An Epic Hair Wash of Heroic Proportions

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I tried a new salon recently. Only because my current stylist is on maternity leave. I could have gone to another stylist at the same salon but I saw this as an opportunity to check out a salon in my neighborhood known for its expertise in cutting curly hair. I was cut-curious.

Curly hair is its own cult. You’ll know if you’re in the cult if you can relate to these statements:

1. Everyone tells you how lucky you are to have curly hair. “It’s so pretty!” Yet you often feel, deep down inside, as if you look like Phil Spector.

2. You either hate your hair, have a love/hate relationship with it or have decided to ignore it completely. “Curly hair? What curly hair? Oh, you mean that stuff on the top of my head?”

3. When you were in junior high and high school, you would have committed felonies if, in exchange, you could have had a silky, smooth ponytail that fell nicely down your back.

4. You either have no idea what it’s like to have short hair or, if you do know, it’s a traumatic event from your past marked by an arsenal of hair products, maintenance cuts and a growing-out phase during which you found yourself relying too heavily on headbands and staying in to watch movies.

Upon making my appointment for my curly haircut, I was instructed not to put my hair back, up or to wear a hat on the day of my appointment so the stylist could see my hair in its natural state. That morning, I absent-mindedly put my hair back while checking e-mail only to rip the elastic band out and throw it down in horror ten minutes later. Damn it! Had a I ruined my hair’s natural state? I spent a few minutes running my fingers through it, trying to make sure it was hanging down properly.

Little did I know that “running your fingers through it” is a big no-no with curly hair. Curly hair should be seen and admired but never, ever mussed with fingers. Fingers create frizz! Fingers are mischief makers!

The first step for a curly cut is, of course, dry cutting. The hair is cut while dry so that one can see exactly how it will “perform.” Curly hair has a tendency to “bounce,” and you can never be sure what the actual finished dry measurement will be if you cut it while wet. Say you want a half-inch off the bottom… Is that a half-inch wet or dry? It’s like measuring ingredients when cooking… wet measure or dry? A half-inch wet could equal an entire inch dry! It’s actually quite maddening. Except my usual stylist cuts it wet without a care in the world.

Let me say here that my stylist at the curly hair salon was very personable and likable. I felt as if we had a certain rapport. I didn’t feel the need to fill any awkward silences. She seemed to be very into her work and didn’t ask too many questions about mine and that’s a balance I’m comfortable with.

However, there wasn’t a lot of measuring going on during the cut. There seemed to be a lot of looking and then snipping the odd curl. Rather than a haircut, it more closely resembled a pruning. My new growth was being pruned back so that my head returned to a more controlled shape. Don’t worry, cutting off new growth doesn’t hurt the head, it actually helps it grow stronger. Or is that for bushes? Anyway, this, combined with an initial consultation, took 30 minutes.

Then it was time for highlights and color, which required my head to be sectioned off into many quadrants. I don’t really know why I said I wanted the highlights, clearly I could have done without them, but that’s my fault. I have this idea in my head about “summer hair” that requires it to be a lighter shade than it is during winter. Of course, when your normal shade is “fertile dark soil,” sometimes highlights can be rather jarring. Whatever. Highlights it is.

The application of highlights and color took maybe 40 minutes. Perhaps half an hour.

Then 45 minutes for the dye to do its thing. No biggie. Who doesn’t sort of relish that time in the chair when one can read magazines without interruption and listen to salon gossip? If I hadn’t sat there, I would not know anything about celebrity bikini bodies. I would not have seen the latest outfits worn by celebrity children. I would not have caught up with Jessica Simpson and what’s happening in her life right now.

But then things got weird.

My stylist prefaced the hair wash with the admission that it was, “her favorite part.” Really? Washing someone’s hair is your favorite part? I decided that at least she’s in the right profession. She led me over to a bed-like contraption. Where the pillow would be there was a metal shelf that sat over a sink. The shelf was for my head.

