Have we become a world of DIY hairdressers? Are we now embracing gray hair and scruffy looks? Giving up hair salons and barber shops may mean giving up some sanity and friends.
By Dulce Zamora
Wednesday, May 6, 2020 — Hair styling has become a do-it-yourself affair as many countries have implemented social distancing rules that have shuttered salons and barber shops. Many of my friends and relatives have cut, colored, shaved, and styled their own locks in the last few weeks. They’ve posted pictures on social media. No one has had any disasters. Or, rather, no one shared their failures.
During our quarantine in Singapore, I shortened my 12-year-old daughter Sienna’s fringe. This was nothing new, because I manage my children’s bangs from time to time even though they’ve had the same hairdresser in Asia for years. It’s not always easy to get little kids to the salon. (In our stint in Northern California, I found kids’ haircuts to be too expensive.)
My 10-year-old daughter, Jasmine, wanted to do the trimming this time, so I handed her my special shears. I didn’t worry that she would screw it up. She is crafty and could sew, therefore I knew she could handle scissors. If she messed up, well, I figure her hair would grow again. Maybe I wasn’t too concerned, because hairdressing ran in our blood.
My paternal grandfather, Inkong, was a barber in the Philippines. He was the only one who cut my hair until I was 10 years old. I always had a short boy cut. I didn’t mind, because it was all I ever knew. Inkong, which means “grandfather,” would have me climb onto his well-worn barber chair in a one-room concrete block house with empty spaces where the door panel and window frames would go. Only a rectangular mirror decorated the cement interior. Customers would come in and out without appointments, often paying with the only thing they could — the rice they harvested from their farms.
When my family and I moved to San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980’s, my younger sister, Nina, would experiment on my hair. She had wanted to become a cosmetologist. One summer, when we were teenagers, she twisted my frontmost strands and snipped away to produce bangs — a trick she had read about in a beauty magazine. However, the outcome was a zig-zaggy mess. I was mad, but not too upset. I still relied on her to style my hair on an almost daily basis, and to do my makeup whenever there was a special occasion. She gave me cool french braids, and could tease my hair into a wave — thanks to a whole lot of Aqua Net hair spray!
Affairs of the Hair
My then-boyfriend, Noel, said he liked my hair appointment days, too.
“You always have a spring in your step after you see Marco,” said Noel. He knew that every hair appointment day was followed by a good date night.
Shortly after Noel and I got married, we moved to Singapore, where we started a family. I had a string of different hairdressers. People constantly moved in and out of this tiny, but globally-connected Southeast Asian city-state. My first stylist was a twenty-something Dutch guy who worked at a converted shophouse near Arab Street. He was good with hair and conversation, but, after two visits, he moved back to Europe. Then, I tried a colorist in a tiny Little India studio, but I found her henna treatments to be drying.
I switched to a Japanese artist who had swanky salons all over town. It was apparent that he was a true professional, but in his studio, one person washed your hair, another person dried it, and yet another person painted it. It was never the same people who did each task. Only the Japanese stylist was consistently there. He did the final trimming and style, which were great, but my contact with him was always less than ten minutes.
I didn’t like the assembly line feel, so I switched to an Australian friseur who owned a shop near Chinatown. This woman was older and had raised her children in Singapore. She was practical, and shared a lot of good stories and advice. I went to her for at least a year, but, eventually, I grew unsatisfied with our meetings. She became busier and managed several clients at once. My appointments always ran late as I waited my turn, which wasn’t convenient for a mother like me who had to do early preschool pickups.
I found an edgy Singaporean hairdresser on Orchard Road who always wore a white shirt with a black vest and black pants. He had a flair with hair, and we talked a lot about movies. After a few months, he moved to Hong Kong to work as a film hairstylist.
