I Love/Hate My Hairdresser

How much simpler could my instructions have been? Before I fully relaxed in Wanda's black Naugahyde chair, I showed her a photo torn from More magazine and said, "This length." For emphasis, I placed my right hand, palm down, mid-neck, and wagged it horizontally.

But when the snip, snip snip of her stainless steel scissors quieted, my hair fell mid-ear, not mid-neck. I looked down on C-shaped pieces of hair, sprawled irretrievably on the floor of Wanda's bustling little corner salon ... a salon with windows facing the street ... glass that surely would not withstand the force of my car ramming into them.

I've had memorable cuts with Wanda over the past 20 years, but often our 45 minutes together end like this. For weeks, I'm angry and tormented. Then I return.

I wish I knew how to quit her.

Do hairdressers even listen when we tell them what we want? Why not just walk in the salon, write a check for $40, $60, $120 then take a nap or eat a corndog while they do whatever scratches their itch? Why not mail them a check every eight weeks and cut our own hair with those shears we use to cut raw chicken?

In August, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin announced that hairstyles can undermine women's physical health; some of us don't want to restyle after exercising and hence, skip the workout. Some men -- including Peter Sagal, the otherwise keenly insightful host of NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, and and Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research were baffled by this leap from hair to health. (Proving that at least one topic unites liberals and conservatives.) Well, I got news for you two guys, who I suspect take your cues about hair and exercise from NFL players. It's more complex than Benjamin suggested.

Can a hairstyle really impact a woman's physical health? I'll tell you this. When I looked in Wanda's mirror after this past haircut, I nearly had a heart attack. Meekly, I said, "It's kind of short." Brazenly, Wanda defended herself. Stupidly, I tipped her. To ensure I won the Stupidest Client Award, I bought some of her overpriced shampoo and rubbed off the price so my husband wouldn't suffer a heart attack as well.

Here is the analogy in my world of freelance writing.

Client: I hired you to write a 1,000-word article on hamstring injuries and you've handed in a poem on hemorrhoids!

Me (brazenly): And both conditions start with the letter h.

Client (meekly): Here's your payment, with a bonus. Can I buy your pencil for $8?

Sagal and Stier, turn to any woman you know and ask her if she agrees with this simple statement: When my hair looks good, my entire life seems better.

The morning after my most recent haircut, I was ornery over breakfast with my husband because my hair hadn't grown back.

"What's wrong?" he asked, so innocent, so clueless.

"I hate my hair."

"It's cute," he insisted and my despair evaporated. Until five minutes later when we met in the bedroom. His eyes circled my head like an airplane over JFK. "It is kind of short."


"I'm just teasing," he said. But was he? His mouth said yes, yes, yes. His face said no, no, no. Why should I care? Didn't I learn anything from Gloria Steinem other than women with thick, straight, blonde hair got one of the biggest genetic breaks in human history?

After my husband left for work, I walked by mirrors and tried various attitudes, gauging how my vision interfaced with my self-belief system. The first time, I saw someone who resembled a 51-year-old boy. I recoiled and gave myself a pep talk. "You have a spunky haircut and look adorable!" Then I pretended someone just told me a joke, laughed, and stepped again before the mirror. A little better.

I called my husband at his office to apologize for my breakfast behavior. "I'm in a bad mood about my hair," I said. "And I have a headache," I added for good measure.

"How do you feel now?" he asked sweetly.

"I feel ugly."

"You're beautiful on the inside."

"That's just another way of saying I'm ugly on the outside!"

Now I count the days until my haircut will grow out. "In three weeks, my hair won't be hideous ... By fall, my hair will look OK." While polar icecaps melt, and people wonder if this is the end of the world as we know it, these will be my deepest thoughts.

And yet, I know I'll find myself sitting again in Wanda's black Naugahyde chair, the Brokeback Mountain of hairstyling. "I've been listening to this for years!" my husband says, exasperated. "Every time you come back from a haircut, you complain that you hate your hair. That Wanda never listens. Then you go back!"

He's right. Wanda once gave me a mullet. I was miserable for months, even saw other hairdressers on the sly, and then, like a yo-yo, returned to her.

I know perfectly well I'm not alone here. So Surgeon General Benjamin, do you have any suggestions for my emotional well-being? Consider it a public service to women and their husbands.