I Went Looking for the Perfect Haircut–and Got a Lesson in Social Change
By Peggy Orenstein
From the time I was 2 years old, my Medusa-like ringlets have both defined and defied me. I prayed for the kind of hair that could be cut into a pixie or a Farrah flip, or hair that would hang like a curtain straight down to my butt. I pressed my mess flat with an iron; rolled it up with jumbo-sized orange-juice cans; wrapped it, thick and wet, around my head like a turban and sat under a dryer for two hours-only to have the effect ruined by a single badly placed bobby pin.
In junior high, I cut it all off and have since endured more than two decades of bad-hair days courtesy of stylists who’d learned their trade on corn silk. I suffered through the Q-tip, the sideways Q-tip (remember asymmetrical hair?) and, yes, the poodle. I was warned to keep my hair short, that without processing, it would grow ever outward, defying gravity until I looked like a pale Jimi Hendrix. There was nothing I could do: I had God’s own bad perm, and it really was permanent.
It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that my tresses and I finally called a truce. That’s when I met a stylist who made my curls work naturally rather than try to battle them into submission. But I never expected that, in learning to love my locks, I’d be taking part in an experiment in cultural change.
I came to Hair Play, a beauty salon near San Francisco’s trendy Noe Valley neighborhood, after seeing a picture in the paper of a curly-headed customer who had her ringlets styled there. The first time I walked in, I stopped short, stared and wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong shop. The only stylist working was black. She was hot-combing the hair of two clients who were also black. The article hadn’t noted that Hair Play was one of the country’s few multicultural salons.
Later, once I became a regular there, Fritz Clay, Hair Play’s owner, explained to me, “Hair salons and churches are the last segregated places in America.” Tall, sinuous and thoroughly sexy—sort of like Warren Beatty in the movie Shampoo but biracial and with his hair in twists—Clay, 38, is a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. of beauty. He likes to say, “My goal is to integrate the hair salon.”
Indeed, Hair Play’s stylists are African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American and European-American. Ann Marie, who is white, has fiery orange dreadlocks. Iren, a salon coordinator who is Asian, has dyed her hair blue. One Saturday afternoon, I notice a black woman sitting under a dryer with her hair in rollers, an Asian woman getting her stick-straight hair trimmed and several Latina and white women waiting for highlights. Clay is working the hot combs while others dye, clip, relax and perm.
The familiar bottles of Redken and Rusk products mingle with Dudley’s and Silk, which are primarily made for African Americans. White customers, Clay drawls, get to “see what the sisters are up to” with their relaxers, extensions and braids.
It’s a relief to be in a salon where my hair isn’t a “problem.” Finally, at least when it comes to my hair, I feel so … understood. “Getting my hair done here is like therapy,” a biracial customer confides. She is having the color touched up on her mane, which, aside from the fact that it is auburn, is just like mine. Clay has doused both our scalps with Dudley’s, then twirled tendrils around his fingers to create neo-dreadlocks. We look like the love children of Shirley Temple and Bob Marley. But in a good way.
As we admire our new ‘dos, I recall something another African-American customer once said to me: “In general, straight-haired people don’t understand curly hair, you know?” I do know. In fact, my most satisfying hair conversations have always been with black women. I’ve even shared tips with strangers on the subway about the latest anti-frizz serum or a gel that actually holds. Maybe I feel this instant bond because, like African-American women, we Jewish girls tend to divide our selves into those with “good” and “bad” hair. For myriad reasons having to do with beauty myths and Barbie dolls, we both consider straight hair more desirable than our natural nap. At my recent high school reunion where maybe 30 percent of my classmates were Jewish-I was the only curly top in the room wearing her hair naturally. Yet for black women, I’ve discovered, deciding whether to relax or go natural, to braid or press, is even more complex. Walking into a boardroom with an Afro or a head full of braids isn’t exactly “corporate,” Clay tells me. I didn’t realize—until I started frequenting Hair Play—that to get that sleek, straight-haired power broker look, black women often spend up to $200 a month.
Even at Hair Play, though, a few fault lines remain. While many of the curly-headed white customers wear their hair natural, like I do, most of the black women do not. And I have yet to see a white customer pick up a copy of Vibe or Essence, although I see plenty of black customers paging through Vogue. I guess you can change someone’s hairstyle in a few hours, but it takes a little longer to change the world.
Still, it’s clear that having their hair washed and cut by a person of color—or even just sitting side by side with one under the dryer—is as intimate as many white women have ever been with a person of a different race. And that, as Clay says, is a beautiful thing.
Hanging out at Hair Play has also forced me to reckon with a few of my own deeply held stereotypes. On my way out of the salon one afternoon, I stop to chat with a woman whose hair hangs lank and uncomplicated down to her collarbone. She tells me that she has just flown in from Boston, where she moved two years ago. “First I buy my plane ticket,” she says, “then I call to make an appointment with Ann Marie. I don’t let anyone else cut my hair.”
“Can’t you find anyone in Boston who cuts straight hair?” I say, unable to keep the scorn out of my voice. “I mean, how hard can it be?”
She looks hurt. “You don’t know how it is,” she says. “Not just anyone can cut straight hair.”
(Here is a link to Fritz’s miraculous styling product, SET. It’s a must for women of curl.)
© Peggy Orenstein. All rights reserved.
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