I dyed my hair blonde again this past week. It takes a very long time, four hours or so. You sit in the chair while someone paints your hair in thin strands with a wooden brush, first the back, then working towards the front. It’s painstaking and expensive. For some reason, when you go blonde the dye itself is purple. I’m not smart enough to know why it’s purple, or really, what the hell kinds of toxins they are actually putting into my hair. The dye’s texture is like something from a childhood haunted house, the goop you’d stick your hands into when the lights are all out, those soon-to-be-expired grapes passing for zombie brains or eyeballs. The fact that this thought actually crossed my mind should be an indication of how often I frequent salons.
When it was time for the dye to sit and dry, my stylist asked if I wanted a magazine. Instead I pulled out my book, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” I got a bit self-conscious. Why do I have to be such an asshole and pull out this seven-pound Russian book in the middle of a salon? A minute or so later, the receptionist walked by and talked to me a bit about “Anna Karenina.” She was having a hard time getting through it, but thought it was just starting to get good. Another hairdresser joined the conversation, mentioning the movie. Then several other girls getting haircuts started to chime in, somehow the topic shifted to horror movies, and then the whole salon was chatting about bad B-grade films. We weren’t discussing anything important – at one point “The Human Centipede” came up – but everyone had something to say and it culminated in a very good joke by one of the stylists and everyone laughed.
I thought of my grandmother, then, and how for her entire life, she loved going to beauty parlors (her term). Even at the end, in the assisted living home, she went to get her hair done every week. It seems shallow. But it was a real social space for her as a woman to connect with other women, one of the few precious spheres afforded to women of her generation outside the home, and she held it sacred. Going to the beauty parlor for her, a poor New York Jew from an immigrant family, was a luxury, a duty, and I suspect most importantly, a community. Watching her in there chatting with all the women, both as a child and then caring for her as an adult, made celebrity gossip and nail polish something quite substantial, actually.
It can seem shallow. You know early on that your beauty is what matters, and simultaneously that caring about it, that talking about it – the women who diet obsessively and spray tan, who have extensive morning makeup routines, who get their nails done and pontificate about it as if it’s a philosophy final thesis – this is superficial and silly. Men hate women who go on and on about this. Women hate women who go on and on about this. But it’s a hard ask of society, to tell us to stake our identities to something, and put systems into place that ensure it’s enforced upon us, and then tell us we are crazy or stupid for internalizing it and claiming that it is important in our lives. I prefer to critique the cultural machinery then the women it produces, but maybe that’s because I am a feminist or just read “The Beauty Myth”, though I’d like to think that it is really just a basic empathetic, moral stance. Either way, when I was at the salon, laughing at the stylist’s joke, I thought of my grandmother, who went to beauty parlors every week for 70-something years. And I thought that the group of us had managed to carve out a nice space for ourselves for a Sunday afternoon, while we all partook in something that I’ve heard referred to as “superfluous.”