Locks and Loved Ones
I tried a lot of different stylists. One might think I was rich and could afford to spend a fortune on hair. However, the truth was that I didn’t feel confident fixing my own mane. In my family, my sister was known as the stylish one. She always got the compliments on her hair, makeup, and clothes. Somehow, I internalized that I was clumsy, awkward, and dull. When I tried to style my own hair, it felt disastrous. It’s funny how perceptions of ourselves from childhood can really taint our adulthood.
Likewise, I realize now that my hair appointments were my lifeline to a world outside of parenthood. In Singapore, I became a stay-at-home mom to two energetic girls. They were a handful not only because they challenged every rule, but because they were ill all the time. They each had multiple bouts of croup, conjunctivitis, mycoplasma, and Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. They were also prone to food allergies, hives, and eczema. As a family, we had the flu twice.
My husband is a wonderful father who has always been involved with the kids, but he has also spent a lot of time at work He has taken a fair share of international business trips. When he offered to babysit our daughters, I often accepted and got my hair done. I covered my white hair, which always made me feel better. It was also a benefit to be able to talk to another adult after spending weeks caring for sick children.
The kids grew older, and we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for three years. In that time, I had two salon relationships. One was a Mexican woman named Betty in the East Bay who had a different look and outlook on life every time I saw her. At first, she donned a short buzz cut, dark eye makeup, lots of piercings, cropped tank tops and black pants. Over time, the jewelry around her body decreased and her makeup got lighter and more natural. Her hair grew into a chic bob. She continued to wear black, but this time they were the lacy blouse and short-sleeved turtleneck variety. By the time I left her, she was a self-assured college student, traveler, and voracious reader who cared a lot about women’s issues. Unfortunately, I stopped seeing this vibrant and fascinating person, because her salon did not accommodate special requests. My daughter, Sienna, had grown allergic to fragrances. So I had to find a hairdresser who would accept organic, unscented coloring kits not usually sold in typical hair salons.
At first, I attempted a more natural look, meaning I cut my hair super short to eliminate most of the processed hair, and I didn’t darken it for a year. I let my white hair show, hoping to empower myself with acceptance of my genuine looks. By that time, I was in my early 40’s. My melanin-deprived tresses were prominent and spread out. Without added pigment, there was no hiding my age.
Every time I looked in the mirror, I found myself wincing. I looked and felt old. I did not like my silver look. My daughters said they missed my curls. which was really a natural wave that came with longer hair. A friendly, but very blunt neighbor, who owned a salon in town, said my gray hairstyle looked like “crap.”
I decided to color it again. This time, I went to a woman named Cindy, who let me bring in an organic, unscented dye that I found at the health food store. Cindy had amazing stories about encounters with musicians. She loved to sing. Sometimes, we’d belt out tunes, karaoke style, using hairbrushes and blowdryers as microphones.
I saw Cindy for a year and change. Then, it was time to say goodbye. My family and I moved back to Singapore for my husband’s job. The silver lining was that I got to see CJ again. CJ is a young Singaporean hair stylist that I started visiting the year before moving to the U.S. I still go to him now to save me from my silver locks and ever-frizzier strands. Well, I did see him regularly before Singapore’s circuit breaker. (That’s what they call the country’s lockdown).
CJ has worked in at least four salons since I’ve known him. I have followed him, because he is a good friend, and he takes good care of my hair. We joke around that he makes sure I don’t look like an old auntie. We talk about food, movies, travels, politics, family, and life in Singapore. After he paints color onto my hair, he often buys me lunch from the nearest hawker center. He has introduced me to yummy local food like abacus seeds (basically, a yam-based gnocchi). He has pointed me to traditional pastry and kueh (bite-sized snack) shops, which are becoming rare in these parts because of the time and dedication it takes to make the treats. He has also given me a greater appreciation for popular dishes like Hokkien mee and Korean Fried Chicken.
