It had been a long time since my last haircut. Busy with travel and Christmas and the two chicks returning to the nest – there had not been a moment to spare. I don’t trust the Dehradun stylists and hadn’t had enough time on any of my Delhi trips to get it done there. My bangs kept getting in my eyes and I felt messy and unkempt.
So yesterday, I was determined to squeeze an appointment in-between a lunch date and a mad race to the airport.
Lunch was in Hauz Khas – not my normal stomping grounds – so I decided to try out a totally new parlour a friend had recommended. She warned me she had only had pedicures done there and couldn’t vouch for the hair stylists. She also warned me that it was very hep.
I arrived well in time, noted the ear-shattering music, smiled at the totally bleached-blond guy with six earrings and skin-tight black jeans who welcomed me in and ushered me to the chair. I sat down and waited eagerly for the stylist.
When he arrived, he didn’t look too happy about having scored me.
He draped the plastic sheet over my shoulders, smiled (insincerely) and disappeared.
I like the mirrors in beauty parlors. You can glance at everyone else surreptitiously while appearing to be looking only at your own reflection. In fact, I never look at my own reflection, but no one notices because they are too busy gazing at themselves. (I don’t know where they get this self-confidence.) So while I waited for the hep young stylist to return, I checked everyone else out, noted their extreme youth and congratulated myself on the chic new style I would be getting in just a few minutes.
Just a few minutes. Grrrr. My lunch date was for one and it was already 12:30. I had been waiting since 12:15, all draped and eager. Where was Mr Trendy?
FInally he came rushing back – no apologies – scissors clacking. Clack-clack, clack-clack. Picked up a lock of my hair. Turned it over as if expecting something unpleasant to crawl out.
“Why don’t you color your hair, Ma’am?”
Why don’t I color my hair? Young man, may I refer you to my blog? To this post, perhaps, explaining how I suddenly made the decision to stop coloring my hair after doing it for 18 years? Or this one, in which I trot out my inspirations for the decision? Or this, in which I reveal the true reason why I made the change.
But no. All sensitive and smarting sitting there in this hep parlour, I simply took offense, glowered at him, and sulked. “What’s wrong with white hair?” I asked primly, as if I had never in my life even considered dyeing.
He was still busy lifting my locks and examining them. “Which shampoo do you use, Ma’am?”
Now which answer to give him? Whatever’s on sale? Whatever I can find in Dehradun? Or the real answer: The one that comes in either a green or a yellow bottle because it matches the tiles in my bathroom.
I just smiled and mouthed a reply he couldn’t hear anyway because of the loud music.
After checking how short I wanted it, he began clipping. Every 90 seconds or so, another stylist or assistant would approach from behind (I watched from the mirror) to chat with him. Sometimes he would stop clipping to talk with them, but more often he would keep right on going, eyes on the person interrupting, oblivious to whether he was cutting straight or nicking an ear. This happened at least six times.
Then something odd happened in the seat directly behind me. A lovely young woman with long, lustrous, black hair sat down, followed instantly by an important stylist – at least, he was distinguished by being the only one in the salon not in the standard issue black uniform the rest were wearing. An assistant was poised beside him like a surgical scrub nurse, handing him the tools he motioned for with practiced ease. Two other (uniformed) stylists stood nearby in reverent silence, like interns perhaps, to continue with the medical metaphor.
My man – clearly not surgeon material – kept stealing glances at what was happening behind him. Stealing glances – not because he was worried about being distracted from his work (that would be ME, REMEMBER ME????) – but because, I’m guessing, he wasn’t quite sure he actually had the right to be watching the master.
Suddenly, long before I thought he should be finished, Mr Trendy whipped out the mirror for me to see his handiwork from the back. “What?” he said, in an unexpected display of insight. “What wrong? What the problem?”
There was nothing wrong. It was a perfectly serviceable haircut. Just right for an older woman: sensible, no-nonsense, no-style, no-effort. What more could a woman of my age want or expect?
I’m not asking for compliments or reassurance. I am simply reporting. Women of a certain age cease to matter in certain situations. The girl with the lustrous locks warranted a full-court press from the stylist and his interns, but the older woman with the grey hair – well, she should just be happy with whatever she got.
There are different, and interesting, ways to look at this. I have friends who see this phase in life as a tremendous liberation – a time beyond the shackles of appearance and societal expectations when one is free to be and look precisely the way one wants, on one’s own terms. Grey hair, wrinkles, sagging muscles and breasts – who cares? Who the hell cares?
And at one level, this is how I feel too. I embrace my age and I love the respect I get as a result (at least in India). I do feel I’ve moved beyond the ceaseless anxiety about what people think and how I look to a more comfortable sense of ease about my body, my face, my hair.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I want now to be dowdy and forgettable. I still like having pretty clothes, stylish (but comfortable!) shoes and – yes – a great haircut.
So I wasn’t about to just accept the role Mr Trendy had established for me. Yet I was not going to let him do anything more to me either. Although I didn’t feel I had gotten my money’s worth, I wasn’t prepared to submit to any more of his uninspired clack-clacking. Who wants a sullen, resentful hair stylist laboring away against his own better judgment?
I let him know my displeasure by the shabbiness of my tip – four dirty ten rupee notes – and contemplated his sheer lack of business sense if nothing else: who has more money to tip well – older, well-established women with grey hair or young co-eds with lustrous locks?
The next day, in Mumbai, I asked my friend Vibha, whose hair I have always admired (grey! stylish!), where she got hers done.
Psalm 23, she answered.
Psalm 23! “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He prepareth a place for me in the sight of my foes.”
How appropriate, given the situation. Take that, Mr Trendy!
Vibha even had the perfect stylist in mind for me. “Justine,” she said decisively. “She’s young, but she’s really got a nice way about her. She works carefully and she puts her heart into it. AND,” she said, as the crowning touch, “She sings beautifully.”
I liked Justine right away. Her huge orange glasses were fetching and just goofy enough to make it clear that she had a style all her own – she didn’t wear a black uniform and it was obvious she had no need of one. She was her own person. She came out to the waiting area to meet me with a warm smile, shook my hand and invited me in.
“Now,” she said, running her hands through my hair. “How shall we begin? What would you like to do?”
I explained about the dowdy, serviceable cut I had just gotten the day before and told her I wanted something interesting, something fun. She thought for a while, considering my hair and my face from all angles, and then laid out her plan.
That’s when I relaxed. She had a plan. She saw me as someone worthy of thinking about. And really, isn’t that what we all want? To be considered worth the trouble, worth making an effort for, worth thinking about?
Here’s what Justine came up with:
I walked out of Psalm 23 feeling gorgeous. People on the street smiled at me.
Was it the cut or was it the care? Does it matter? Beauty comes from inside but sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you where to find it.
Thanks, Justine. (Thanks, Vibha.)