Right after winter break during my freshman year of high school, I asked my mom’s hairdresser to replicate a style I’d seen on a surfer’s girlfriend in Hawaii. Since my return from The Islands – of course I did, and repeatedly – I’d refused to wear anything but white drawstringed linen, neon tees that fell off my shoulder, and frosty pink shimmer. I needed this haircut to complete the vibe.
“Aren’t you cold?” everyone asked. It was the Midwest in January, after all. I lived an hour-and-a-half from Chicago on a farm overrun with corn and cows, at least twenty minutes from civilization. Civilization was the mall. Yes, Michelle, I’m fucking freezing.
But I smiled and sighed and ignored my haters, wondering aloud if the local ice cream shop offered shaved ice.*
*Our local ice cream shop was the Baskin-Robbins at the mall. I am dead sure I didn’t know it was shave ice at the time, but I’m even surer that no one else in Shorewood, Illinois did, either.
Michael, my mom’s hairdresser, listened to my description intently, nodding in the mirror like we were embarking on a great adventure.
“White, not like punk white but sun-streaked white here and there and especially in the front. Angled-down bob on one side, a little shorter in the back, and super-short over one ear. Not shaved, just kind of sticking out. Some long strands in front that blow in the wind. Like, they look like a mistake that they’re longer than the rest. They look like I don’t care about this haircut at all.”
Oh, but I did. I cared very much about this haircut.
In less than an hour, my life changed forever.
The wrong haircut can ruin your life. Ask anyone with quarantine bangs, or you can also ask me, the guy with a quarantine bowl cut.
Do you remember ripping pages from Vogue and Seventeen, folding them precisely so there’d be no creases on the actual hair, safe-keeping them in the special pocket of your Trapper Keeper? I do, too. There were a lot of hopes in those tear sheets.
But editorial hair is pretty much impossible to achieve in real life. If you’ve ever pressed your luck at a salon where the majority of their clientele are one-time walk-ins or regulars who’ve had the same tight perm for fifteen years, you know this already. A place where imaginations get stuck in hairstyle books – BOOKS! – from 1986 atop foggy glass coffee tables in the welcome area, where clients are privy to snippy fights between cigarette-stained stylists and the shifty receptionist about someone stealing tips or not leaving tips or having to share tips with someone who doesn’t deserve them.
Here’s a tip: Pay for a consultation. If your new stylist doesn’t share your enthusiasm, don’t make a follow-on appointment. If you tell them what you want and they tilt their head to the side and then huddle with a more experienced hairdresser who looks equally confused, get up and leave. If you look in their eyes and then look at everyone else around you and feel a mini panic, walk away. If the salon gives you the creeps or someone makes you feel less than yourself, throw off your cape and go.
Trust. Your. Gut.
That’s not anything I’ve ever done, but I think you totally should.
Once, a seasoned beautician just back from smoke break snatched my inspiration pics, held them up one-by-one in front of me, and put her hand over the models’ faces.
“Do you want the cut?” she asked. “Or the face?”
Unfortunately, neither was an option that day.
It’s not just women.
My husband loves Michael Jordan, but he is 5’8 and not known for his basketball talent. In the few pick-up games I’ve seen, he seems to rely on sac taps to pain his opponents into dropping the ball. The only manageable way for him to be like Mike was to shave his head.
Years later, he decided he wanted hair again. He was dismayed to discover that only his sides and back were still there, so he had a choice to make: Michael Jordan or Cookie the Clown?
We belong to a razor subscription club.
I’ve sat in over two hundred different salon chairs in my lifetime. Like, over three hundred. I’m usually horrible with math and exaggeration, but not this time.
When I meet a new stylist, I make sure to dress up. All black, of course, but my best all black. Not my athletic all black, or my comfy all black, and especially not my linty all black that accidentally got washed with towels. I wear my chicest jewelry, contour and highlight, and make sure my manicure warrants a double-take.
I certainly don’t want them to think I’m who I usually am.
I’ve simplified the description of my cut over the years, in five different states and as many countries, accessorizing with a Pinterest board full of Kate Lanphear and old Agnes Deyn and Sienna Miller. Sometimes, I show them Instagram shots of bloggers’ baby boys.
“Like toddler hair after a long day at the beach,” I say, pretending this is normal.
My first stylist in Amman came highly recommended by all the expats. His eponymous salon’s pricing chart seemed to be on a sliding scale; the wealthier you looked, the higher your bill. I sure wish I’d known that. (See above sentence starting When I meet a new stylist…)
He didn’t ask me what I wanted and I was too intimidated to speak his preferred Arabic or French. Even if I was brave enough, how much would “Sayed’s office is upstairs from Bashar’s office” and “This omelet is delicious” help me?
Anyway. I ended up with sleek brown hair.
“B-b-brown?” My bottom lip quivered and I couldn’t breathe as I tried unsuccessfully to mess up this new style.
“This is your natural color,” he replied in perfect English. “This is how you should be.”
I think about him sometimes. I’m still so pissed off by how he’d tried to reveal the real me. The ideal me. How dare he. Natural color. The audacity. What the hell did he even know. Besides three languages and hair. I would never in a million years want to be how I should be.
I left him a thirty percent tip on a three hundred dollar bill.
My sister was a hairdresser. One summer, she put foils in my hair and told me to take them out in a bit as she drove off to do something more important.
“How long, exactly?” I asked.
She thought about it and shrugged, “A bit. Until it starts to sting.”
I sat outside in our plaid plastic-wrapped aluminum fold-up chair from Woolworth’s, and waited for what I thought was a proper bit, until I imagined I felt a sting. I was orange until she had time to foil me again, and then she persuaded me to chop it all off anyway. You know, to conceal all the breakage.
“It’s just hair,” people say, and I’ve said it, too.
That same sister was white-blonde most of her adult life, shifting between long and shorter, curly and straight. She never had bad bangs. We’d ooh and ahh, loving on her latest look while anticipating her next life-altering change. She was so carefree and adventure-bent, and you never knew what she’d do next.
Her very last hairstyle was a wispy crewcut. The least hair she’d ever had, and yet it still looked so heavy on her withering body.
It’s just hair until you don’t have it anymore.
Last week, I finally made an appointment at a new salon in my new temporary city. While the stylist draped the cape around me, I looked in his mirror. It…I…my bowl cut was really not…as whimsical…as I…
Can I just advise you to never rely on your home reflection for the truth?
“Do you know what you want?” he asked, nodding sympathetically in the mirror.
I think I was traumatized because all I could tell him was, “I don’t want to look like a sad mushroom.”
A few summers ago, I heard my old hairdresser, Michael, was renting a chair at an old lady salon in my hometown. It was right next to a liquor store and the check-cashing/payday loan spot that always had a line outside on Fridays.
I was with my daughter, the one who looks like me at my beginning, and when we walked in he gasped. He took her by the shoulders and looked at her until we were all mildly uncomfortable.
“Your mom made me a million dollars,” he squeezed her while his eyes lit up the salon. “Everyone wanted her hair, and I was the only one in town who knew how to do it.”
I remembered that day, telling him the haircut of my dreams. That surfer’s girlfriend on the beach in Hawaii.
She’d been standing at the edge of the water, smiling at the sun, laughing at the wild waves like she welcomed them, holding her arms wide in one moment as though she was hugging the horizon. The world was hers. She looked like she could do anything, be anything, overcome everything. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, hoping I could somehow figure out and then memorize how she was how she was.
Her haircut was the closest I’d get.