What You Didn’t Know About Your Hairdresser

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.

[Caller speaking.]

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.


  1. This was such a good post. You almost had me tearing up at work!

    A couple years ago I left the hairdresser I’d been going to my whole life. I hadn’t been happy with my cuts for a while, but it was a heart-wrenching decision because like you said, she had been through so many milestones with me.

    1. Thank you so much! Hate to make you cry, but I sure did while I was writing it!

      Yeah, the hairdresser relationship is a very unique one. Hope you’ve found one you gel with now.

  2. oh my, what a touching story… i don’t know how hairdressers do it, talk and work at hte same time, stand on their feet, touching other peoples HAIR… but they always seem to love what they do.

  3. Well done. Very touching. I actually have thought of how hard it would be to do a job that requires technical skill, interpersonal skills and physical stamina.

    My daughter just treated herself to an up-do for a friend’s wedding for which she was a bridesmaid. The friendly young hairstylist complimented us on how we treated her. She relayed a story of doing hair for a wedding in New York, where she and another stylist were not only treated like the hired help but were shorted as well. When the stylists stuck their heads around to say goodbye, she said they were looked at like intruders.

    I always try to remind myself that while my visit might be a short pleasant one in a salon, retail store, grocery store, or doctor’s office (OK not short and not pleasant!); that the people who work there have to deal with the frenzy all day long! Kindness is easily given and doesn’t cost anything.

  4. Wow, very moving. I’m tearing up a little too! I adore my hairdresser and have often wondered how she can do what she does all day long. It’s one thing to have to deal with countless hair washes, mixing color chemicals and the finite movements of fingers at work; but to deal with all that emotional stress and still be a rock for your clients too!? Great article – you bring up thoughtful points. Your mom sounds like an angel 🙂
    .-= Skinnypurse´s last blog ..Tarte Makeup Review and Giveaway: Lights Camera Lashes Mascara =-.

  5. Karen and Skinnypurse~

    Thanks for your comments! I’m so glad this post helped remind people to respect and treasure our hairdressers—they are some of the most important people in our lives. You know, when it comes to money, time, etc., we’re more likely to sacrifice time in the gym, dinner out, any number of things, than miss an appointment with the hairdresser.

    And my mom is indeed an angel. She truly is deserving of the praise because she is the hardest working, most generous, kindest woman I’ve ever met. I consider myself very blessed to have a mom—and a hairdresser!—like her.

  6. This was an incredibly touching post, and your mother sounds like an amazing person. I went to the same hairdresser for nearly 10 years in North Carolina, and only stopped going not after I moved away – but after I moved away and stopped being able to come home a few times a year. After a couple of years in the Bay Area I’ve finally found a stylist that works for me, and I’m so grateful. What I love about both of these women is that they’ve never tried to talk me out of doing something crazy with my hair, which some stylists will do. A supportive (and capable) hairstylist is a treasure.
    .-= Adelle (The Fashionista Lab)´s last blog ..Shopping Cleanse Update: Living to tell the tale =-.

    1. Thank you Adelle! I agree that a capable, supportive, willing-to-indulge-your-whims hairstylist is indeed a treasure. Thanks for visiting.

  7. Wow, V, I just found this post via your year-end roundup. I don’t even know if you’ll see this comment, but this was one of the best, most enlightening posts I have read ALL year. There are certainly many things that we take for granted in this life, but I never once considered that I (and many others) could be doing just that to our hairdressers. I think I have finally stumbled on a hairdresser that is going to be a semi-permanent (assuming she doesn’t move or quit!) fixture in my life, and I am thrilled to have found her because she treats her clients as friends, NOT clients. Your mother, however, sounds like an absolutely amazing women. I can see who you get it from.

    Thank you for this “behind-the-scenes” look at the life of a hairdresser – this was truly a wonderful and touching post!

    1. Hey, B, thank you! Of course I saw your comment…I see them ALL, no matter how old the post is. Mom is amazing, she really is. I’m so glad this post touched others, because it was obviously a very personal one for me.

  8. I found this post through your recap, and I must say it is a very touching post. Hairdressers really are amazing people, and deserve much more respect than they often receive. I had to share this post with my sister in law who just recently became a hairdresser.

    1. Thank you NGF! And thank you for sharing.

      Hairdressing is hard work….I’ve always admired my mother’s talent, patience, and stamina. So it means a lot to me that this highly personal post touched others.

  9. This is such a thoughtful post, V. I truly believe in treating everyone well (from food servers to hair stylists to the hotel concierge to your neighbor, etc.) and this is exactly why– you never know what people are going through (or just went through). And it’s funny you mention how people (specifically hairdressers) go on in life without showing the effects of events- I just got my hair cut on Friday and my hair stylist accidentally clipped between her fingers with her scissors and didn’t even flinch. I didn’t know until she told me she needed a band-aid and I couldn’t believe it because I probably would have yelped in pain. It’s definitely an interesting insight into service based careers.

    1. Jen, thank you for your comment. I believe the very same thing: we should treat everyone with the same courtesy and respect, no matter what they do for a living.

      My mom has done that clip between the fingers too. It happens, and as you saw, the show must go on.

      Glad this post resonated with you, and again, thank you for sharing your perspective.

  10. i would love to find a hairdresser that works and listens to what I want and doesn’t get put out of work after two months. i’m still searching for that dear one…

  11. So very true! Those of us that have had a long career can attest to all of this. When Dolly Parton saysin Steel Magnolias, “Nobody cries alone in my salon” she meant it

  12. You honor your mother by writing this, letting you know that you see how hard she has worked. Being a stylist is rewarding but it is exhausting – the emotional and physical labor is exhausting. Just by noticing you really honor her.

    1. Thank you. It is a grueling, physically and mentally. My mom works her ass off…still, at 71! It’s impossible not to be impressed. Thanks for your comment!

  13. This is beautiful! I’m a salon owner, stylist of 15 years and a mother, I hope one day my son looks at me with this much admiration. It had me crying because this is exactly what our life is like!

    1. Aw, don’t cry! But I get it…I cried writing this post.

      I’m sure your son sees your hard work and sacrifice. As I wrote above, this is a taxing job, and one that means so much to so many people. He will notice. As do many others.

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