A visit to the hair salon every seven or eight weeks for me is the emotional equivalent of attending a high school reunion, the kind where two popular girls, naturally both cheerleaders, rush you in the restroom line, singsong, “Are you married yet? We didn’t think so,” and whizz off in a confetti of giggles. It was the tenth reunion, so at twenty-eight years old, I was incubating in graduate school. These classmates were already five years into jobs after four years of college, married to class jocks, eighteen months out from their first C-section, and a few hours from slicing brownies with a view of the family snowmobiles in the kitchen window. In that dim event room in a barely subsisting hotel off a highway actually in the territory of our rival school, with the DJ playing “our” songs like “Red Red Wine” and George Michael’s “Faith,” I chalked up the cheerleaders’ behavior to how I was sober at the party and whatever cocktails they were drinking contained high-proof ingredients, like insecurity, but they still shake their pompoms the moment my own self-confidence wanes at a hair appointment.
None of this, I know, is the stylist’s fault, who is unwittingly transmogrified into an eleventh-grade cheerleader from 1987 simply because of her facility with a flat iron. I contribute a whole set of unreasonable expectations to a shampoo and cut, chiefly, that I am retroactively asked to the prom or invited to hang out with Renee and Lori at the mall. I had an ESL hairdresser mother. Getting your hair done meant surviving the aftermath of war. It was something one family member did to another to save money but also to keep girls home. It wasn’t about boys or crushes. It was a form of housekeeping, like organizing the Mason jars of bulk goods in the cupboard.
The treatment apparently for people suffering from a phobia is to change the way the person thinks about the fear object through arranged and purposeful encounters with the fear. Standard phobias include acrophobia (fear of heights) and glossophobia (fear of speaking in public), perfectly reasonable ones, so reasonable it seems unreasonable notto experience them, include ballistophobia (fear of missiles or bullets), bizarre ones like alektorophobia (fear of chickens), aulophobia (fear of flutes), consecotaleophobia (fear of chopsticks), genuphobia (fear of knees) or the impractical cyberphobia (fear of computers) and phengophobia (fear of daylight or sunshine). Tonsurephobia (fear of haircuts) is attributed to a dread of sharp blades near the face or a lack of control over one’s appearance. Think Samson and Delilah. Think of young children brought to Supercuts. Under a tarp, the toddler watches with trepidation as a stranger turns their chin, saying look up, look down. The locks that appeared in the months after birth are lopped off and look powerless on the dirty floor. Compensation of a Dum-Dum lollipop at checkout.
In my case, it’s a fear of hair stylists. It takes willpower for me to remain under a salon’s vinyl cape. I constantly want to switch salons in a restlessness that has nothing to do with how my hair turned out. First appointment dynamics mean the stylist usually tries to make an effort to retain you as a regular client. By the third appointment, the gig is already up. I’m pegged as not needing to be flattered, letting the other woman daydream or eavesdrop as she snips.
I am not offered a complimentary glass of wine. I am never offered a complimentary glass of wine. At my current salon, it’s been explained to me, not that I asked, that my lack of beverage is because I’m only a cut appointment, not a color and cut. I dye my own hair at home. I am never escorted into the special room for “after” photo shoots of clients. I’m an apologetically unimaginative client with my Jennifer Aniston, updated Jennifer Aniston, or Gwyneth Paltrow modified and long bob. In recent years, trendy salons have become a rainbow of hair colors, including denim hair (indigo, acid or stone wash); nude hair; jewel-toned and pastel hair; pintura; rose gold; rainbow grunge hair; red ombre; gothic gray, artic gray, raven goddess, frost queen, and blue steel waves; the blush and butterscotch hair and a blonde look called “dusty hair.” Next time, I promise to bring a photo of a different look on my phone, as though my priority is to ensure that the hair cut interests her. I’m apologetically DIY, dying my hair auburn brown 56 at home before a salon visit.
Most salons are designed as open-concept work areas where woman talk, talk, and talk, the tête-à-tête repeated every five feet. (Except for a barber shop in a private room behind the display of Moroccan Oil products at my last salon. I might catch a rare glimpse of the salon owner giving a client a high fade—the owner’s sleeve tattoo, leather vest, paunch over tight black skinny jeans, and Duck Dynasty facial hair.) In every mirror, the pairs seem BFF, or minimally Facebook friends. One woman stands while the other sits. One woman labors, and the other sips a complimentary chardonnay or Keurig coffee. A stylist pauses in the wrapping of foils to listen; another stylist dabbing at dark roots stops to speak and holds a brush in midair. They collaborate over primping rituals that in high school secured a position on the cheerleader squad or date to Homecoming, for as Michel de Montaigne says, We perceive no beauties that are not sharpened, pricked out, and inflated by artifice. The confidence of these women who ramble on about vacations and new cars, while their hair stands in gooey peaks or is wrapped in foil like take-out appetizers, their eyebrows bizarre caterpillars of color! Fashion magazine opened halfheartedly on my lap, I’m imagining that these stylists and clients attend the same Super Bowl parties and have brought plastic-wrapped veggie platters to each other’s kitchens. They know each other’s families, know of dramas in those lives, hold opinions about said dramas.
