I am the daughter of a hairdresser. A beautician. A colorist. A hairstylist. She is all of the above, and to everyone else, she is also a fairy godmother, a lifesaver, a confidante, a shrink, and on occasion, a magician.
Of course, she is all of those things to me as well, being the only person who has touched my hair in my entire life. (Maybe that’s why I’ve worn my hair super-long for years. ‘Cause I hate to ask Mom to work me in to her jam-packed schedule of paying customers more than necessary—but that’s another article to be written).
First and foremost, this woman that so many have come to love and can’t live without is…Mom. And because she’s my mom, I’ve had a lifetime of inside scoop, the kind of inside scoop (read: scandal) that is only whispered about in a salon, and inside scoop on what life is really like for your hairdresser.
What prompted this post was a call my mother recently received. It went like this:
Mrs. G: Hello? Hi, there. I was expecting your call.
Yes, I can do it tomorrow, but I don’t want to.
[Caller speaking again. More conversation between the two.]
OK, I’ll see you tomorrow at nine.
I’m thinking, huh? That call came in on a Sunday. Mom is off on Sundays and Mondays. And what does she not want to do? That’s weird.
Mom hangs up the phone, distraught. She turns and says to me, “Aw, that was one of my sweetest ladies. I was expecting her call. She asked me if I would shave her head tomorrow.” [Mom now tearing up].
“What?” I say, “She has cancer?”
“Yes, and she’s had surgery, and you know what she said to me?” Mom continues, “She said ‘I’d rather lose my hair than my life.’ It just kills me. I feel so bad. She’s just something else.”
It upset my mother so much, and in seeing her so upset, it upset me. But this is not her first hurt, as I have borne witness to the losses and unbelievable gestures my mother has felt and made in her years as a hairdresser. It’s conversations and moments like these that get lost in the seemingly vacuous, superficial cosmos known as the beauty salon. We all know that salons are like petri dishes for a community’s most salacious gossip, and we all know that once a woman finds the right hairdresser, she commits for life—and no price, path, or pestilence will part the two. Case in point: my mother still does my first grade teacher’s hair; I’ve been out of first grade for more than 30 years.
But what of the hairdresser? That man or (in this case) woman, who not only knows the facts of your follicles, but often the most intimate details of your life? What about her?
Did you know that when you smile and apologize for losing track of time, and expect her to take you even if you’re 20 minutes late, that it throws her entire day off? That she probably catches hell later in the day for running late, because of you?
Did you realize that every dime she earns is through physically and mentally exhausting physical labor? That, in my mom’s case, she has developed asthma, and I can’t help but wonder if all those sprays and chemicals have indeed taken their toll? Or that when you’re reveling in having a “snow day” off, she’s twisted up in knots inside thinking about how much money she just lost?
Did you know that because most women prefer to have their hair done for the weekend, that her Thursdays and Fridays are 10- or 11-hour days, all on her feet? That she comes home at night and her legs ache so much that she has dinner and goes straight to bed?
This is the typical life of a hairdresser. Maybe those are things you actually do know.
But here is what you don’t.
This woman, your hairdresser, marks the milestones of your life with you—through your hair. Her most spectacular work is immortalized in many a bridal portrait around town; her styling over the years recorded in hundreds of wedding, christening, and prom photographs. She is among the first calls you make during those frenzied months of wedding planning. She listens to your needs, celebrates your joy, and with one final blast of extra-hold hairspray, proudly sends you off to the first day of the rest of your life.
And those are the times she loves what she does, beams with pride when she looks up and sees an entire wedding party of perfectly coiffured coquettes. She smiles knowing not a hair will fall out of place, because she’s that good. And she is. They last all night.
The other milestones, though, they are not so easy. When a long-time customer began losing her hair, my mother styled hairpieces and then full wigs to keep her at her prettiest. When one customer lost her husband, my mom was there with moral support—and her irons, dryers, and skills—to get her through the funeral.
But perhaps the biggest testament to what it really means to be a hairdresser is not what Mom has done for her ladies in life, but in death. My mother, my truest example of grit and glamour, my rock and my biggest fan—my dear, sweet, steel magnolia of a mom—has styled several of her long-time clients for their own funerals. Mind you, my mother does not specialize in mortuary services. But when the distraught husband of a former client calls and asks this of her—asks because he knows that she knew his wife better, in a sense, than anyone else—she cannot find the strength to deny this last request. Because she does know their preferences—how they liked a long bang to sweep to the left, or how that curl should fall. Can you even fathom the guts, the heart-wrenching loyalty and personal fortitude it requires to style the hair of a deceased person, and one you have known for decades? But she has done it. Repeatedly and with nothing more than humble servitude to guide her hands and her will.
Next time you’re scheduled to see your hairdresser, I hope you will arrive early and at some point, tell her what she means to you. I hope you’ll recall these revelations, and for just a bit, step into her shoes and imagine what it must take to stand all day in chaos, listening to you and the perpetual whine of hairdryers, and smile through it all. And I hope you will smile back, ask her how she is, and tip her generously. Because you never know who sat in her chair last, or who is next. And your appointment might be the same day that through mutual tears, she shaved the head of a dear friend and client in preparation for the battle of her life. Or put the final touch on a woman who has just lost hers.