Split Ends: A Woman's Life with Her Hair by Richard Stein

Hair and Relationship

Richard Stein

t's conceivable that having a healthy relationship with our hair, understanding the spectrum of possibilities in its texture, color, and style and how it affects us and others, is of primary importance in the overall effect of our constantly changing personal appearance.

Over the years as a working stylist, I have witnessed countless clients' hair obsessions and distresses about their tresses. It has made me keenly aware of just how important it is to have one's hair be on target at all times. I am also truly convinced that there is an intimate connection between one's outer appearance and one's inner world, i.e., healthy self-image, self-confidence, and the ability to perform well in life.

Hair can rule. I remember one client with particularly fine hair telling me a poignantly funny story. She had met a terrific guy shortly after her divorce. They had dated and painted the town hot pink.. This was at a time when hairpieces, known as "falls," were in vogue. All through the dating period, painfully insecure about her fine hair, she had worn one to give it the illusion of fullness. Never mind that she'd had to anchor the fall to the crown of her head with a thousand thorny bobby pins. When the moment finally came for sexual encounter, the poor woman was traumatized. To wear or lose the wiglet? Finally deciding to keep it on, she proceeded to spend what could have been a grand time worrying about the hairpiece instead of letting go and enjoying herself. She had traded ego for orgasm. That relationship quickly deteriorated, but she pulled out the bobby pins and went on to meet and many someone who appreciated her with her own hair. True love after the fall!

It's probably a sweeping generalization that men have practically no understanding whatsoever of a woman's hair agenda, (or very little of their own, for that matter), but it's certainly what I've witnessed over the years. The atmosphere in a glitzy beauty salon is dramatically different from the no-nonsense masculinity of the old-fashioned barbershop. With the advent of the unisex salon in the mid-1970s, born when wives and girl friends began bringing their attendant males in to be styled by her beautician, men have not-so-stealthily invaded the sanctorum of feminine privacy. The veil has been lifted. Voyagers of "the beauty secret," men can now catch glimpses of their significant other and lots of other women being dyed, highlighted, lip-waxed, and pedicure... not at their burnished best. (No good deed goes unpunished!) Small compensation that women can watch the uneasy males struggle with their own, only recently, often dimly-perceived, style needs.

Men have complained bitterly and perennially to their womenfolk about the amount of time, paraphernalia and energy spent on "doing their hair." Perhaps this is one of those basic bargains in a relationship, like who gets to do the washing up or walk the dog. The "hair issue" between couples is often just such a trade-off -she gets to spend outrageous amounts of money, time, and energy on her hair with hair dyes, other products, and marathon visits to the beauty parlor -all in the name of pleasing him. He, in turn, gets to avoid diet and exercise and continue to smoke his wretched cigars. A woman friend recently confessed to me, after a long and bitter divorce, that for all the years of the marriage, her former husband had been cutting her hair, albeit with no formal training. She had hated it but it was loath to upset him by telling him so. How's that for unspoken agreements?

Then there's the complex interplay between hair and a person's relation to their larger cosmos and their fellow travelers in it. Most people rely on hairstylists or friends to give them an opinion about their hair because they understand little or nothing of its nature or style potential. They are the hair fashionistas, addicted to the quick fix of the "hairdo of the day." Movie stars, models, and celebrities are the style bellwethers for a public avid for a new look at their cost, never mind that it may have nothing whatsoever to do with their own faces, bodies, or hair. Peer pressure has its place in this equation, too. I've often wondered whether women try harder to impress their women friends in the style department, than they do their significant male others. Here's where the hair/self-image part becomes blurry, and a women tries to please everyone, losing focus of her own needs. Then, there's pure hair perversity -with women wanting the diametric opposite of what they have straight or curly -and so spending a great deal of time, energy, and money trying to achieve the improbable.

The relationship between hairdresser and client is an intricate one. Hairdressers play many roles and represent different things to different people -confidante, confessor, parent, relative, therapist, and on and on. A world-famous psychiatrist used to tell me that sitting in my salon waiting to get a haircut, listening carefully to all the various conversations swirling around her, she'd heard things being discussed that would have taken years to be revealed to her in her practice. Not all hairdresser/client relationships have an immediate "chemistry;" most have to be worked on and developed over time. As in all relationships, listening empathically to each other is key. I personally view each individual as a work in progress, which enables me to create a viable style agenda -a kind of personal database of styles that I use and can constantly hone and refer to over our collaboration.

It is hard for a hairdresser not to get personally involved with his or her client. The physical intimacy of the "laying on of scissors" and the close proximity of chair to stylist make it almost an inevitability. Over time, a friendship usually evolves, and mutual information is exchanged that can be, by turns, revealing and potentially embarrassing. I've been fortunate in attracting a large and eclectic clientele over the years, many interesting and important people coming from diverse walks of life. Even though I did not take an "oath of silence," I have always felt an obligation to maintain a low gossip profile, being careful not to indulge or divulge and keeping the focus where it belongs, on the creative part.

However, given all the perils intrinsic to the situation, the mutual benefits surely outweigh the risks. The exchange of information that takes place on all levels -conversation, good feelings, and the "new look" -can be transcendental for both parties. I call it the "beauty agreement." Many times when I have finished doing someone's hair, they leave my chair with a different sense of themselves -and with their mood elevated without recourse to Prozac. I believe that special, upbeat mood change is deservedů that it is part of the beauty salon experience, part of the promise. People will go to great lengths -travel far and pay a great deal of money for it. I have always tried to acknowledge and honor my partnership in this intangible beauty agreement.

Endings are often an inevitable, often painful part of relationships, and especially so in the volatile beauty business. Hairdressers move from salon to salon like planets in their spheres, as do their clients, orbiting from stylist to stylist. Certainly at this juncture, in Manhattan, circa A.D. 2000, there is very little sense of loyalty in the community. This lack of permanence ultimately affects the stylist's attitude to the ever-shifting scene, and hence the client. Being able to let go of clients when the moment comes is as important as keeping them close until that time. I have always believed in an open door attitude, so that people can leave and return comfortable -and they do!

Richard Stein Hair Salon, New York City

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