After I’ve looked at a few magazine covers in the waiting area, the receptionist hands me off to the salon equivalent of a sports team’s water boy. The younger woman working toward her license by sweeping stylists’ stations and performing other chores escorts me to the sinks. I’ll try to enjoy the scalp massage from the stranger, the scent of expensive shampoo, some combination of lavender, lemon grass, herbs from a rain forest, and spices transported by magi, 8 ounces for $24. I decline the offer of a warm cucumber-scented towel pressed over my eyes. My hair aromatic and wet, I wait for my stylist, giving me plenty of time to watch the other customers in the mirror, who continue to talk, talk, talk. Meanwhile at our station, when my stylist returns, she’ll begin cutting my hair in what quickly becomes a vacuum of conversation. S., my current stylist, keeps a tiny Buddha statue beside her bejeweled dragon-shaped scissors and a burial mound of business cards. I constantly dread the point when we run out of conversational topics (variations of our children, upcoming holidays, Netflix series, the weather), i.e.: Thanksgiving, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the usual unusually mild temperature. The ashen silence marks me on the forehead, I think, and I’ll end up with an unflattering haircut suitable for a woman who wasn’t invited to the prom.
I’ve had spells where I shift from salon to salon. It’s like a charge that builds up until I finally decide to change salons, often risking a walk-in appointment. Sometimes a new salon is geographically closer, shaving a few driving miles, just an excuse. Really, it’s that I’m tired of currying favor with inflated 30% tips. I’m tired of dodging an imaginary blow. Usually, I pay a price for succumbing to the urge to break connection. As a walk-in appointment, I possess a knack for walking through the salon door on the stylist’s last day on the job. Wanting a punky Run Lola Run style bob from a grandmotherly stylist in a salon of clients receiving blue rinses on the day of her retirement party. Getting my hair colored for the first time by a stylist who had just quit and was pacing outside the shop with the cordless phone she’d snatched from the register. The jittery stylist who’d snipped off a boy’s ear lobe during the previous appointment and, as she spoke, her scissors flitted in the air. The stylist who whacked my head hard, twice, with the ceramic hair dryer and told me all about how the State had taken away her children.
A hair appointment is a year book without signatures. A hair appointment is showing up uninvited to a pajama party of cheerleaders. It’s the Gucci bag or Gucci knock-off set atop the next stylist’s work station, the baubles that clamber over wrists outside of capes, the pretty toe nails in platform wedges or espadrilles. A hair salon heralds from an era of ladies in waiting and maids—nothing so hierarchical as a pedicure, one woman scrubbing another’s feet just because the first has $25-50 to buy subservience for half an hour. A salon means not violating the cardinal rule of places of beautification, chiefly to never compliment other women, not the client to your right for her ballerina flats or your stylist for her handiwork on her previous client’s hair, nor your stylist for her own pastel dreadlocks. To share attention is to show weakness. It’s rolling over and playing bookish. Honestly, a hair salon is about attention and knowing how to ask for attention, but because you’re an adult woman who can’t figure that one out, it’s the kind of resounding despair that might be experienced by a bride upon arriving at the salon on the morning of her wedding (for she does marry) to find that her stylist has called in sick, and veil in hand, sits through first appointment questions about parts and preferences from a substitute stylist, wondering what she’d communicated in the past that made this betrayal acceptable, leaving with unexpected bangs, when any other bride would pre-approve every curl, every pearl-tipped bobbie pin, need to be handed a chilled flute of champagne, would have gone ballistic at a far, far slighter change of big day plans.
I’ve been S.’s client for three years, two pregnancies (hers), and three location changes (hers again) running. The stylists I’ve stayed with are either smart or have a skunk streak of sadness, preferably both, like S., who studied engineering at the college in Boston where I’d taught and like me has a younger brother who’s lived in Asia for a suspicious number of family holidays. S. even broke through the fourth wall of salons. When a deeply tanned woman held court, weighing the merits of her last three trips to Greece, S. whispered her disapproval of the noveau riche customer’s status handbag (three paychecks) as the woman headed to the sinks. Another time, to my astonishment, S. delivered a loud rant about a political candidate, waving a flat iron in the middle of the salon. Things got a little rocky when I brought S. and her colleagues a bouquet to celebrate the opening of their own shop. As awkward as asking your gynecologist for a date. Apparently, it’s nice, thoughtful, to bring flowers to your boss, your boss’ assistant, your mail lady, your landlord, the woman who cleans your mother-in-law’s house, your editor, your caterer, your veterinarian, the people who make your espresso, but never ever bring flowers to a profession that’s supposed to listen to you brag about the amazing Harry Winston roses from your husband on your anniversary. Before S., I had my hair cut and occasionally colored for eight years by T., until she moved to New Mexico. If T. could do a shampoo and cut through FaceTime, I’d let her. T. hid a zigzag scar on her cheek under dark concealer, and her mother had abandoned her as a child to return to the Philippines. I lasted only two appointments at a claustrophobic mother-daughter run salon.
