Thursday, September 20, 2007

haircut: a story

(Note: this photo is compliments of the excellent movie-stills blog, Movie Screenshots. It features the wonderful Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser Boudreau, and Daryl Hannah as Annelle Dupuy Desoto, and the color coral.)

The other day Mum and I both scheduled appointments at a member club of the inner sanctum for women's beauty: the hair salon. It's the one my mother's been going to ever since she cut her long, thick curly hair, 20 years ago, from halfway down her back to a smart pixie-like cut. I've gotten haircuts myself from Debbie, starting when I had to sit in a booster seat added onto the normal adult chair. One Halloween when I was maybe 5 or 6, we went to Debbie's and I got my hair poofed right up with hairspray, and then colored green, red, yellow and probably some other colors. I looked like a punk rocker! We took lots of pictures of me in a rock-star-crossed-with-a-feral-cat pose. How I loved that look, and wished I could have it every day.

When I started living in other places besides Cape Breton, from the age of 18, I realized that going to Debbie's -- and other Cape Breton hair stylists -- had sheltered me from the harsh truth of major cities around the world: haircuts are increasingly dang expensive! From Whistler, BC to Sydney, Australia, I routinely paid from $50 to $80 for a good cut. But I liked what I got and I didn't mind paying for it. I never had a great relationship with a hairdresser, like the friendly banter we could have with Debbie, but I figured that was par for the course, the salons I visited being big-city and chic (read: snobby).

Until I moved to Fredericton, and had a hair emergency. I had gotten my hair dyed bright red, at Debbie's, and I guess the dye didn't take in my bleached-out head of hair, because two weeks later Crazy Crimson or whatever it was called had faded to a dull, nasty orange, tinged with light brown. (The one time Debbie let me down!) This coincided with my first week of university in a new town, and I decided I did NOT want to meet new people with a head that literally looked like a pumpkin. So I went to a swanky-looking spa downtown, where I gave the stylist, Melene, a look that said it all: my old shade back, please! She did the job, I was able to relax about my look, and believe it or not, I actually made friends. All through my three years in Fredericton, I kept going back to Sue Lawrence Hair and Spa for Melene's stellar cuts. She seemed to be able to make any growing-out stage look good, and somehow knew how to make my hair (which has the thickness and slight wave from my mother's side, and a bit of straightness from my father's side, but which can easily look like an overgrown, frizzy hedge if not cut right) peaceful. I remember thinking, "Wow, my hair doesn't have to be frizzy, coarse, or bend in weird places when I least want it to?" I know this is a service for which I will be forever grateful.

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless unless she chooses to come forward and name herself, is doing her Master's thesis on the Sociology of women's beauty practices, and especially on what goes on in beauty salons. There is so much to talk about on this subject that I'm convinced one day my friend could write a whole book on it, if she so chooses. I would definitely buy and then actually read that book, as the subject is rather intriguing: a place where women go freely and happily, at least in the best case scenario, to be modified and beautified, a place which supplies us with ritual, gossip, and some of the best counseling I've ever had, including that of professional counselors! Yet, in the worst case scenario, the ideals of beauty can feel rigid, strict, imposed upon us. Also, a visit to the salon can be stressful, not fun, if the hairstylist is demanding, insulting, a bad listener, or downright incompetent. You can easily get to wondering, how much of our beauty rituals is free choice and how much is indoctrination? How much is pleasurable and how much is harmful?

I certainly don't have answers to those questions, but I think asking the questions is an important step. Deducing the exact ratio of these components can be left to the social scientists, like my friend, but talking about the issues, maybe even while you're in the salon chair, makes you aware that there are issues, and that our everyday actions are just the front for the amazing complexity of our motivations. Also, being aware of these complex motivations allows me, as a feminist, to enjoy the time I spend in the salon, knowing that my enjoyment is just as valid as are my qualms about the beauty industry as a whole, and that going in for a trim and a gab may even do a little good for the soul.

If any of you have seen Steel Magnolias, you'll know what the ideal of the beauty salon is: that perfect, if a little frumpy, room at the back where Dolly Parton gabs while she poofs Julia Roberts' hair, where problems find solutions, where anger gets vented, where mothers and daughters can bond over nail polish shades, where neighbors, no matter how "mad hatter", are taken in and given a good hairstyle. Beauty with humility. Even though the movie is filled to the brim with terrible, 80's style dresses covered with giant floral patterns, I love it anyway, because Dolly Parton's hair salon actually does exist in so many places. It may not be recognizable, because it's had a glamour treatment, and calls itself a "spa", complete with trendy mirrors, artwork and workers with asymmetrical swaths of hair dyed literal rainbows, but don't be fooled. If the workers can gossip with you, laugh at their own mistakes and with each other, and turn you out on the street looking fabulous, it's the real thing.

I went back to Debbie's the other day, now that I'm living on Cape Breton again. We all gabbed, vented, laughed at ourselves and our mistakes, swore just a little, and talked about hair. I got my hair washed by a professional (there's something so pleasant about that), cut with the layers re-shaped, rubbed with a bit of shining polish and mousse, then dried and straightened. Mum got her "usual", and we both left looking fabulous, and feeling just a little bit better. I think this relationship just might be the real thing.

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