The salon experience from hell: Or, how I learned to love my curls

(Hmm, this is probably the longest post I’ve written here. So, you’ve been warned. Potential triggers for body hatred/messages of not being enough. But, it gets happy. Promise.)

If you’ve ever met me or seen pictures of me, there’s one thing that you probably notice pretty quickly.

My hair is curly.

me with curls
Curls. I have them.

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to wish the frizzies away, trying styling products to smooth it down. But, truth be told, I don’t have the time or patience to do much more about it than throw something in my hair to see if that works. Typically, it doesn’t, so you often find me with a ponytail and barrettes in my hair to tame the wilder parts, but the frizzies are there. It works for me. This lack of time and patience also means I don’t really go to get my haircut often. So, I don’t have a regular hairdresser anymore, after having moved around a lot. I tend to drop in some place when I need a trim and then go on my merry way. I should note that every single time I go to get my hair cut, I get really positive comments about how curly and lovely my hair is. Hairdressers work with the curl/frizz thing, acknowledging its existence, and that I really want low maintenance hair.

All this to say, I tend not to think much about my hair. I certainly never considered that my curls would be an entryway into body politics, into self-identity, or into realizing I really do like who I am.

This afternoon changed that, though.

I have upcoming interviews for clinical placement, starting tomorrow. So, I figured it would be a great time to get my hair trimmed. I went into a place at the mall, figuring they’d take walk-ins, which they did. YAY! The stylist came up and asked what I wanted done. “A trim.” He sent me back to get my hair washed. As we walked back, I pulled my hair from the ponytail and took my barrettes out. I got my hair washed and went back up to the stylist. The first thing he asks is if I’ve ever gotten a keratin treatment, that it would really help my hair not be so frizzy.

“I think I’ve had one, once.”

“Well, you should have one. She had one, and you can’t even tell her hair was curly.” He motions to the stylist next to us, who had straight smooth hair.

“Thanks for the information. I appreciate it. Not right now, though. Just a trim.”

He starts trimming my hair, asking if I just want it one length. “Yes, please.” He then goes on to say how with curly hair, you can’t get long hair because it breaks because it’s so frizzy, and mentioning the keratin treatment again. I smile, nod, and don’t say anything. He continues to trim. (I should also note, at some point, he leaves to take a call on his cell phone and spends much of the rest of the time talking to other customers and stylists. Not with me.) He mentions the keratin thing again, as he is also talking to the client next to us about it and how it’s fantastic. I ignore him.

Figuring we’re almost done, as I rarely have my hair styled at the salon (me + blow dryer = never happens). Except, without asking if I want my hair styled, he starts blow drying my hair. My hair has not experienced a full on blow drying for 15+ years. (I should also note that I am not the most assertive person in the world. This becomes important.) Again, I say nothing to him, thinking that he’ll do this, we’ll be done. But, instead, he starts talking about the keratin treatment (again!) saying how heat is so bad for our hair, while also beginning the process of straightening my hair with a flat iron.

I’ve only had my hair straightened once before – my sister was curious what I’d look like. It was a 45 minute labor of love that, while we agreed I looked different, it wasn’t something I was willing to do regularly. Nor did it look like me. Not that I hated it, but it wasn’t low maintenance and not something I fell in love with enough to want to spend that time to do it every day.

As he’s continuing to straighten my hair, all I keep thinking is “Can this be over now?” Then, he tells me something I need to do to cure the “psoriasis” on my scalp and it will work and make me feel more beautiful. At this point, I’m choking back tears. I just want this over. I’m thinking that I really value and love my curls, that to have them taken from me without having been asked (even temporarily through a straightening iron) is painful. Deeply profoundly painful.

After he’s (finally) done, he says, “Here you are! So beautiful. Oh, put on your glasses.” I do and he’s turned me toward the mirror. I glance up briefly, then back down to my lap. I mumble “Thank you” and go to the counter to pay.

The stylist who had been next to us, who had had the fantastic keratin treatment that was mentioned just one more time before I left, commented, “You look so beautiful now. It softens your face.” I give her a tight-lipped smile and walk out. I’m fighting tears, telling myself it’s not that far to the car. I pull my hair back into a ponytail and walk to the car. As soon as I get in and lock the doors, I start bawling. I feel like the only idea of beauty was straight smooth hair and that every message I got while sitting in that salon chair was that I wasn’t okay. Because my hair is curly (read: frizzy), I should do everything in my power to change it and if I don’t, I’m simply not beautiful, that I’m not worth asking my thoughts about myself or what I want/need. In fact, outside of the two questions of what I wanted done and if I wanted it one length, he didn’t ask me any other questions about what I wanted or what my hair habits were.

