'Hair is just hair, right?': Without access to a salon for months during lockdown, I didn't feel like 'me'
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I’m a goth fashion and travel blogger, who typically visits a dozen countries a year. However, since Vancouver declared a public health emergency in March, the only trips I’ve made have been from my apartment to the supermarket.
COVID-19 may have upended my lifestyle, but I’ve been doing OK in lockdown. I finally have time to read sci-fi novels, reconnect with friends through video calls — and I’ve never done so much yoga. But as the weeks passed, there was one thing that was increasingly weighing me down: my hair.
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I was already overdue for a salon visit when the world shut down. Now, I was stuck for the foreseeable future with an uneven, heavy mess that gave me headaches. My vibrant purple hair faded to patchy brown, with overgrown bangs and four-inch roots. My hair, which had always been a source of pride and pleasure, had become an embarrassment.
I chided myself for feeling down. Hair is just hair, right? Still, I couldn’t ignore the sentiment that as my locks faded, so did my sense of identity. The more my dark roots crept out, the greater I felt at odds with the mental image I had developed of myself.
Rainbow-hued hair has been my style signature since my early teens, when I defied my school’s dress-code and added red highlights. Ever since then, I’ve had my hair professionally dyed different shades like orange, navy, and pastel pink. Over the years, colourful hair became entwined with my perception of self. I couldn’t picture myself without it, and neither could my friends and blog readers.
My hair choices also represent my identity as a goth. The baby bangs and bright colours visually convey that I’m part of the subculture, hinting at my personality and values. Whenever I cross paths with someone with a “death-hawk” or split-dye with an undercut, we nod or smile at each other – a recognition of our shared alternative leanings.
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Let’s be frank: I enjoyed the positive attention. I’m lucky to have a thick mane that could withstand bleach without breakage, and hold dye unusually well. It wasn’t unusual for me to hear comments in the streets like, “Wow, I love your colour.”
But now, nobody would say that to the disaster on my head. At first, I tried to hide the awkward overgrowth under berets and barrettes. In May, I stopped taking photos and dressing up altogether. It was impossible to look like “myself,” so why make any effort?
You may be wondering why I didn’t dye my own hair. Ask any stylist, and they’ll beg you to put down the store-bought bleach. Unless you have the proper training and materials, you’re likely to end up with irreparable damage. Perhaps you’ve seen videos of people frying their hair in quarantine, and having it fall off in clumps. There is a thing worse than bad hair, and that’s having no hair.
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I learned this firsthand in 2017 when one of my best friends, Molly Weingart was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. We spent our twenties experimenting with our hair, taking for granted that it would always be strong and lush. When Molly started chemotherapy at age 32, we assumed it wasn’t a big deal for her to be temporarily bald.
It turned out that her hair loss was like something out of a horror movie.
“When your follicles start to die, it hurts. There is a sizzling, burning sensation. Then you wake up to find your hair covering your pillow, like a strange nest that developed overnight. It was awful.”
Molly’s hair was unsalvageable, so two friends and I accompanied her to have her head shaved.
“This was one of the most traumatic moments of my life,” Molly said. “It was, in so many ways, worse than having my ex-boyfriend shove me into a wall. I still can’t hear the sound of clippers without wanting to throw up. I felt like something was being taken from me and I couldn’t make it stop. They always say it's just hair, but... it isn’t.”
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In the following days, we were shaken by the way people reacted to Molly’s baldness. Strangers assumed my friend was “edgy” and perhaps enjoyed punk rock -- not that she was battling cancer. Other times, Molly was mistaken for a boy.
“I had to get really comfortable with people staring at my face, as I had nowhere else to go,” she explained.
Molly’s experience haunted me, and made me value my hair for the first time. I was determined to grow it past my waist, nursing it with masks and obsessing over split ends. I took pains to maintain the correct pH and protein-moisture balance. I believed I had it all under control, however the 2020 lockdown shattered that illusion.
While my hair experience was nowhere near the scale of Molly’s, it gave me a taste of the same physical disconnect, and frustration of being unable to do anything to change it. On the rare occasions I went out, I hid under a mask, sunglasses and hat, and hoped that nobody recognized me.
I’ve taken the pandemic more seriously than most, and wasn’t about to jump the gun to fix my hair. But British Columbia was flattening the curve, so I decided to set a salon appointment for June 24. It turned out to be the exact date the province moved to Phase 3 of reopening: a sign from the grooming gods.
To my relief, my salon did not cut corners when it came to precautions. Nobody was allowed into the building without an appointment. Everyone was asked to wear a mask, and use hand sanitizer at the Plexiglassed reception. The stations were well-distanced, the magazines were gone, and surfaces were constantly cleaned with medical-grade disinfectant.
But there were downsides. It felt strange – or plain wrong – to stop myself from hugging Chad Evans, my friend and stylist for years. While Chad was determined to uphold these safety measures, he admitted he feels frustrated at how they hold back his personality.
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“I love bonding with my clients and seeing them smile,” he said. “But now, a mask covers half of our faces. It takes away a huge part of human connection.”
Chad also confessed it was a pain to wear a mask all day long. Stylists must put more time and money into sanitation, and can no longer work on clients simultaneously. “We make less, as our business can’t be as efficient,” he told me.
Still, Chad is happy to be back, and tackles the “new normal” with a fabulous positive attitude that matches his neon yellow mop.
When I moaned about the state of my hair, Chad laughed and shared that he often feels like a therapist. Part of his job is to help clients work through their insecurities.
“Your hair is part of what you wear every day, and show to the world,” Chad explained. “Having a hairstyle that reflects who you are – one that’s flattering to your face and boosts your self-esteem -- makes an enormous difference to your life.”
I welcomed the itch of bleach, and felt giddy when Chad painted on violet dye. He trimmed the ends and added face-framing layers. Finally, he styled my purple hair in waves and “space buns.” I looked in the mirror and sighed. Welcome back.
The next day, I put on a new goth top and purple lipstick, and took photos around the neighbourhood. It felt amazing to be doing something as simple as shooting an outfit for my La Carmina blog, just as I did in the “before-times.” What a relief to recapture the feeling of being “me.”
In the grand scheme of things, getting one’s hair done is miniscule. But that doesn’t take away from its significance. Four months of lockdown taught me just how much hair defines who we are, to ourselves and others. It’s one of the strongest expressions of our identity, which is easily lost in these uncertain times. With my tresses restored to their purple glory, I once again feel confident to tackle whatever might come next.
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