A new family from Boston had bought a house near ours on Cape Cod, and their daughter joined my eighth-grade class. She seemed older than the rest of us and quickly became popular — partly, I thought, because she was so pretty.
That summer I heard she was giving haircuts on her front porch. I worked up the nerve to ask if she’d cut my long hair. “Just bring me a present,” she said. “A joint or a bottle of wine or something.”
My best friend’s older brother sold me a joint for a dollar, and at my haircut appointment a few days later, I paid in advance. After she wrapped the apron around my neck, the budding hairstylist lit the joint and started smoking it with her younger sister. They offered me some, but I awkwardly declined.
While she worked, we listened to Queen’s just-released first album. I was a big fan of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, but I’d never heard anything quite like this.
My haircut took a long time and turned out shorter than expected, but I didn’t mind. When I saw myself in the mirror she held up, I looked older.
“You have a good face,” she said. “You don’t need to hide behind your hair.”
I’d never been so happy.
My mom was a teacher and an amateur hairdresser whose specialty was perms. Even though I had naturally curly hair, she insisted on giving me perms every six weeks or so throughout the eighties and early nineties. I hated the time it took, the smell, and having to push the towel to my face to keep solution out of my eyes.
She would perm my dad’s hair at the same time. Afterward she gave us each a trim. The process felt like it took forever. My dad stared across the kitchen at me, frowning and smoking a cigarette, both of us in our plastic hair caps. Eventually I came to enjoy this time together: the conversation, Guiding Light on TV in the background, the click of the dog’s nails against the kitchen floor.
When I had my boys, Mom gave each of them his first haircut around a year old. Afterward she’d proudly announce, tears in her eyes, that he now looked like a “little boy.” Then she’d produce a lollipop from her pocket as a reward. Later she taught me to become their barber. In thirteen years they have never had a professional haircut.
Then my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had chemotherapy, went bald, wore wigs, cried about losing her eyebrows, and rejoiced when her hair grew back curly and soft.
A few months before she died, I asked if she wanted me to cut her hair, warning her I could offer only a buzz cut or “surfer hair,” my boys’ current styles. She laughed and said, “Surfer hair it is.”
First I put a towel around her neck and washed her hair in the kitchen sink. I bit my cheek to prevent myself from crying. Surfer hair it is.
West Roxbury, Massachusetts
Once, my short-haired husband and I — with my bushy, zigzag hair — walked into a Supercuts. The fear on the stylist’s face was apparent until she learned it was my husband, not me, who’d come in for a cut. Mainstream salons aren’t used to my type of natural Black hair; it’s been hard finding even a Black hairstylist who’s up to the task.
When I was little, my white mother cut it. She’d give me a Black-power Afro, even though I was the only child in grade school sporting one, or a style she called the “Bozo” — a small puff on the top of my head and a halo of hair behind.
By middle school I was styling my own hair using combs and rubber bands, but I really wanted to get it straightened at a salon so that I’d look like the other kids and the teens in commercials and magazines. I was tired of people saying I looked like I’d stuck my finger in an electrical socket. I was tired of them asking to touch it.
Finally my mom gave in and took me to a beauty school, which gave me hair like hers. The next time I had it straightened, the chemical relaxer left a small bald spot. Then I got straight extensions that ended up knotting after a water fight by the sink at my fast-food job. It seemed I’d never get the hair I wanted.
In the 1980s, inspired by Shari Belafonte, who sported a very short Afro on the cover of Vogue, I cut my own hair within an inch of my scalp. This provoked many questions from my parents: Why did you do it? Do you want to look like a boy? Are you going through something emotionally?
Among Black people with natural hair, this kind of cut is known as the “big chop,” a ritualized moment when all the years of straightening products are cut away. I would later let it grow out into dreadlocks, which meant ten years of freedom from salons. I’ve since cut those off, too, and have been naturally curly ever since.
Having short hair no longer has the same meaning as it did in the 1980s. Natural hair is enjoying a renaissance, and I’ve found some stylists where I live who are familiar with shaping it. I’ve learned to love my hair in any style and no longer let it define who I am.