Well, OK. The bed was comfortable. I rested my noggin there and my Curly Hair Washing Tutorial began. There is so much information here that I’m going to have to break it down point-by-point.

1. When you get into the shower and wet your hair, DO NOT just mess it up with your fingers as you see people doing in TV commercials. Tilt your head back and allow the water to soak in, giving it gentle prods now and then.

2. You should avoid hot water. If you must, you can use warmish water during the shampoo phase of the operation but when it comes to conditioner, cool, cool, cool. It soothes the hair particles. One doesn’t want to make them angry.

3. When shampooing, work the shampoo in your hands and then apply it gently to the hair at your scalp. That’s really what needs washing. And don’t “attack” your scalp. Gently work the suds in. Handle your hair as you would a kitten or a bird with a broken wing.

4. Rinse gently. Cool water.

5. Conditioner. Use one formulated for curly hair. How often do you wash your hair, by the way? Each time you shower, you don’t need to wash your hair. You could simply wet it. Or wet it and condition it.

At this point another curly hair customer was led to the bed beside mine. “What a fabulous idea!” she cooed over the bed. After she was situated, her stylist asked her how often she washes her hair. “Well, I certainly wash it if I’ve been outside,” the customer said. “If I’ve been sweating…” “Of course, of course,” the stylist said.

I understand what the other curly hair customer was getting at. Curly hair people, and I mean curly hair not “wavy,” don’t wash their hair that often because it just makes it dry. I can go for over a week without washing it and it looks just fine if I haven’t been sweating. But straight hair people don’t get this. Their enemy is grease. If they don’t wash their hair every day, some of them look like they could open a mini-donuts stand on top of their heads. But in American culture, not washing your hair everyday somehow seems to mean not washing everyday, which is not the case. Anyway, I digress…

6. Conditioner again. Because it’s the most important part. Take a small amount of conditioner in your hand, take a section of hair and ball it up in that hand. Then scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. There’s no rubbing involved. Very little finger action (remember, fingers = frizz) You do this all over your head, section by section, small amount of conditioner by small amount of conditioner. On an ideal day, you can leave it in your hair for a few minutes.

7. To rinse it out, use the coolest water you can stand. Let the water run over your head. Avoid trying to work out the conditioner too much with your fingers.

8. Dry time. Take a towel and very gently pat your hair. Then sit down, put a towel on the floor in front of you and flip your head over. Shake your head so that water runs/drips down onto the towel. Shake your head again. Then do the scrunching thing with the towel. Recall the imagery of the bird with the broken wing. Would you attack a bird with a broken wing with a towel? Only if you were a sadistic asshole.

9. Carefully sit up. Shake that hair again. No, really shake it so that wet, cold strands cling to your face as if someone dumped cold spaghetti on your head. Great. That’s the ticket. Only 30 minutes to complete washing process!

10. Except your hair is still sopping wet. Well, it’s time to work in some gel formulated for curly hair. This gel does not get crunchy when it dries. It’s Gel 2.0. Repeat entire process gone through with conditioner only this time with gel. This is the only way to get even distribution of hair product. Ten minutes to apply correctly.

11. Hair is still dripping wet. OK. We can fix that. Take tiny metal clips and clip them all over the top of your head to make the hair stand up from scalp. The reason: if you dry curly hair by apply hottish air pressure from above, the hair will be flattened on top and then curly on the ends, giving the curly haired person the dreaded trapezoid or flat-top pyramid look:


It’s surprising just how easy it is to make curly hair take on this shape. Just ask Carrot Top.

12. Dry hair slowly under a hair dryer set to a coolish temperature. 30 minutes.

13. Voila! Hair is washed and sort of dry. Well, the ends are still wet. Get out diffuser and dry the ends by scrunching them up against the diffuser with the palms of your hands. This will make it look as if you got four inches cut off your hair. Finish with an enthusiastic round of hair spray.

Done! In only 3 hours and fifteen minutes.

Now, don’t touch your hair. Don’t let anyone else touch your hair. Don’t…

Screw it. Two hours later my mop was up in a hair elastic.

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