I blame Kathy Connor for over 30 years of hair disasters. When I met her, back in 1975, I was a hair virgin. I had very long, dirty blond locks that had remained exactly that long for my entire 19 years. Kathy took one look, lifted a hank of hair in her hands, and examined it. “Your hair,” she said, “is a mess. Dry. Damaged. Split.” Kathy was one of those people who seem infinitely wiser and older than everyone else. She did not wear jeans or Izod shirts. She liked Frank Sinatra music. She knew how to prepare flank steak and cherries jubilee. So when she delivered my hair diagnosis, I listened.
“You need to cut it,” she said. I began to sweat. My hair, thick and highlighted with gold streaks that I carefully painted on every six weeks, was my best feature.
“Like a trim?” I managed to ask. Once a year, I went to the hair salon at the Jordan Marsh department store and let a hairdresser cut an inch or two. This, I believed, kept my tresses looking good. Apparently, I was wrong.
Kathy leaned in for a closer examination. Her face filled with disgust. “At least six inches,” she announced.
If only I had been the kind of 19-year-old who did not listen to someone simply because she knew the words to “My Kind of Town,” this story would have ended right there in the living room of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority. Instead, I followed Kathy to the telephone and let her make an appointment for me with a man named Tony at a salon in nearby Providence. A week later, I walked onto South Main Street a different person. My long, beautiful hair had been cut into a Dorothy Hamill wedge. Even worse, as the blond locks fell to the floor, I was left with what lay beneath them: mousy brown roots.
“You look so much better,” Kathy said, swinging her own still long hair. She had gotten a one-inch trim. I had been scalped.
“Uh-huh,” I said, peering at my reflection in various store windows as we walked by them. I was skinny back then, and with my hair so short and wearing my standard uniform of khaki pants and a polo shirt, I no longer looked like a pretty girl. To be honest, I didn’t look much like a girl at all.
That haircut stayed with me throughout college. Whenever I tried to grow it out, I got weird wings on the sides of my face that made me look like the Flying Nun. I tried to adapt to the change: I replaced my Long & Silky shampoo with Short & Sassy. I painted on highlights more frequently, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I pretended I was glad that I attracted attention because of my wit and smarts, rather than a gorgeous head of hair. Truth be told, I missed the weight of all that hair on my shoulders. I missed the way boys grabbed onto it when we kissed. I even missed my split ends, which I held up in the sunlight on lazy afternoons, a book open on my lap, and pulled apart.
After college, when I interviewed with airlines for a job as a flight attendant, the woman at United told me the highlights had to go. “Too brassy,” she said, with the same tone of distaste as Kathy Connor.
To remedy my so-called brassy hair, Tony (don’t ask me why I went back to him) stripped it completely and recolored it a dishwater-dull ash blond. It was my first real chemical process. And it was just the beginning. War had been declared; my hair was now the enemy.
Shortly after visiting Tony, I decided to grow it long again, thereby kicking off a protracted, torturous growing-out process. Over the next few years, I tried bangs, braids, and bobs. (Why? Because one hairdresser said I had to “go short to go long.”) I had perms, highlights, lowlights, root color, and foils. Once I even got the top spiked, which left me with a mullet that could be fixed only by chopping my hair short again. All this was in an effort to have my hair resemble what it had looked like before I met Kathy Connor. But no matter what I did, my 19-year-old self’s hair remained elusive.
Or it did until one day when, at the age of 30, I wandered into a fancy New York City salon, saw a beautiful, long-haired stylist named Joy, and told her: “I want your hair.” Joy did not believe that you had to go short in order to go long. She worked her magic, and within a few months I had long, gentle layers of blond hair—exactly the way I had wanted it.
I had missed this Me in my decade of short and medium-length hair. Call me shallow and narcissistic, but I liked the way men admired it. I liked walking down a city street in my jeans, cowboy boots, and black leather jacket. And, yes, abundant blond hair.
That should have been the end of my hair saga. Goal achieved; move on to the next thing. But life is not so simple. And so, at age 35, I found myself once again sitting in a hair salon, wearing a kimono and a towel pinned around my shoulders. I was pregnant, and suddenly my hair was dull and uncooperative again. The products that once gave it volume made it so full that I looked like a country-western singer. And my doctor said no hair color until the baby was born.
“To the collarbone,” I told the stylist. She lifted her scissors and cut.
By the time I had my second baby, a few years later, my hair was as short as a British schoolboy’s. And, surprisingly, I was OK with that. It was much easier to care for and kind of sexy, I decided. Plus, it was blonder than ever before.
That second baby was a girl, whom my husband and I named Grace. And she was blessed with the real thing: pale blond hair that never betrays you by turning brown. To keep her tangles under control, we cut her hair chin-length in a chic cut that had longer points in front.
When Grace turned five, she announced that she wanted long hair. It would be beautiful, I thought. Fine and golden. “You grow yours, too,” Grace said. “We’ll be even more the same.” Grace looked exactly like me. “Deal,” I told her. She didn’t have to know how I kept my own hair blond. We sealed our plan with a sticky kiss.
Grace and I did not get very far in our journey. Before her hair reached her shoulders, she got a virulent form of strep and died within 36 hours. The day of her funeral, my hairdresser, Jenny, came to our house to fix my hair.
“Cut it,” I told her.
“Really?” Jenny asked. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying.
I couldn’t bear to tell her the deal Grace and I had made. I couldn’t bear to keep my end of it, alone now. “Really,” I said.
Jenny cut it, and for the next two years, as grief kept me in its terrible grasp, I kept it short and dark, as if even my hair had to wear my sorrow.
Time passed. Somehow, it does that. And one spring day in 2007, five years after Grace’s death, I walked into a new salon and told the owner, Kim, that I wanted to grow out my hair. And I wanted it to be blond. Although that might sound as if I had not traveled very far at all, in fact, that day turned out to be one of the first tentative steps I took back into the world.
Patiently, over the next year, Kim trimmed and shaped so that the growing-out process did not make me look too bad. “You’ll be able to wear a ponytail this summer,” she said. She was right. That summer I walked along the ocean with my wet hair pulled back. By winter it fell below my collarbone. And now it hangs gently down my back.
Thirty-one years ago, I was a 19-year-old without the self-confidence to ignore bad advice. The fact that, at 50, I have the same hair that I so foolishly relinquished decades earlier does not mean that I am holding on to my youth or am unable to grow older gracefully. No. It means that I am a woman who has teased and sprayed and snipped her way through the decades, to finally land at the place where she feels most herself: as an unapologetic, long-haired blond; as a mother who lost her daughter, slowly, slowly reclaiming the torn pieces of herself.
About the Author
Ann Hood is the author of the new novel The Red Thread ($24, amazon.com). Her other books include Comfort ($13, amazon.com), An Ornithologist’s Guide to Life ($14, amazon.com), and The Knitting Circle ($14, amazon.com). She lives with her family in Providence.