts above all the rest. It’s not user privacy. It’s not allowing bias political ads on his platform. It’s not whether Facebook should be allowed to create its own currency. Nope, it’s the CEO’s haircut, a severe helmet of hair with short bangs that frames an expanse of forehead. It’s so awful, in fact, that it prompts more or less everyone on Earth (or at least the internet) to wonder, How can a man that rich have a hairdo that bad?
During the latest episode of Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington, a member of Congress even joined in on the fun. California Democrat Rep. Katie Porter wryly observed, “Mr. Zuckerberg, I know Facebook can sometimes be an unkind place toward my personal appearance, and today, apparently, toward your haircut. But as the mother of a teenage boy, I just want to say thanks for modeling the short cut.”
Writing for Vogue, Emma Specter was surprisingly complimentary about Zuckerberg’s choice of hairdo, comparing it to the choppy bangs worn by Emily Ratajkowski at this year’s New York Fashion Week and concluding, “It’s actually good. How often do you find a haircut that can go from the House floor to a Berlin dance floor with a simple change of outfit?”
But Specter’s favorable review was an outlier amongst the many, many, many jokes about Zuckerberg’s hair on Twitter. One theory, put forward by @Trillburne, has gained a lot of traction: He’s chosen that haircut because he’s such a big Augustus Caesar fanboy.
The root of this theory is a 2018 New Yorker profile in which Zuckerberg discussed his obsession with the Roman emperor. Talking about his honeymoon in Rome, he said, “My wife was making fun of me, saying she thought there were three people on the honeymoon: me, her and Augustus. All the photos were different sculptures of Augustus.” (The couple subsequently named their second child August.)
Knowing that Zuckerberg is so taken with all things Augustus, it’s a plausible idea. So let’s call that Theory No. 1. But the Caesar haircut he appears to be sporting isn’t named after Augustus, but rather his adopted father Julius Caesar. Rachel Gibson, aka The Hair Historian, says, “His hair absolutely resembles a Caesar cut — a classic men’s style which is short and layered with a short, blunt fringe. But while Augustus Caesar might be one of his idols, I’m not sure he’d go as far as modeling his hair cut.”
So I went back all the way to 121 AD and Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus’ excellently gossipy book The Twelve Caesars to look for other reasons why the Facebook founder might have chosen the cut beyond historical fetishism.
Tranquillus writes of Julius Caesar that “his baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject of gibes for his detractors. Because of it he used to comb forward his scanty locks from the crown of his head.” Theory No. 2, then: Zuckerberg now favors the Caesar cut because he’s balding and would like to avoid gibes from his detractors.
That said, Gibson doesn’t recommend the Caesar cut for men trying to draw attention away from a receding hairline. “This isn’t the most flattering style for someone who’s receding. It draws attention to the forehead and the super-short length and graphic line of the fringe really enhance the fact that the hairline isn’t as far forward as it once was,” she explains. “Any of salon or barber can give you plenty of advice — and I don’t think a Caesar cut would be their answer.”
Looking at Tranquillus’ biography of Augustus, however, opens up another option: “[Augustus] was so far from being particular about the dressing of his hair that he would have several barbers working in a hurry at the same time.” Perhaps Zuckerberg’s haircut is simply an extension of his previously expressed desire to not spend too much time on fashion choices. At a Facebook town hall event in 2014, Zuckerberg explained why he wears the same clothes all the time (excluding Congressional appearances when he puts on his “sorry suit”), “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve the community.”
So Theory No. 3: The Zuckerberg haircut is merely an extension of the Zuckerberg uniform. Gibson was of two minds about this notion: “When it comes to lo-fi, low-maintenance hairstyles, his isn’t necessarily the best choice, as anyone with bangs will tell you they need cutting regularly in order to look good, particularly when there’s such a precision line. But in terms of day-to-day maintenance, it’s an easy wash-and-go style that isn’t going to require much time in front of the mirror while he’s practicing his speeches.”
Directly contradicting Theory No. 3 is Theory No. 4: Zuckerberg may actually think his hairdo is fashionable. After all, the Caesar style has a storied history. As David Mansour writes in From ABBA to Zoom: A Pop Culture Encyclopaedia, “This male haircut was a trendy style in the 1960s, worn by mod studs like James Coburn and Steve McQueen. Thanks to pop singer George Michael and ER actor George Clooney, it made a comeback in the early 1990s.” Could Zuckerberg also be a secret Dr. Doug Ross fan?
The 1990s also provide us with a template for where the Zuckerberg hairdo story could end up. Throughout that decade, Bill Gates was the gold standard for terrible tonsorial decisions by tech titans. Dennis Miller once joked, “If Bill Gates is worth $30 billion then a good haircut must cost $31 billion.” And in the 1998 Simpsons episode “Das Bus,” a villainous Bill Gates — voiced by Hank Azaria — introduces himself with the line, “Don’t let the haircut fool you, I’m exceedingly wealthy.”
That same year, the Wall Street Journal noted that Gates was going through a sartorial relaunch around the introduction of Windows 98: “Even Mr. Gates’ haircut seems less aggressively unfashionable.” But as recently as 2002, the inherent badness of Gates’ ’do was a talking point for the Christian Science Monitor, which called him “the $46 billion man with the poor man’s haircut.”
Gates and Zuckerberg both first came to public attention with messier, less mockable hairstyles. In 1985, for example, a set of Microsoft promotional pictures found Gates lounging on his desk with a tousled boyband mop, leading to the set being erroneously tagged as a spread for Teen Beat. Early period Zuckerberg also sported a similar mess of curly hair.
For both men, the switch to a severe, arguably unstylish look coincided with the transition from dorm-room whiz kid to embattled tech figurehead. And that’s Theory No. 5: Zuckerberg’s hairdo is simply the cut of someone who wants to be taken seriously. That it also provokes so much derision is simply an unfortunate side effect.
If Zuckerberg sticks with the look, like Gates, he could find that it starts to become an advantage for his personal brand. A gag from 2008’s “Last Day at Microsoft” video, in which Brian Williams declares Gates “a brilliant, powerful, let’s face it, sexy and good-looking leader of men and women who just doesn’t believe in paying more than $7 for a haircut,” has been accepted as fact across the internet — a testament to his superhuman frugality, even if it’s not actually true.
Over time, Gates has managed to turn his awful haircut into a rhetorical weapon and way of seizing the moral high ground. Case in point: After so many bad hair days, he was credibly able to slam Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2010 for prioritizing getting a hair transplant over focusing on foreign aid: “Rich people spend a lot more money on their own problems like baldness than they do to fight malaria.”
Gibson certainly sees a historical precedent for powerful men having bad haircuts to indicate that they’re beyond such trivialities. “It’s absolutely the case that sometimes male politicians, powerful leaders, and let’s face it, men in general consider themselves ‘above’ good grooming.” She points to the example of Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who have both built brands based on their “bad” hair.
“Hillary Clinton once said she knew if she wanted to be on the front pages, all she had to do was get a haircut,” Gibson continues. “It’s definitely something women are judged more harshly for and something that men are allowed to get away with.”
And so, we arrive at Theory No. 6, the most compelling of the lot: Zuckerberg’s bad hairdo is just another symbol of all his privileges. Or as Gibson puts it, “Zuck’s haircut is probably unintentionally not very good for this reason — it’s just hair to him. But as the worldwide interest in his Caesar cut shows, people are actually much more invested in it than he might think.”