I think that when the hairdresser heard me say I wanted my hair to look a bit “shaggy”, she must have thought I meant that I wanted to look like Shaggy from Scoobie Doo. What I really wanted was to take six inches off my pandemic long and messy hair. Not so radical, really.
Now I feel like an over-the-hill Anne of Green Gables. I’m hiding my head under knit caps in sweltering heat until the miracle of time makes me less likely to wake in the night thinking, “How could I have stopped her? Maybe if I’d had time to drink my morning tea before the appointment?”
I have curly hair. I learned at a young age to be mistrustful of hairdressers because they almost uniformly seemed out to humiliate me and make me wish for nice, straight black hair. Hairdressers have in the past made me look like Ronald MacDonald, or the ugly double of Molly Ringwald – and now one had made me look like Shaggy.
So, once I got home, I got out the scissors, trimmed off the lamb butts she’d left dangling around my ears, presumably to leave me looking feminine. This is the lesson that should have stuck since I’ve been doing it since I was four years old: the only person who can cut a curly haired person’s hair, EVER, is a curly haired person.
When I was four, I ruined my mother’s plan for how a curly haired redhead should look when going to Easter services in Lutheran land. I don’t remember cutting off all my perfect ringlets, but I’m sure I had them when she put the little white dress on me. My hair goes into natural rag curls at a certain length.
The following is the progression, from long to short: Janis Joplin hair → ghastly misshapen pageboy with cocker spaniel payos → perfect ringlets → Ronald MacDonald ’fro → sheep’s butt pompadour → rough hewn pixie cut.
Back to the four-year-old Easter me: I remember reaching up to answer the door of the Northern Minnesotan farm. (We were not farmers, but my father’s family was.) I remember looking way up at my handsome grandfather – black slicked back hair, square jaw, charming smile, and a white or maybe tan suit – smiling at me. I don’t remember my mother screaming at me for an hour, which would normally have been part of the story. This was because my grandfather, who was no one’s angel ever except for that day, did his Cary Grant imitation, saying I looked “real cute.” I was hooked. I cut my hair on the regular starting then.
Periodically, I’d forget the lesson. Once, it was because I wanted to look like I had a pageboy for straight haired people (like a knight’s squire), and I knew straight haired people got those at hairdressers. So I’d get it cut. Then I’d be mortified and feel like the world’s biggest 80s failure because even Molly Ringwald’s red locks weren’t as puffy as mine.
I’d let my hair grow for the next six years, brushing it inventively and covering it with a beret. When it was well below my shoulder blades, I cut it all off. Stunned members of my high school class were heard muttering, “I can’t believe she cut it off.” I wasn’t even remotely popular, so this concern seems outsized. It was a good cut, done by me, and they should have appreciated it.
Years later, when I moved to Providence, I forgot again. I made one last attempt at an adolescent cut, even though I was now 32, to have an English schoolboy/skater cut. I’d wanted to be an English schoolboy, a la Brideshead revisited, for as long as I could remember. Immediately after, I walked up, grinning, to my then husband and our friend, waiting at the park. (This friend’s own hair famously looks like it belongs to the 80s Greatest American Hero titular hero.) They said, “Ooo. Badd cut, hunh?”
When I got cancer the first time and knew I would lose all my hair, I had a professional hack it off. The hairdresser was kind and did a great job. This experience led to my (hesitantly) thinking an occasional cut might be doable. It might be nice and grown up to be pampered this way once in a while. Once my hair grew back in enough, a few years later, I got it cut again. This hairdresser blow dried it straight with one of those rolling hairbrushes, and I looked like a lady who lunches. It was fine after I took a shower. Success! I went to her again, and this time told her to hold off on the blow dry. Success again!
The third time was NOT a charm. I really should have been warned by that blow dry esthetic. It’s really all my fault. She immediately cut hair from the top of my head, beginning from the top in layering, which is something you NEVER do with curly hair. Unless you want to look like Lionel Ritchie singing Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For?
Horrified, I told her the top was way too short, and she tried to fix it by making the rest way more revoltingly puffy. She felt terrible and wanted to get me not to pay, but I’m an artist and a teacher and know what having an off day feels like, so I couldn’t do that. I came home and started chopping off my hair. Then I numbed out by running, then watching television, then painting until bleary eyed. I woke in the wee hours wishing it had been a nightmare. I loved my hair, and now I have a misfired mop squatting on my scalp.
This is SO trivial. People around the world are dying. I need to find new health insurance just in case I get major cancer a third time (the minor cancers didn’t count). But my vanity is really throwing me for a loop.
I started thinking about the fact that a headscarf feels too feminine, and lipstick is right out. It’s been a looong while since I could wear a dress. Every time I wear something feminine, it feels like I’m role playing. But I was okay with my hair. I’ve been surgically neutered in so many ways – no breasts, no ovaries, no uterus, no husband (divorce is very messy surgery) – but I was still okay with my pinned up hair.
I want to be a nonbinary Edith Wharton character. A kind of Orlando with Virginia Wolff’s hairdo. A Miranda from The Tempest who never needs to be unmasked. Or David Bowie at any point in his life.
Instead, I’m a wide hipped mother (not even thicc, because that requires sexy clothes) who looks like she either plays softball with the coach from Glee or has simply given up all sexual appeal in capitulation to the stressors of middle age. Or both.
I am grimly waiting six months for my hair to grow out to the length I’d actually requested when I went to the hairdresser.