My husband’s true colors emerged sometime after the honeymoon. He didn’t like eye makeup on women, so I washed mine off. If I absentmindedly gazed at a man crossing the street, he told me I was “ogling.” I was responsible for washing his shirts and hanging them facing one way in the closet, top buttons buttoned. Since no wife of his was going to work, I put my master’s degree away and raised babies. And since he liked women to have long hair, I was forbidden to cut mine.
After thirty years of this, I no longer recognized the fawning doormat I’d become. By that time the children were grown, and I felt the need to try something new. When I broached the topic of a shorter hairstyle with my husband, he told me to do whatever I wanted. I think he was confident I didn’t have the courage to make a big change.
But I did. The hairdresser braided my waist-length hair into a ponytail, then clipped it off and styled the rest. It ended up shoulder length.
That night I dangled the ponytail in front of my husband. He told me I looked terrible, but I was pleased. My hair has been short ever since. Getting it cut was the beginning of the end of our marriage.
Because the bird had been nesting in my shed for a few months already, and because I was feeling a homeownerly sense of duty to do something about it, and also because the bird was shitting all over my lawn mower, I decided it was time to remove the nest.
I didn’t relish the idea. I’ve been an animal lover since I was a kid, and I’d actually been heartened that a bird could find shelter alongside our bicycles and motor oil and tile saw. But, like the mud daubers I’d naively tried to coexist with, the bird had made a complete mess of things, and I’d reached the limit of my patience. I needed to take care of it.
It wasn’t the nest’s careful placement, high under the rafters, that gave me pause. It wasn’t even the three khaki-colored eggs — no bigger than peanut M&M’s, situated in the center of the circle of twigs — that stopped me. It was the material the bird had chosen to insulate the innermost parts of the nest against the cold of the approaching fall: my own hair, swept into the yard after my wife had cut it on our patio. I might even have been able to swallow my discomfort and remove the nest anyway if not for the startling fact that so many of the hairs weren’t brown but gray. This latest indignity of getting older had me reflecting on my mortality probably more than was healthy.
I left the nest right where it was.
Durham, North Carolina
I started pulling out my hair when I was about fifteen years old. I couldn’t resist the itch to tug and release. “Trichotillomania,” it’s called. I kept at it through college and grad school, marriage and work, and even acting on stage. I learned how to cut my own hair after a few well-intentioned but hurtful comments from hairstylists.
The obsession was worst when I was writing: the piles of hair around my desk disgusted and shamed me. I also pulled hair from my eyelashes, shins, and groin, but my scalp was the most visible evidence of my surrender. Nothing helped: not wearing gloves, not toying with rubber bands, not talking with my family or a therapist.
On Valentine’s Day 1978 my husband shaved my head in our kitchen. Each careful, nervous stroke released a little pain and promised a break from my compulsion. When he’d finished, I felt light and whole, as if my pink scalp lit up the room. It was much more helpful — and joyful — than talking with a therapist.
Some people asked about my health, concerned that I had cancer. My boss’s boss requested I wear a kerchief at my desk. But I also heard compliments: “Lucky you. You have a well-shaped head.”
When my hair grew back, so did my habit. It was another fifteen years before I found a remedy that stuck: hypnosis, followed by listening to a tape of the session. “When you feel the impulse,” the steady voice said, “remind yourself and stop. Relax.” I listened to the tape a lot, often just to help me sleep.
That Valentine’s haircut remains one of the brightest moments of my life: devoted hands letting me know I’d have help when I was ready to heal.
While I was struggling to earn a bachelor’s degree at my local state university, some friends in the class above me moved to Japan to teach English. They encouraged me to try it, too, but to get a job, they said, I would have to look the part: pressed black slacks, white button-up shirt — and a haircut.
This was the early nineties, and I was a drummer in a band. I had long hair, facial piercings, and a generally unwashed appearance.
“Dude, just pretend you’re a professional, and you can live in Japan,” they said.
It seemed too good to pass up.
A couple of months later I revealed my plan to my grandmother, who had lived through the Depression and raised my father and his siblings on a program of zero bullshit. She loved me but wore a hard smile every time she asked how I was doing. Most of our conversations ended in a list of things I could do to be more successful.