Because of my current class in Diversity, I got to thinking about what it would be like to live in a world where these are the messages that you get. Every. Single. Day. What would it be like to have these small comments add up to this bigger message about who you are and how someone views you, even as they don’t say it out loud. To be told in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that you needed to change to be considered beautiful?

I walked out of the salon feeling like I was being ridiculous. I mean, it’s just hair. It would be fine after I washed it and I just won’t go back. And yet, if it was just about the hair, why was I sitting in my CR-V in the middle of the Sears parking lot, crying? What is it really about, when I get down to what they call the brass tacks of the situation?

Well, it just so happens that a friend of mine posted this amazing article called How Not to Be A Dick to Your Fat Friends just before I posted my Facebook status. (Note, the status was: Today, I’ve learned that I really value my curly hair and being made/told that it’s not only not okay but that I’m more beautiful without it hurts me deeply.) In commenting to the friend’s post about the link, I realized that today’s salon experience was yet another message from someone that I’m not okay. That some facet of who I am is simply not okay and should be changed to What Is Acceptable.

And, damnit, I’m tired. I’m tired of thinking that I’m too fat, too curly, too frizzy, too smart, too opinionated, too much for the world to handle. And while most days, including today, I roll over and take it and don’t think about it, I also recognized that my curls are very much a part of who I see myself as. Curls curls curls. Frizzy hair, not tameable, and just part of what comes with the whole package. And with each swipe of the straightener, I felt as though that was being stripped away.

It took having something I don’t think much about on most days but that is intricately linked to who I see myself being to get me here.

Now, I realize that this may sound silly to a lot of people. I was able to jump in the shower and, boing, the curls are back. But, the fact that he did it without asking, assuming what I wanted done was to have my hair straightened because that’s how he understood “beautiful,” I feel deep anger and hurt. Then, there’s the deep sadness I feel that I wasn’t able to/didn’t stand up for myself and tell him to stop. It’s gotten me thinking about a lot in this world I live in and what it means to stay silent… and what it means to finally stop long enough and tell myself, “I don’t hate you. I don’t want to change you.”

Holy crap, that feels powerful. And completely counter to our culture and to my understanding of what it means to be a woman in this culture that tries to tell us exactly what we should (and shouldn’t) look like. (There may be more later. There seems to be a deeper root to this. Yes, I like puns.)

If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for being here. Thank you for allowing me this space to explore what something that seems so small can mean.

So, tell me, what do you love about yourself, in this very moment?

19 thoughts on “The salon experience from hell: Or, how I learned to love my curls

  1. Awesome post, Steph. And, you know what? At this very moment, I’m really loving that my hair turned curly when my body started changing a few years ago. :) *huge hugs*

  2. I love the deep pink on my toenails.
    I love the tousled look I’m rocking, hair-wise, right now.
    I love the soreness in my shoulders and the way that it feels connected to the strength of my back.
    I love the way I feel cradled by my bed.
    I love the dexterity of my fingers.
    I love the way my hips move to a beat.
    I love that I feel substantial, feel present, feel *here*.

  3. I don’t normally post . . .but, Stephanie that was an awesome statement! Some where along the way we all get the message that there is a perfect person. But I think the only perfect person is the one that is looking back at you in the mirror, accepting all of you. I wish that message was more prevalent.

    Your hair is beautiful! And so are you!!

    • Beka, thank you for commenting. I really appreciate it!

      I agree, I wish the message that we’re okay – the way we are – were more prevalent in our society. (Especially as we’re growing up!) I like the idea that the only perfect person is the one who can accept themselves, as they are. That’s a really fantastic image.

      Thank you. I’m so blessed to have friends like you.

    • Thank you for your comment, Beth. I appreciate it.

      It really was such a .. violating, awful .. experience. I also recognize that it’s taken 31 years for something like this to happen and that has its own implications involving race, class, etc. It’s just… wow. Powerful.

  4. […] The salon experience from hell: Or, how I learned to love my curls A powerful post from Visible and Real on body image and what happens when we allow others to define it for us. Has me thinking a lot of my own experiences. […]

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