I used to love going to the hairdresser. And, yes, I mean the hairdresser – a salon.
Gleaming floor tiles, with sparkly bits. Asymmetric-haired (and faced) receptionists alternating between flicking through copies of Vogue and leaflets on chlamydia. Shelf upon shelf of brightly coloured product that would “change my life”, destined to make me part with north of £40 and to lie unused and unloved in my bathroom cabinet after two or three disappointing washes.
Going to get my hair styled was an event. I have never been one for pampering because I don’t understand it – it seems like a lot of nenetting around covered in goo to me, and if I wanted a sauna like that I hear Chariots is still going. And yet getting my hair “did”, to use culturally appropriated vernacular popular on social media, was my one concession to luxury. Money was no object – and certainly left my wallet swiftly enough – and having my hair pawed by good-looking people while I sipped a complimentary glass of “fizz” was one of my very favourite ways to spend time in my twenties and early thirties.
I didn’t have haircuts, I had styles. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try, any scissor-wielding or treatment I would shy away from. I had it relaxed, lines shaved in the side, a series of unfortunate mullets that have ruined every photo of me in existence from 2004–2006. As someone who is, at best, average-looking and at worst a genuine milk-curdler, my hair was always my crowning glory. Thick and bountiful and able to grow at an alarming rate, my hair bravery lifted me from a “meh” to a “mmmmmaybe” and that was enough for me.
Sitting in the stylist’s chair is probably the longest time you spend in front of mirror without being accused of being too vain. In that 30–45 minutes or so you’re under their control, you get to check out your profile, decide which is your “best side” (the back, in my case) and even practise your reaction faces. My surprised face, my horrified look and my evil smirk all come from years spent turning this way and that in front of a crimper’s mirror. I would stare into the looking-glass and, as the scissors went about their business, gradually see a version of me that was a definite improvement.
Then something changed. Time passed.
As the years advanced and my hair greyed and my eyes receded into fleshy, lined pillows, I didn’t stare in the mirror so much. And if I did, it was to worry, not admire.
It was, then, only when I had my hair cut that I was confronted with this bizarre reenactment of myself I don’t recognise, drawn from memory by a forgetful child with only half a crayon, and on a rollercoaster.
By this time, I had graduated to going to a barber, leaving behind my shiny sleek salons once I finally got sick of being up-sold shampoo and given yet another generic hairdo straight out of the Hoxton catalogue. No more racing to Jason in Pimpos & Pinups (no word of a lie) for 45 minutes of magic with a razor cut and handing over £50 for me.
Getting my hair done had become a chore. Instead of decadence and decoration, it started to feel functional. Like maintenance. An irritation I needed to get out of the way, causing only more annoyance when I couldn’t get an appointment, so I had to go where I knew I’d be able to get the chop straightaway. It was time to go to a barber. I had decided to play at being a grownup – and a rather dreary heterosexualish one at that.
My formerly luxurious styling session was now reduced to 15–20 minutes of efficient, wordless shearing in front of a terrifying circus mirror. The fragrance of my youth now a three-day-old pong after you’ve had smoked haddock for tea. There are great barbers out there, I know, and for a while I did have a great young guy called Jam (I don’t know why) who would congratulate me on having thick hair (every hairdresser I have ever sat in front of ever ever ever has done this) and laugh off my suggestion that my mop was greyer than John Major’s scrotum. However, when Jam moved on, as they always do, I was at the mercy of a series of butchers who couldn’t wait to get on their lunch-break.
Once you hit, I don’t know, 36 or 37, hair styles are no longer available to you. Doing something a little different is for young people or Zandra Rhodes. You find yourself reading blogs about the best haircut for your shape of face. In fact, ‘haircuts’ is what you have once middle-age comes canvassing at your doorstep – ‘hairstyles’ are not for you. And so my hair, once the cherry on top, became a shadow of its former self.
But today I made a stand. Sick of listening to a queue of masc4masc super manly men hacking their guts up into a copy of Metro while I get my hair trimmed, I went into a salon. A real salon. I didn’t have to wait, and a gay man with arms inscribed with tattoos like the Rosetta stone asked me what I wanted and talked to me about my hair for four whole minutes. Then he pointed out what previous barbers had done wrong. “It is… mushroom,” he said in his unplaceable, yet amiable, accent. He offered me a latte. A bored model swept the floor in the background. I felt home again.
He clipped and trimmed and thinned and fluffed and then sent me in the back to get my hair washed by yet another gay man – Marcello – who said he liked my “salt and pepper”. The chair I sat in was a “massage chair”, which malfunctioned and pummelled my arsehole for three minutes straight while Marcello hummed Anaconda and lathered my barnet with all manner of ridiculous unnecessary concoctions. And yet this did not take the shine off my experience.
As my hair was finally styled, I realised, yes, it looked the same as it had four weeks ago when a different barber had got its hands on it, but I felt anew, changed. I handed over the money, only £9 more than my usual barber, received a loyalty card and strode out feeling that maybe I didn’t have to bow to middle-aged norms after all. I can still have salons.
And yes, I look like a badly cryogenically aged version of myself in the mirror, but inside I felt like me. While I have hair, I’m going to treat it to that experience as often as I can. Hairstyles: you will be mine.