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Hair and Ego: Part One

Hair is an excellent barometer for life. Leave the house with bad hair? Guaranteed lousy day. In contrast, fantastic morning styling yields an excellent 24 hours.
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Hair is an excellent barometer for life. Leave the house with bad hair? Guaranteed lousy day. In contrast, fantastic morning styling yields an excellent 24 hours. But stylists beware: any change in temperature or humidity can cause fluctuations both up and down. As can getting a haircut during your lunch hour. It's guaranteed to change your day, sure, but not necessarily for the better -- a haircut gone wrong is the worst.

You try to avoid this fate by bringing in multiple pictures, studying your facial structure, even trying on wigs of your desired look, only to have a 10-minute attack by steel jaws cost you dearly. Depending on the travesty, the negative impact a bad haircut has on your life could be weeks, months, even years.

It's an evil place to be, hair purgatory. I've had far too much experience there, so now that I've found a friend, therapist and artist who wields her scissors like she's reading my mind, I vow that I will never leave her. Yes, I'm talking about my hair stylist, Suzie.

I know, crazy. I once read an article about the pain of going through a break up of your hair stylist and shook my head with wonder: Could women's magazines possibly talk about anything less important? They actually interviewed women traumatized after leaving their stylist. I vowed that that would never be me.

When I read that article, I was too young to understand, much less act upon, the feelings of self that I identified with my hair: that being true to your hair was a means of being true to yourself.

I spent many years refusing to acknowledge the power of hair, learning the hard way, before I finally discovered Suzie. More on my revelation with her later. Much later.

First, the beginning of it all...

When I was in elementary school I decided to cut my hair, I don't remember why. I chose to do so over the floor vent in my bedroom (Chicago winters are very cold) with my mom's tiny compact mirror. And I used pinking shears (scissors with a serrated cutting edge)! The result was predictably disastrous: various lengths of my hair sticking out from my head in every way but the right way. I knew it was bad, but it wasn't until I braved the big bathroom mirror that I realized the extent to my self-destruction -- horrifying.

Without my long locks I was Sampson: weak and untethered. My life was over. Or so it felt. Sadly, it was the first time of many when my hair would identify me. Or, as in this case, cause me to question who I was.

My cries brought my mom into the bathroom, but I wouldn't let her or her (cuticle!) scissors near me. She wasn't a professional -- she didn't even know how to do the French braid (the look popular at Willow Grove elementary school)! My tears reached a new level of hysterics when my mom said that it was too late to go to a hair salon. Frantic to comfort me, she came up with a temporary fix: She washed my hair and put it in curlers, hoping that the ringlets exposed in the morning would detract from the obvious. Tomorrow we would go to a hair salon. My tears abated as I looked forward to my first appointment with a real stylist. Who knew what the experts could do with me there?

My mom was right: No one noticed my massacred head of hair until after school when, safely in the stylist's chair, I was given the once-over. As I was guided me to the shampoo station, the sylist promised me that everything would be okay. I sighed with relief, ready for a new, properly-cut, look.

Then -- another hit at my identity, though it was years before I was able to label it as such. Despite my protests that I was a dancer, not an ice skater, and I needed to put my hair up into a ballerina's bun, the stylist (with my mom's approval!) gave me the Dorothy Hamill wedge cut.

Admittedly, it was a long version of the 'do and I kind of liked its novelty, how it mimicked the pictures in the glossy magazines. But it was like looking at a stranger in the mirror: I just couldn't see myself at ballet class without my hair rolled up, piled high on top of my head.

Compliments from everyone at the salon, and later at home I kept my tears at bay, but I was unsettled.

As I went to sleep that night, I worried if my ballet teacher would let me into class without a bun... Would she even recognize me? I wondered if I could wear my much-loved barrettes. The stylist had used a big round brush as she dried my hair. I didn't know how to do that. And what about that French braid? My hair was probably too short; my mom would never learn it now. It was a lost cause. I fretted away, tossing and turning.

Then the heat came on. And with the gusts of warm air from the floor vent, long hairs of my former self floated up, swirled around and then gently drifted down. My sniffles weren't so much for the hairs landing on my face and tickling my nose, as they were for the loss of something connected to my newly developing sense of self.

But all this drama was soon forgotten: The next day in school my haircut was a splendorous sensation. My peers loved it, my teachers too, so I embraced the new look, the new me. Life -- even in ballet class -- continued uninterrupted.

Of course my hair grew in, morphing and changing as I did throughout adolescence. It was only years later in junior high that a bad perm forced me to face these existential questions again. Because I had to wait and patiently grow it out, I gained a fair amount of self-knowledge, and a great story for how not to perm your hair.

More on that fiasco in part two.