November 2005

Always a bad hair day

By Gail Binkly

Many people dread going to the dentist, others to the doctor. I consider them wimps. Sure, I loathe drills and stethoscopes as much as anyone else, but they’re small potatoes compared to scissors, combs and anything else involved in getting your hair cut.

I was born lacking the all-important Hair Gene — the one that grants little girls skill and creativity in fussing with hair. While my peers were adroitly turning their tresses into French braids and bouffants, I was satisfied if I could comb mine out straight.

When I walk into a hair salon, the stylists sense that I am Hair- Challenged. Actually, it doesn’t take much sensitivity on their part, as they can tell by one swift glance that I don’t spend hours in front of the mirror every morning – that, in fact, I squander barely two minutes brushing my hair before staggering sluggishly downstairs to gulp a cup of strong tea.

You might think my lack of style sense would prompt them to take pity and fix me up, but the opposite seems to be true. Figuring me to be a lost cause, they treat me with the speed and delicacy a meat-cutter might show when hacking apart a side of beef. From the very beginning, my visits to salons seem to go awry.

For instance, the last time I walked into one of those inexpensive hair-cutting places, I told the woman at the counter that I wanted a haircut.

“What’s your phone number?” she asked.

“Why do you need that?” I demanded, being something of a privacy fanatic.

“Just for our records,” she replied vaguely.

I gave her my office number. She then pressed, “May I have your address?”

“I’d rather not give it,” I said politely.

“We’ll only use it to mail you coupons,” she coaxed.

Ignoring the vision of $5-off coupons arriving in stacks in my mailbox, I shook my head.

She scowled and muttered darkly under her breath, ”Your loss.”

That set an unpromising tone for the rest of the visit, and sure enough, the stylist ignored my instructions and cut my bangs so square and straight that I looked like Nefertiti of the Nile.

But I’ve had unpleasant experiences in expensive salons, too. No matter where you go, you can count on certain things from a hair stylist. One is the torture of the prerequisite haircombing.

My hair is moderately long. Anyone, male or female, who’s ever had long hair knows you have to start combing at the bottom and work progressively upward. Hair stylists, however, eager to get to the next customer, have little time to waste on such niceties, so they stick the comb in at the top of my scalp and wrench it downward, expecting the hairs to flow apart like the Red Sea in front of Moses — something that doesn’t happen anywhere outside a television commercial, particularly if you’ve been outside and the wind is blowing.

When the stylist inevitably encounters a tangle, she rips through it with brute force. If a whimper escapes my lips, she says innocently, “Oh, do you have a sensitive head?” (If “sensitive” means there are nerve endings in my scalp, the answer is yes.)

Then comes the question of how to cut the hair.

Mine is straight – very, very straight.

F o r t u n a t e l y , that’s the style these days, but it wasn’t always. In the early ’90s a friend suggested I get a perm. In a fleeting moment of insanity, I said yes. We went to the mall and I surrendered myself into the custody of the salon attendants. “What would you like?” one asked.

“Just some sort of long curls. You know,” I said, dreamily envisioning my hair as something like Daryl Hannah’s in “Splash.”

Three excruciating hours later, I emerged looking like a cross between a French poodle and “Linc” on “The Mod Squad.” For days a sulfurous stench clung to my locks. Never again, I vowed.

So these days, I say, “Give me something that will look fine without me using a blow-dryer or setting gel.” At this point, the hairdresser usually shrugs, whacks off a couple inches and sends me on my way.

However, once in a while I encounter someone who offers advice — usually the kind I don’t want. Several years back, I had a stylist who seemed personally affronted by my hair color. “Your hair is TOO DARK! TOO DARK!” she would screech. “At your age you should go lighter. LIGHTER!”

“But… but,” I would try to say. “I don’t look right with light hair. See how dark my eyebrows are?”

“It’s unnatural,” she would say grimly. “You’re too old!”

I felt like bleating, “But I’m not dead yet!” in Monty Python style, but the humor would have been lost on her. Another woman was big on trying to persuade me to buy the expensive instore styling products: mousse, conditioners, shampoos. The usual arguments (too expensive, I like my own shampoo) did no good. Finally I told her I didn’t want them because they contained animal by-products and I was afraid they would give me madcow disease. I figured she couldn’t argue with that, but I was wrong. “What animal by-products?” she snapped, grabbing a bottle off the shelf and zeroing in on the list of ingredients.

“Ammonium lauryl sulfate? That’s a detergent. Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride? That’s a chemical.”

She continued down the list, reciting each arcane ingredient and asserting that none had anything to do with animals. I wondered vaguely why a woman who evidently had a Ph.D. in chemistry was working in a hair salon, but I said nothing. (We’re all undermployed in Montezuma County, after all.) But that was the last time I went to her.

Now, watching the Japanese make great strides forward in robotry, I’m eagerly awaiting the day when I can afford a custom-designed robot that will cut my hair without bringing me to tears of pain or making me feel I have one foot in the grave.

In the meantime, I make the best of my trips to the salon. At least you can count on one good thing there: the magazines.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.