(From a private Facebook note of Ichi Batacan, author of the award-winning novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, who has given me permission to upload this on my blog on the condition that some names be withheld.)
It’s been awfully hot these last few weeks, and my ends of my hair — falling about two inches below my jawline — have been making my neck itch. So the other day, I decided it was time to get as much of it lopped off as I possibly could. Off it was to the nearest hair salon, but the nearest hair salon was closed. So I headed down to the next-nearest hair salon, which was in Trinoma, which was a Bench Fix, which was so crowded and muggy that I seriously questioned whether or not it even had air-conditioning.
The next-next-nearest hair salon was a Toni and Guy one floor above, so even if I knew it was going to be a bit pricey, I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to stand another day with my hair irritating my neck. I went in, declared at the counter that I wanted a haircut, and was asked to wait for the next stylist to become available.
Minutes later I was settled in a chair and introduced to [redacted]. I told him that I wanted to get a cut that would keep my hair off my neck. He fluffed up my hair, studied it with a gimlet eye, and then gave me the usual spiel about it being oh, so very dry — drier than hay, drier than the Kalahari — and needing some kind of miracle moisturizing treatment made from the petals of a rare flower that blooms once every seven years in the pristine snow on the slopes of the Icelandic volcano Öræfajökull.
“You want a quote?” [redacted] asked. “Uh, sure,” I said, knowing full well that the last miracle that didn’t come with an exorbitant price tag was that thing Jesus did with the fish and the loaves. “I’ll send the hair technician to give you an estimate,” he said, and I shivered in my salon chair, wondering if I would also have to pay for the estimate itself. In the meantime, [redacted] swanned off, presumably to attend to other clients whose hair was not some kind of national emergency.
The hair technician finally came by bearing a piece of paper and telling me the blowout would last for four to six weeks. She handed me the paper and it said something like: “Blowout — 3550, Haircut — 750, TOTAL — 4,300”. I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew, she was telling me soothingly, “It’s all right, just keep the paper in case you want to come back to do the blowout.”
The stylist’s assistant took me to the washing area for a shampoo, and when that was over, I went back to my seat and waited for [redacted]. This time his gimlet eye was replaced with a lifted eyebrow and a dour expression. He fluffed up my hair again and warned me, witheringly, “O, if I cut your hair this short, bubuhaghag yan, ha. Maganda kasi sana kung mapa-blowout ka para maayos, hindi aalsa (Your hair will be frizzy. It’s better if you get a blowout so your hair will be neat, it won’t fluff up).” He snipped the back to the agreed-upon length and had his assistant bring me a mirror. There was the back of my head, with my hair in all its wavy, unruly glory. “O, ganyan ang hitsura nyan pag walang blowdry or blowout. Buhaghag. (There, that’s what it looks like without a blowdry or a blowout. Frizzy).”
I nodded, feeling a rising sense of indignation. Moments later, he repeated the warning. “Mas maganda kasi kung…”
I felt I needed to pipe up, so I said, “I didn’t plan to spend that much on this visit. And if I’m going to spend that much anyway, I would prefer to top up and get a rebond that will last up to 6 months.” To which he replied, grimly, “Hindi maganda ang rebond sa ganitong kaigsi na buhok (A rebond won’t look good with hair this short).”
He swanned off again while his assistant blow-dried my hair on high heat, in the process searing my scalp like a premium aged hanger steak. When it was done, he came over again to inspect his handiwork. “Oh, you see, it’s really nice if you–“
“Hold it right there,” I said, in my best “don’t-f*ck-with-me-boy” voice. “You don’t need to repeat what you’ve been saying since we started. I’ve lived with my hair for more than 40 years, I know how it behaves, I know what will happen if I don’t blow it dry or have it straightened, okay? I just want it off my neck.”
He finally shut up about it and led me to the counter to pay. He lingered around for a while, clearly hoping for a gratuity, which I was about as ready to give him as an elephant is ready to go home with a poacher. When he drifted away a little bit, I asked the man at the counter, “Who is your manager here?” He said, “I am.”
“May I speak with you privately?”
He smiled and said yes immediately, then led me into a tiny little room near the counter. [Redacted]
“[Redacted] Here’s the thing. This is my first time at your salon, and my last. I am never coming back. You know why? Your stylist made it an incredibly unpleasant experience for me.”
He looked genuinely saddened by this. “Oh, no. What happened, Ma’am?”
So I told him: about the snideness, the curl of the mouth when I admitted that I occasionally colour my own hair, the harping on the undesirable texture of my hair, the warnings that the haircut wouldn’t turn out right if I didn’t get the expensive blowout he was recommending, the implication that I would emerge from the salon looking like a monster — just the constant negativity, over both my refusal to spend so much and the nature of my untreated hair.
“I know this is a business, and that your stylists are trained to encourage clients to spend more. But one refusal should be enough, and your staff shouldn’t be so unpleasant after that. A woman should leave a salon feeling good about herself. She should not sit in the chair and endure being judged — either for her financial capacity or for what she naturally looks like.”
He apologized profusely, and asked me to come back and see their other stylists.
As I left the salon, I couldn’t help but think how many other businesses are built on making women feel that they are inadequate, that they need to be fixed or improved, that their only worth is their youth or attractiveness, that their place in the world is limited by their gender. The shampoo ads that tell women they’ll never find a man if their hair isn’t silky-smooth. The deodorants that promise to get rid of dark underarms. The lotions that promise to wipe off age spots and wrinkles. The brassieres that promise to lift, and the shapers that promise to flatten. The poisonous vocabulary — bat-wings and turkey-necks and chicken-skin — that describes the “flaws” of a woman’s body. The toys for girls — all pink and brainless — that encourage early sexualization and domestication, without teaching them to build, to think, to create.
There used to be an American cigarette ad that put a feminist spin on the idea of women smoking, and its tagline was, “You’ve come a long way, baby”. It was bouncing around in my head all afternoon after my haircut. We may have come a long way, but in many ways, it still feels like we took a wrong turn.