I don’t know if she even heard the word Japan before she had her hands on my hair, grabbing tufts, her fingers forming scissors. Having cut all her children’s hair, she was happy to make her grandson look “professional.”
Thirty minutes later she beamed at me in the mirror while I grimaced at my newly visible neck and ears. I left for Tokyo the next day.
Photos of that modified feathered bowl cut are somewhat embarrassing, but it served me well. I spent two years in Japan and went on to have a successful teaching career in the U.S., followed by a graduate degree from Harvard.
I still wonder: Was it living in a foreign country that caused me to give up my long hair and ripped jeans? Or was it that, by cutting my hair, my grandmother had shown me that, regardless of my posturing, I yearned for approval?
After surgery to remove a lump from her neck, my twelve-year-old daughter, Maddie, was diagnosed with stage-III cancer. When I told Julie, she immediately took control. Julie had been cutting Maddie’s hair since she was a toddler. She said I should bring my daughter into the salon right away, before she started chemotherapy. “I’ll cut her hair into a bob, and we’ll get a matching wig. That way it’ll be less noticeable after she loses her hair.” Julie’s voice was raspy from too many cigarettes, but also comforting. “Hey,” she added, “we’ve got this.”
I took her advice, and we made a plan to cut off the rest of Maddie’s hair as soon as it started to fall out.
Four weeks later, after two treatments, I crept into Maddie’s room at night. The streetlight illuminated the circles under her eyes, her steroid-bloated face, and the raised pink scar that ripped across her pale neck. Tufts of her cinnamon-colored hair had fallen out on her pillow.
Julie picked up on the second ring.
“It’s time.” I choked up.
“It’s OK, hon,” she said. “Bring her tomorrow morning before the shop opens.”
The next day I watched Julie shave off the remainder of my daughter’s hair. I remembered bathing Maddie when she was a toddler, how her hair swirled in the water, how later I would decorate it with bows, barrettes, and baubles.
While Julie showed Maddie how to attach the wig with double-sided tape, I discreetly gathered some of her hair from the floor, rubbing it between my fingers before placing it in an envelope, the way I’d done after her first haircut a dozen years earlier. I dabbed the corners of my eyes, unsure when, or even if, I would ever touch my baby’s hair again.
Los Angeles, California
My hair was my greatest vanity: thick, layered, and brown with blond highlights. In school, boys would flirt with me by tugging on the ends.
The hair-pulling continued on my first real job, in the male-dominated transportation industry. My boss would stand behind my office chair and jerk my head backward by my ponytail to make me look up at him. “A perfect handle,” he called my hair. Human resources said that sometimes men made jokes women couldn’t appreciate, and that I should grow thicker skin. I told myself I was being too sensitive.
While we were working late one night, my boss trapped me against his desk, took a fistful of my hair, and whispered how good it felt between his fingers. He told me a girl was at a man’s mercy when he held her by her hair.
There were other men still in the shop, but his blinds were closed. When he fucked me that first time, I arched my back painfully to relieve the pressure on my scalp, but I didn’t scream, because I was convinced it was my fault. I hadn’t done enough to avoid his unwanted attention.
At home that night I stood sobbing before the bathroom mirror, a pair of scissors pressed close to my tender scalp. I was ready to sever my vanity.
Johnson City, Tennessee
I was an avid surfer in the mid-1960s. The day before I reported to the military-induction center in Los Angeles, I went surfing, as usual. The waves were breaking better than they had in weeks, and I stayed out well past sunset. By the following afternoon, thanks to the Vietnam draft, I would be a recruit in the U.S. Marine Corps. I had no idea if I’d ever surf again.
At a depot in San Diego the next morning, I stood at attention in a long line of recruits. “Eyes forward! No talking!” the drill instructor barked. At the head of the line was a closed door through which recruits disappeared one at a time.
When it was my turn to enter, I heard a high-pitched buzz and saw three chairs, a barber behind each. The drill instructor ordered me to sit. The barber did not ask how I wanted my hair cut. There was only one option.
