Like any good early-2000s preteen, I decided in seventh grade that I needed to have chunky red highlights. So I turned to Angie, the willowy midwest mom who ran the salon inside the local Walmart and our family’s designated coiffeuse. My parents drove me over on a Saturday, and I spent the morning perched in Angie’s chair, marinating in the cloud of her perfume and attention as she asked me about the upcoming school spelling bee that I was preparing for. Talking to Angie as she fussed over me felt like having a cool older sister — one who totally understood the importance of debuting my new look in front of the whole school.
After the highlights faded, I never ended up remembering to go back to the salon. But I still think about Angie a lot, and how she first helped me look more like who I wanted to be.
Since Angie, there have been others whose impact far outlasted any hair change. There was Elena, from that Chicago salon with the Groupons, who gave me my first blowout and demonstrated how to curl my hair — for a “good going-out look,” she assured my clueless teen self. Recently, there was Grant, the Brooklyn barber who warned me against both dating comedians and using cheap shampoo, and runway-beautiful Celine, who dressed like a chic mad scientist and cut the best long layers.
Still, life moved too fast and I was too undiscerning to be anyone’s “regular,” at least until I met Sarah, a friend of a friend who agreed to use her new beauty school credentials to turn me blonde. I remember how we spent the whole day in her living room watching Sex and the City while she worked her double-process magic. At one point, I ended up confiding in her that I hoped a drastic hair change would give me the courage to change other things in my life — to dump a bad dude, to get a better job — and she nodded knowingly. We swapped stories about how we’d both moved to New York alone, and the way Sarah would tenderly pat my foil-covered head made me feel weirdly and distinctly mothered. Afterward, when she rinsed me out in the kitchen sink and we looked at my new pale, perfect strands in the mirror, I hugged her.
These days, I still see Sarah every two months — only now, it’s to touch up that purple dye job I begged for over the summer, and I’m just one of her regulars at the salon where she works full-time. It’s weird to think about what this one relationship has outlasted over the years, and it all just deepens my belief that the bond we form with the people who do our hair is a lovely and oddly lasting one.
Because, sure, hairdressers come into our lives to indulge our whims for superficial change. We enlist their help to make those misguided Zooey Deschanel bangs happen, or to fix whatever the hell it is you did to yourself with that toner ordered off Amazon.
But, even if only for a few hours one weekend inside a Walmart, hairdressers also end up assuming a profound role in helping us crystallize our sense of self. They’re not only master artisans of emotional labor who care enough to want to dab dye on your hair, strand by individual strand — but they’re also our advisers in alchemy, our fairy godmothers. They’re who you turn to when you get a crazy gleam in your eye and an Instagram mirage in your head and a heady impulse to metamorphose, and they just say, yes, okay, let’s make it happen. Can you do Saturday at 11?