What could be more convenient than snapping protective tips off the plastic vials with kitchen scissors, shaking the container of chemicals, pushing dye into my hair, 80% gray, with the provided gloves, and be finished thirty five minutes of Samantha Bee YouTube videos later, at any hour and in my grungy sweats, for $4 to $12, depending on the brand and number of boxes I use? No ego-erosion, no currying favor through a tip. While my method significantly cuts back on my salon bill, probably more importantly, it reduces the number of interactions I have with stylists by half. In the past eight years I’ve incurred only two self-inflicted home coloring disasters, both times after purchasing a new brand of dye promising “vibrant color.” S. has been exceedingly accommodating about my self-coloring, despite that copper tones are her specialty.
During middle school and high school, I spent quite a few Saturday mornings kneeling over the tub in the downstairs bathroom of our raised ranch, counting green and brown Medusa faces in the floor tile pattern. I wasn’t supposed to move. The chemical solution needed to drip-drip from the plastic rods onto the paler rectangle where the daisy bathmat normally suctioned itself in place. Same tub we gave our cocker poodle flea baths, and probably the same level of misery. I had a view of the handheld shower spout and budget-sized containers of Suave and Prell (Pantene was a luxury item) for what seemed like hours, though it must have been no longer than the half hour for the perm to set. The short haircut with resultant tight curls on my natural strawberry blonde hair drew easy comparisons to Orphan Annie, a popular Broadway musical a few years before. The look didn’t correspond with any hairstyle other than orphans. Once the hair dried, I was shown how to use a plastic pick to lift the hair.
I had an ESL hairdresser mother. My mother’s maiden name, Stelz, was inscribed in lumpy red nail polish in European cursive on the plastic handles of our hair brushes. The flaking word separated her supplies from other hairdressers when she worked in a salon in the 1960s. She’d been chain migrated to the United States by her older sister, lauded as the family beauty, who’d married a much older jewelry manufacturer after he spotted my aunt typing in an office window on a business trip in West Germany. This aunt and uncle funded my mother’s tuition at a hair dressing school in Rhode Island. As a girl, my mother would offer to style her despondent mother’s hair after my grandfather had abandoned their large Catholic brood, reducing my mother to begging for food or going to bed hungry. My mother has never once patronized a hair salon, not when I was a child, not now, not in my lifetime—keep in mind how strange that is—as if your mother has never pumped gas, gone to the movies, or ordered a coffee. When I was growing up, every two months, my mother would announce at breakfast that her roots were dark, and vapors of peroxide would seep upstairs. Our family roots, who my maternal relatives were, what my German grandfather really did in the war, were kept in the dark of innuendo. She bleached her hair, wore it in an anachronistic French twist that garnered compliments from senior citizens, different, just like the dresses and necklaces that on holidays arrived from overseas from aunts and uncles I never met were different than anything worn by the girls at school. I can’t recall being consulted about whether I wanted my hair changed. Haircuts and perms were household maintenance, like deciding the week’s meals or paying the electricity bill; a parent wouldn’t put up for discussion whether pot roast sounded good for supper, and the bathroom salon sessions were not meant to indulge teenage sensibilities.
Although I was never confident that my hair styles advanced an American adolescent cause—and cringe now at the Princess Di feathering or the Power Woman Big Hair with permed bouffant bangs of my junior high and high school years—the majority of those downstairs bathroom home perms and cuts were actually in synch with 1980s style. Excepting the Orphan Annie look. Shoulder pads, leggings with stirrups, Izod shirts, boat shoes: she didn’t just make these things up. My mother must have found her ideas from television sitcoms or the copies of Red Book and Cosmopolitan on the counter next to the Waterville Morning Sentinel and the take-a-penny-give-a-penny dish at my parents’ convenience store. After working long hours behind the counter, she would give my sister and I evening baths when we were children, untangling our hair and forming braids, pig tails, and ponytails. I can’t say I’ve shown the same effort with my own small daughters—leaving it to their father make Cindy Lou Who hair-dos from their wispy hair. In my school photos, I can see now that I actually didn’t look different from other girls, none of whom, excepting the children of doctors or professors, had much money. My classmates and I share feathered or poufy haircuts, ten pounds of Maine overweight, excessive blue mascara or strawberry lip gloss, and the down east look of chamois shirts and jeans. One year our store income was $13,000 for a family of five—we scraped by eating wholesale, sidewalk sales for off-season jeans and sneakers, DIY when it came to our hair. Thankfully, my two siblings and I never suffered bowl cuts because of our mother’s trade school training.