I’d always kept my hair short, because it was easier to take care of after surfing. I guess it wasn’t short enough. The barber ran the clippers over the top of my head and up the sides. In less than a minute what little hair I’d had lay on the floor. I didn’t need a mirror: a quick look at the guy next to me told me what I looked like.
After boot camp we were allowed to keep a little hair on top: “high and tight,” they called it. For two years, including thirteen months fighting in Vietnam, that was how I wore mine.
After discharge I let my hair grow long and sprouted a beard. But when I needed a job, I told the barber, “High and tight.”
At seventy-six years old I still keep my full head of gray hair cut short — easier to take care of after surfing.
Santa Barbara, California
As a graduate student in the early nineties, I saved money by getting my hair cut at a beauty school that charged only five dollars. The third time I went, the chair was turned so that I couldn’t watch as the stylist cut. When he finally turned me to face the mirror, I was stunned: it was long down the middle, short on the sides.
I rushed home to restyle my hair, hoping it was just the way he’d dried it. But when the apartment maintenance guy knocked, his expression confirmed that it was as bad as I thought.
I would be flying out in the morning to join my boyfriend in California, where he was visiting his parents. I couldn’t meet his family looking like this. So I drove to a salon I’d noticed on my way to school, one in a beautiful old house. I knew it would cost a fortune, and I’d have to put it on my credit card.
Shaking, I asked if someone could see me right away. A young man with a halo of blond curls took one look and said, “Oh, darlin’, who did that to you?” He didn’t really have to ask. I wasn’t the first customer he’d seen with this monstrosity. I burst into tears as he led me into the shampoo room, his arm around my shoulders. “I’m David,” he said. “Everything’s going to be OK.”
I left the salon with a short, curly style that I loved, as did my boyfriend. I decided to be grateful to the student who’d unwittingly pushed me to move on from the big hair of the eighties.
I was determined that David would be my regular stylist, but after one or two more cuts I was told he no longer worked at that salon. No one knew where he’d gone. When I finally found his new salon, I asked him to let me know if he ever planned on leaving.
David cut my hair for another year or so before I got the message again: “He doesn’t work here anymore.” The person on the phone said he wasn’t cutting hair at all. “But,” she said, “he told me I should take care of you.” I trusted whomever David trusted, so I made the appointment.
While my new stylist cut my hair, she explained why David wouldn’t be back: he had AIDS. She agreed to convey to him that I would never forget him. And I haven’t.
Margaret Donovan Bauer
Blounts Creek, North Carolina
By the age of thirty-six I had spent eighteen years altering my Afro-textured hair into a sleek, swinging mane. I went to a beauty shop every eight weeks or so to “touch up” the new growth. For days before those appointments I would idly massage my scalp, feeling the unprocessed hair. I loved its soft, thick texture, but I continued to chemically relax my hair. I had no idea how to maintain it otherwise. Every week when I was a girl, my mother had pressed my hair with a straightening comb. During the summer she would plait it into two tight braids that stiffened and shrank after swimming.
Maybe the turning point was leaving the law firm where I was the only African American attorney. Maybe it was having more knowledge about how to care for my hair without altering it. Or maybe it was seeing so many African American women proudly wearing their natural hair. But I decided to stop relaxing mine, telling myself I could always relax it again.
During my first all-natural haircut, I refused to watch as the beautiful Haitian American salon owner sectioned and clipped my hair. After she’d finished, I had a thick, fluffy Afro.
Twenty-two years later the strands are thinner and finer, and many are white or gray, but they still form a coily halo. Not once have I thought about relaxing my hair again.
The summer I was twelve years old, my brothers and sisters and I rode a Greyhound from Santa Barbara, California, to Sacramento to stay with our dad for a week. He was living with Susie, the woman he’d left our mom to be with. We didn’t want to go, and Dad didn’t seem to want us there, but we went without complaint. During that visit and others that followed, I swam and babysat and walked to the 7-Eleven: anything not to be alone with my dad. Still he would come into my bed at night. I held my breath till he was done.
One day I decided to try out Susie’s combination hairbrush and curling iron. I wound a chunk of my hair around the bristles and turned on the heat, hoping to smooth my kinky hair. It didn’t take long for me to realize my hair was caught.