I haven’t seen CJ in nearly three months. That’s forever in hair coloring time. It’s even longer as far as friends go. In the last couple of years, I’ve thought about the blurring of lines between luxury and relationships. It is a privilege to be able to get hair done on a consistent basis. But, what happens when the person doing your hair is one of the few you get to see regularly outside of your family? Is that person truly a friend if you pay to see him or her? (I also wonder this about my personal trainer, who has helped me to stay fit, working with injuries related to moving and age. She’s become one of my good friends. Is it sad that my friends are people that I pay?)
Where Everybody Knows Your Mane
When I think about the relationship between human connection and hair, I think about my grandfather who was a barber in the Philippines. Weren’t his customers, who were all from his village, his friends too?
I think of the vital roles that hairdressers have played all over the globe. Before Italy’s draconian coronavirus lockdown, people were asked to socially distance themselves. Yet, I remember reading that citizens continued to interact with one other at places like bars, restaurants, barber shops, and hair salons. It’s tough to disengage from community. To stop the spread of the coronavirus, the government had to issue strict stay-at-home orders, and enforce them.
In Australia, officials initially imposed a 30-minute limit on hair appointments as part of COVID-19 prevention measures. The rule received such a public backlash that it was eventually reversed.
In Singapore, barber shops and hair salons were open at first during the circuit breaker, because they were considered essential services. The government ended up shutting them down for a couple of weeks to bring down virus numbers. With community infections now declining, hair services are set to reopen again on the 12th of May.
This is good news for my husband. Noel hasn’t been able to get his hair cut in weeks. He’s not missing a regular hairdresser though, because he doesn’t have one in Singapore. He says his thinning crown no longer requires much styling. So, in the past few years, he has patronized inexpensive barbers whenever he could, wherever he was in the world, whether at home or during business and leisure trips. During the circuit breaker, he said he would allow our daughters to shave his head if he had good clippers. He has been unable to buy some, because most of the decent ones are out of stock online. So, he’s been sporting the scruffy-man look that’s so popular these days.
Celebrities such as Kevin Hart, Ryan Reynolds, Hugh Jackman, and Will Smith have been showing off their rugged appearances, too. Female stars who usually color their grays have just let nature be. Among them are Kelly Ripa, Tamera Mowry, Sarah Silverman, and Teddi Mellencamp.
I am not ready to go back to my grays. During the circuit breaker, I put up with the silver roots for a few weeks. Then, I decided it was time to color my hair. This time, I did not see myself as clumsy, awkward, or dull. I also now have the confidence to trim my own locks and to give myself a fringe, thanks to CJ who shared an easy tutorial on YouTube. (He’s such a good friend.)
I asked Noel to help me dye my hair since I can’t see the back of my head. The results were pretty good. The color was darker than normal, and we missed some strands at the edges, but, overall, I am satisfied with the look. I feel better about seeing dark hair on my crown for both work and personal video calls. Maybe one day I can go au naturel again. Maybe silver locks won’t be so bad. Until then, it’s nice that people in my village help me out.
Of course, in today’s unstable economy, it’s hard to say whether or not people like me will be able to continue our salon visits. I’ve been able to maintain my family’s tresses at home during lockdown. So, perhaps, money spent on haircuts and color could go into savings instead.
However, it is a big downer to think about not seeing CJ or my daughters’ regular hairdresser. There’s comfort in knowing you can go somewhere were “everybody knows your name,” as stated in the theme song of the 1980’s hit-TV show, Cheers. Some people go to bars and restaurants for companionship and commiseration. Others go to hair salons and barber shops. These community settings are so important, all the more during hard times. Yet, they can also become luxuries for the financially challenged. What happens when people can no longer afford to access services that help them feel connected to the community? The thought can be depressing. Is it possible then to refresh an old model, where people trade goods and services instead of cash? It may sound archaic, but basic instincts have helped humankind survive environmental challenges over time. Let’s see how the rest of the pandemic plays out. Perhaps embracing our roots will not only mean survival, but it might just become vogue.
© 2020 Windswept Wildflower