About the same time as the bathroom perms, I began receiving the impression from my family that it wasn’t just my hair that needed fixing and that they had a list of repairs and recommended alterations. My teeth (overbite, crowded, often told my teeth looked like those of a kind but homely uncle on my father’s side, so ensued years of expensive orthodontic work); my nose (crooked, nose job advised someday); my face too round (subject to future double chin); my calves (too thick from jogging); my eyebrows and eyelashes (the albino white of a natural strawberry blonde needed eyebrow pencil and mascara in elementary school). To wit, Francis Bacon: A man shall see faces that, if you examine them part by part, you shall never find a good, and yet altogether do well. I became maniacal about mascara. I equated it with my existence, refusing to be spotted even around the house sans black or blue lashes. Another family member remarked how I resembled the gaunt, hook-nosed male actor who played Dr. Who in the original British series, never anything a fourteen-year-old girl wants to hear, especially when her younger sister is told she could be a model (carries its own complications). What compounded my depression is that these critiques were stacked onto commentary about my potential for a “normal life” after my childhood surgeries, medical complexities that isolated me from my peers by pulling me out of school and by marking my girl’s body as defective. Even at age sixteen, though, I could ward off certain unsolicited opinions about my appearance. It’s not clear why some hit hard and others fell to the floor like an arrow turned into a laugh. Why for instance am I completely happy with my ethnic nose, coincidentally my mother’s nose? As for that crooked nose, it’s as Francis Bacon thought, There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in proportion.
By ninth grade, I decided it was okay to sit this one out. It says everything that I played bassoon, cymbals during marching band season. I took Latin and Ancient Homeric Greek; French class was for the popular girls along with flutes and clarinets. I joined the High Q Team and Latin Club, riding to competitions in a school bus of misfits in toga sheets. Meanwhile, my younger sister dated a popular boy from my year who was a shoe-in for Cupid and the son of college professors. She went to my junior prom, and I stayed home watching sitcoms with my parents. I started writing poems and short stories and took my direction more from Ann Beattie than Kim Basinger. The look I was going for was Virginia Woolf. I’m pretty sure my year book motto should have been aloof standoffish unsmiling. As a defensive teenager, it was tempting to side with Shakespeare’s observation that There’s many a man [sic] has more hair than wit. I was banking on my grades. Don’t believe in your appearance or you’ll end up residing one zip code over with one of the town’s five options for married surnames, shopping at T.J. Max for your daughter’s prom dress while still in your thirties, and joining Weight Watchers in preparation for your high school reunion. That’s what I told myself.
Four high school years passed, and I managed to pole vault to a private college beyond my family’s budget, where my K-Mart clothes stood out and I worked weekends on scholarship at the library card catalog, a non-compete for which I was well prepared. After all, my self-talk has been trained to not fixate on –er and –est comparisons or do a mirror mirror on the wall. From moving day into the dorm, I could never measure up to those freshmen with their two-year old Saabs and Volvos, Lands’ End clothing for class, and boutique for dorm parties.
The stakes are high in the mirrored surface of this essay. I was hoping for nothing less than to alter my entire perception of myself by essay’s end, giving myself a makeover, phrase by phrase, so that what is revised is myself. I’m running out of time with this face, this body. I’m working on deadline. I’m forty-nine years old. What’s mine has never been completely mine, and I have already lost the opportunity to notice my own youth. I want to make late amends.
What is an appearance but a wispy thing, a spirit, ever-changing, a malleable distortion, the most important subjectivity, and therefore ideal material for the mirror of an essay? Physical appearance is one of those classical topics that shows up beneath hefty monumental titles like “Of Beauty” (Francis Bacon, 1625) and “On Physiognomy” (Michel de Montaigne, circa 1586). I’m curious about the sorts of self-talk we all carry—the whispers that convince us that we’re not good at public speaking or cooking or parallel parking or understanding poetry or asking someone out or requesting a promotion or questioning a doctor or running for office or fighting injustice. What message has each of us been transporting beyond its expiration date? Which bits of self-talk—often begun as judgmental phrases spoken by other people—have become permanent features in our self-perception while other opinions left no trace? Which of my if-you-could-only-make-this-small-change comments have sunk into my daughters’ consciousness, becoming an indelible part of their self-appraisal, for good and for ill?
So I make my next appointment for fifty minutes of self-doubt on January 14 in the chair, in the hope that next time I’ll feel like I belong in it, that I am the princess, prom queen, bride, and cover girl of my own life.