Sheepishly I showed my dad. He and Susie were heading out for some social engagement, so he told me to look in the phone book, find a salon, bike to it, and get a haircut.
I rode his too-big bike down a six-lane avenue in the searing summer heat with a curling iron stuck to my head. I’d wrapped the cord around the handlebar so it wouldn’t get caught in the spokes. It’s a story I went on to tell as a funny anecdote from my childhood, but each time a listener laughed, I felt I was betraying that lost little girl on the bike.
Almost forty years later I can’t remember how that day ended. Did I make it to the salon? Did I rip the curling iron out in frustration? The one thing I know I didn’t do was tell my sisters I needed help. I believed I was the only target of Dad’s late-night visits. It would be ten years before I learned they were living with their own abuse.
When I give my teenagers haircuts now, I imagine sitting that little girl down and gently detangling her hair from the iron, then telling her how much better things will be.
Ever since the kids left home, it’s been clear my husband and I don’t understand each other. Feeling unsettled around the person I’ve spent forty years with is like falling through space, but the thought of splitting up and never seeing our cabin in the woods again is worse.
He’s a good man and goes to meetings for his pot addiction, but his unpredictable behavior often leaves me in a state of panic. He tries to hear what I need but gets offended when he feels he is not enough. I try to accept him as he is, but his actions often have me slamming doors until our photos fall off the wall.
A few years ago we decided the best way to deal with his thinning hair was for me to buzz it off. He sits on a stool with a towel around his shoulders, and I clip the top and stroke his head with my free hand, checking for stray hairs that are hiding. Then I guide his head down and carefully shave his neck, brushing away any strands that have gotten stuck.
I look at him, and we smile. This is a dance we know how to do. For those few minutes I feel the love of the past forty years. I think we both want to keep doing this one small thing forever. Perhaps that is enough.
One Friday afternoon my new friends took me to a pricey salon — their treat. At the age of fourteen I still couldn’t believe that these hilarious, charismatic girls liked me. It was the afternoon before a school mixer where there would be boys, and they were hoping a particular redheaded boy would notice me. As the stylist razored away at my shrub of an eighties perm, my friends watched eagerly, waiting to see the duckling turn into a swan.
At the dance, instead of talking to boys, I hid in corners and huddled around the girls, quiet with shame. They grew angry, unable to understand what my problem was. I was confused, too.
My teenage friends thought the best thing they could do for me was to change me. I still remember how the gay hairstylist’s eyes searched out mine in the mirror. Perhaps he saw what my friends couldn’t, what I couldn’t quite see myself: that I had no desire, then or ever, to be noticed by a boy.
Of the seventy thousand or so haircuts I’ve given in my thirty years as a stylist, the one that stands out most is the one I gave my mother to get my stylist’s license.
While I was learning to cut hair, my mother surprised me by showing up at the beauty school. Until that moment she had entrusted her glorious, thick hair only to the very best hairdressers, but to show her support, she became my most regular client. A year later I asked her to be my model for the state board’s licensing examination, a nerve-wracking test of practical skill and technical knowledge. She readily agreed.
I’d been giving her trendy haircuts, but for the test I had to perform an old-fashioned layer cut with a round perimeter set in rollers. The result was a 1950s bouffant right out of Milady, a cosmetology textbook that hadn’t changed in decades.
After the test I went to my mother’s house to fix her hair. I cut and cut, but I was simply too inexperienced to give the outdated style a contemporary shape. We spent two hours in her kitchen before I finally went home.
Early the next morning Mom called and asked if I could fix “a few little things.” (Years later she told me she had looked at her hair that morning and burst into tears.) Back in her kitchen I cut it again, trying to make her hair look more angular. By the time I was done, my elegant mother looked like a boot-camp drill sergeant. She was remarkably cool about it.
Mom is gone now, but her trust boosted my confidence when I needed it most. After her hair grew out, we joked that it would take twenty years of free haircuts just to begin to make up for the aftermath of that exam.
In fourth grade I began to get severe headaches the week that school let out for summer. The cause was eventually identified as a brain tumor. I woke from surgery in a paralyzed body, with a painful row of stitches running up the back of my neck and head. I spent months remastering such skills as blinking my eyes and wiggling my fingers. I teetered into fifth grade that autumn on legs that had just relearned how to carry me.
