Cut Down to Size
nce I tried to find a hairdresser less expensive than the one I usually use. Calling in August, I got an appointment in late October. My hair grew. Ends split. Eventually I drove the two hours from my home in Manhattan.
My appointment was for noon. I changed into the salon smock and read a magazine. At 12:05, the receptionist told me that Roger had called on his car phone: stuck in traffic, he would be a little late.
He was only fifteen minutes late. Richard regularly kept me waiting half an hour, sometimes an hour, with no apology. If Roger got in his car and circled the block in order to call a new client on the car phone and put her in a state of abjection, he needn't have bothered. I felt abject as all get-out in that awful smock, my hair almost as blond as a Barbie doll's and seeming both to frizz and hang limply to mid-neck.
Roger said, “Too bad you've changed. I like to see my clients in their own clothes first, to get a sense of their style." A good-looking man with blue eyes and dark hair, he eyed me with distaste. "But I must tell you, I'd be very surprised if I end up cutting your hair."
That, I supposed, was a joke, so I joked in return: "My clothes are hanging in the closet. You can take a look at them if you like."
"Good idea," he said solemnly. I led him to my clothes. He looked, and then, like a young knight in a fairy tale required to make love to a hideous hag, brought me to his chair before the mirror.
I said, "Judith suggested I come to you." "Judith's hair is typical of the work I do."
"I like Judith's hair. That's why I'm here."
"Judith's hair is healthy."
"Oh, I see," I said. "You're not into damaged hair."
"No," he said, holding a strand or two of my hair distantly, as though it were blue spaghetti. "I'm not. Overworked color like yours -well, I only like it when it's intended to be amusing. We might have tried to bring it back, but you've taken it too far. I'd be very surprised if I could cut your hair. Didn't you come in for a consultation? That's why I like to do consultations."
"No one said anything about a consultation. I've waited three months for this appointment." Tears were coming to my eyes, and I had no privacy. There were clients on my left and right and hairdressers at work on them, pretending not to listen. "I drove two hours to get here."
He said, 'Well, we'll wash out your conditioner" -pronounced to mean inferior, second-rate product - "and see what we have then."
I summoned up my last bit of self-esteem and said, "It doesn't sound as if it's worth the trouble. You don't seem to like anything about my hair."
"No," said Roger, "I don't." And so I walked out, and managed not to start crying until I hit Seventh Avenue.
The French have a phrase to describe the things you should have said but didn't have the presence of mind to say at the time, the things you thought of as you left the scene of confrontation -l'esprit d'escalier, staircase wit. Many friends later helped me come to terms with my humiliation by contributing pieces of staircase wit. "Who do you think you are? Picasso?" was a favorite. The best from a man who refused to believe that Roger liked women, and I will give only an expurgated version: "If you think this is bad, you should see me naked."
My mother, who is old school and thinks of hair-dressers as servants and employees rather than artists and professionals, was horrified that I took this insult from an "underling." What kind of spineless creature had she spawned? Another friend echoed her: "Who would have thought you were so passive?"
Most of my friends seemed to think they could have handled it better than I did, and I'm sure they were right. One insinuated that it served me right for being so elitist as to go to New York to get my hair cut. However much it shook my confidence, the incident did me no harm with my acquaintances. Envy is the only dangerous feeling to provoke. Giving people a chance to patronize you every once in a while only increases their affection.
I saw a woman humiliated by a hairdresser in Paris. It wasn't a pretty sight. I saw her come into the salon proud, strong, self-confident, and leave like a whipped dog. An American, she had come to Paris all the way from Germany, where she was living, because she didn't trust the Germans to do her hair.
She had grown it for years so that it could be cut straight across the bottom, as was being done in New York. The Parisian hairdresser began to layer it. The proud woman winced and tried to object. The hairdresser said, "I cannot cut your hair unless you have confidence in me." After that, the woman quivered and watched without protest as her hair was ruined. When the hairdresser stepped away for a moment, she broke into tears and I tried to comfort her. We both agreed that the worst part was, French women looked good. Why couldn't we?
At that moment I realized what a complex cultural achievement a haircut is, the product not only of a sophisticated negotiation between hairdresser and client, but of subtle, culturally coded understandings of identity and status. As an American, I could see this was a woman to be reckoned with, but the French hairdresser did not. Treated as though she were contemptible, she soon became so.
The haircut I got that day was equally poor. Later I learned from a journalist friend what I had to do to get my hair cut well in Paris. I had to explain very carefully that I was a writer and that I wanted un-look Colette. Otherwise the hairdresser, unable to place me, would do a second-rate assembly line haircut.
I think that no man would stand for the treatment from a barber that women get from hairdressers. Perhaps the low-cost haircut is men's secret source of strength. I know a very successful lawyer who likes to go to the cheap barbers in Grand Central Terminal with moral fervor, as thought to give in to the pressures to get an eighty-dollar haircut were to begin down a path that leads inevitably to insider trading. He may be right.
For women, however, I would argue that moral strength lies on the side of the expensive -or at any rate abusive -haircut. My experience with Roger is the kind that keeps you humble, makes you a kinder person, prevents you from misusing your own power, holds arrogance at bay. If the seven-dollar haircut and its attendant humiliations keep well-heeled women attuned to the plight of the scorned and unfortunate.
The afternoon of my humiliation by Roger, I was lucky enough to get an appointment with my darling Richard. He ran his fingers unhesitatingly through my bleached-out strands and said, "I love your hair." "You do? Really?" I said, with pathetic gratitude. I would never try to leave him again. I would put up with his little weaknesses, like charging too much. "Yes, I really love it," he said. I should have been reassured, my ego re-inflated, but instead I said to myself, "Richard must be into damaged hair."
Phyllis Rose is the author of Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Wolff, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, Writing of Women: Essays in a Renaissance, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, Never Say Goodbye: Essays, and the editor of The Norton Book of Women's Lives.