For years I would let only my mother cut my hair because I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else seeing my scar up close. As a teenager I had the same surgery a second time. The aftermath was less severe, but once again I was left with a shaven scalp and an ugly scar that to me represented all my deficiencies.
When high school ended, I moved away from my hometown and decided to go to a salon for a haircut. My hair still grew in uneven patches around the scar, and I thought a professional could even it out. I’ll never forget the sting of the hairdresser’s question: “What happened here?”
Her reaction was exactly what I’d feared for so many years, but somehow I didn’t feel diminished. “I’ve been through a lot,” I said. The pride in my voice surprised even me.
For fifty years my father walked across the street from the university where he taught music composition to get his hair cut by Frank. Each time, he got the same basic shave and trim, fast and cheap. Despite their long association, Frank always called him “Dr. Whear.”
By the time I met Frank, my father was in his nineties, and I was visiting regularly to help him through the challenges of aging. Only Frank was able to achieve the elegant look my father desired. Frank said my father’s hair was surprisingly difficult to style because it was so fine.
I enjoyed watching Frank’s unhurried efficiency, my father’s pleasure at being pampered, and the warmth between them. Having his hair professionally washed and his eyebrows and mustache trimmed was a concession to vanity, but also to the challenge of doing it himself with his arthritic hands. My father paid Frank in two-dollar bills; I never learned the source of this joke, but it provided great amusement for them both.
With their full heads of hair, the two of them were a vision of aging masculine splendor. My father’s hair was white and silver with remnants of black in the back, and he envied Frank’s pure white. “I just want it to be one color!” he’d say.
During the pandemic my father refused to leave the house but remained obsessed with having his hair cut. Though retired for many years, he still looked the part of a professor and dressed daily in his academic tweeds. I tried my best to cut his hair the way Frank would. I managed a presentable cut in the parts he could see, with just one noticeable mistake in the back. But my father was happy, cracking his usual bad jokes. It was a good day.
I find the Victorian practice of keeping a deceased loved one’s hair distasteful, but when my father died a few weeks later, I asked for a lock of his. Touching the downy piece of silver, I feel him sitting in front of me.
When my son was little, his hair was the color of burnished copper — a remnant of my Scottish ancestry. At the age of ten he no longer wanted to cut it, so it grew and grew.
He was often mistaken for a girl. People referred to him as “Your daughter” or “Miss.” Worried he would be teased at school, I mentioned how nice his friend Joey’s hair looked.
“I know, Mama,” he replied. “It’s just not me.”
After that, I left the subject alone. His hair grew halfway down his back, a bronze waterfall that he never tied in a ponytail. When he played soccer, it whipped in the autumn breeze, and in summer he tucked it under a baseball cap. In seventh grade he won first prize on “Crazy Hair Day” for a hairdo of multiple ponytails.
Finally, after ninth grade, he decided it was time to cut his hair. I mourned, knowing it was unlikely he’d ever have hair that long again. After his trip to the barber, people didn’t recognize him. “I always think of you with long hair,” they would tell him, even years later.
When I think of my son, I remember the boy who didn’t care if he was mistaken for a girl or worry about what others thought. I think about a late-summer afternoon, and how his long hair shimmered.
Vancouver, British Columbia
We’ve forged our friendship in one-hour increments, six weeks apart.
The first time we met, I was between stylists, and I became his second customer ever. After he finished trimming, the scraps of wavy dark-brown hair littered the floor. I was twenty-six years old, lost but confident anyway. He was even younger than I was, full of opinions and kindness. I emerged from his salon with a mullet (it was 1987) and a friendship that would outlast every popular hairstyle for the next three decades.
I’ve followed him from salon to salon. We narrate our lives as he clips away: marriage and remarriage, birth and death, food and politics and whiskey. He has matured into a kind of Renaissance man: baker, singer, builder, father, farmer, advocate.
During COVID I drive an hour to sit in his home salon and listen to his latest ups and downs as he listens to mine. The scraps of my hair littering the floor are now gray.
Half Moon Bay, California