-This story is about women and aging, and how that feels. If you are squeamish about this subject, you’ve been warned.-
There are things in life that you think you are prepared for, but then reality hits you like a cement truck you never saw coming.
Pregnancy was one of those. Everyone talks about pregnancy brain and hormones, but it doesn’t prepare you for finding yourself standing in the middle of the baby clothes store holding a stuffed lamb and crying because you know you should save money and put it back because you don’t need it, and babies are expensive, but you suddenly are very very emotionally attached to it and it seems like the most important thing in the world in that moment. And you just feel so so crazy. It just has to be felt.
Or the first time you have a broken heart. Especially if it doesn’t happen till you’re in your 30s. And you’ve broken up with plenty of boyfriends over the years, and even gone through a divorce, so you’d think you know. But then your very first serious girlfriend breaks up with you, and you are just blindsided by how you shatter inside. And suddenly all those sappy romances you used to roll your eyes at… Yeah, it just has to be felt.
Then this day comes.
I was on the wrong side of 50 all of a sudden, and I found myself sitting in the waiting area of the salon I had been going to for over a decade, and I’m in another one of those life events that you hear about all the time, but I had no real clue about till it hit me. I was trying to get a little work done while I waited, but was unable to concentrate, because I was just so so uncomfortable yet again.
“Hi, Ms. Walsh, I can wash your hair now.” One of the ever so young chipper junior stylists said. I remembered back to when my current stylist, Ashley was still a junior stylist who washed my hair and my old stylist Shirley hadn’t retired yet. The junior stylist waited as I shoved everything back into my giant bag that doubles as a purse and briefcase, and I draped my cardigan over my bare arm. I stood and followed her to the sinks.
I felt a little weird asking her to make the water a little cooler 3 times, but when the cool water was finally running over my head, it felt so good. I was a little worried that her hands would be cold, but it’s not like the cold was going to be making her arthritis ache.
I was feeling a lot more comfortable by the time I was delivered to my regular stylist’s station with a damp towel over my shoulders and my hair wet. I sat down and Ashley, my stylist, started shaking out a cape, while we went through the usual pleasantries.
As Ashley fastened the cape around me, I could hear the stylist and her snowy haired client at the next station over talking about the client’s recent retirement and not needing to be boring anymore. I was getting the feeling that the stylist was having a bit of a hard time figuring out where to go with the vague request of “not boring.” I was a little worried that the request for “more comfortable” I was about to make was going to be similarly too vague.
“So,” Ashley started asking as she detangled my salt and pepper hair that hung about 3 inches below my shoulders, “about an inch off?”
“Uhm,” I started nervously, “it’s actually been driving me a little crazy lately. Can you do something with it so I’m a little more comfortable? Something easier, lighter.”
“Do you mean shorter?” Ashley sounded quite surprised.
“No. I don’t know.” I admitted. “I’m kind of that age where going short is just such a cliché. I kind of want lighter and cooler without going short. I want it off my neck most of the time, but putting it up just leads to headaches lately. Sometimes just out of the blue, I’m suddenly so hot. And the texture has been changing and it’s making it hard to smooth out.”
“So like an undercut?” Ashley sounded super unsure.
“I don’t know how well that would go over at the office.” I said. “And I don’t want it to look thinner.”
“I’m really not sure what you’re getting at.”
“I’m not either.”
Ashley and I just stared at each other in the mirror, for way too long. After a bit I noticed that the other stylist was looking over at us.
“Trade clients with me.” The other stylist suddenly said to Ashley.
“What?!” Ashley responded.
“We trade, at least for today.” The other stylist said. “I have no idea what Barbara here wants, but I think I know what your client needs, and I think you can make Barbara less bored.”
“Lisa’s been coming to me for nearly 10 years,” Ashley said. “She was one of my very first clients.”
“And Barbara’s been mine for over 20, but sometimes things change.” The other stylist quirked up one eyebrow looking Ashley straight in the eye. “Trust me.”
“What do you think Lisa?” Ashley asked me.
“I guess” I agreed tentatively with a shrug.
Barbara and I both got up and started switching places. I listened to Barbara and Ashley as I gathered my stuff.
“I’ve retired, I don’t need to be boring anymore. What do you want to do?”
“Don’t tempt me, I’ve been wanting to try out one of those updated mullets, or holo prism rainbow hair.”
“OK” Barbara responded casually.
“Ha, ha yeah right.” Ashley chuckled as I was heading to the other stylist’s chair. “Wait? Are you serious?! Which one, mullet or rainbow hair?!!!”
“You’re not serious are you? I mean you’re…”
“Old?” Now Barbara was the one chuckling. “I’m retired, so no problem with work. Left the husband 5 years ago, and he passed away 2, so no problem there. My kids are adults, so I don’t have to look respectable at parent teacher conferences. Old comes with many downsides, but it also has a few upsides. I’m totally serious.”
“OH MY GOD!!!” Ashley squeed as I finally got fully settled into the other stylist chair. “This is going to be incredible! How am I going to make them work together? I’ll figure it out. I’ll do the color then work the cut around it, might be more of a shag than a mullet. Hang on, I just need to mix a few things in the back, don’t go anywhere.”
“Ok, sounds good.” Barbara said without an ounce of concern over the fact that I’m sure she had almost no idea what Ashley was planning, it didn’t even sound like Ashley was completely sure.
“Hi, I’m Jean.” The other stylist introduced herself. As she helped me get settled.
“I’m Lisa.” I said cautiously. “So you heard what I was saying to Ashley?”
“It’s menopause isn’t it?”
“I was expecting hot flashes, I just didn’t expect them to be like this. I expected them to be a brief moment when it was like a hot day, or like when you open a hot oven and look into it. I did not expect it to feel like I had swallowed a furnace and it was boiling over inside me. The other day at work, I had to suddenly go outside and strip everything I could get away with off even though it was 20 degrees out. And I don’t know why they call something that sometimes lasts 20 or 30 minutes a flash.”
“Hot flash really doesn’t tell the whole story, does it? So you’re hot and uncomfortable.”
“You’d think I could just put my hair up, but I get headaches now.” I went on explaining the dilemma. “I used to wear my hair in a ponytail all day every day from beginning of June till the middle of September. Now, it’s uncomfortable after an hour. Plus, wearing a hair elastic on my wrist makes my arthritis worse.”
“Yeah that’s a problem for many people.” Jean nodded along. “And the texture is changing.”
“I don’t mind the color change, the salt and pepper thing is fine, I figure if I dyed it back to black it would make me look washed out, but the white hairs are thick and crinkley. They stick up and out. It’s weird.”
“It’s not weird, it’s totally normal.”
“And I know the thing everyone does is cut it short, but I still want to look good. My wife and I split last year.” I nervously outed myself. “And I’m dating again. I still want to be attractive and keep my long hair. I don’t just want a short old lady haircut.”
“It sounds to me like you DO want a short haircut, but are scared it will make you look older.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m just so uncomfortable all the time. It’s not just the hot flashes, it’s other things too. My neck is stiff, and the hair getting caught in my purse strap doesn’t help matters. But I really do still want to be attractive. I know they say that you lose interest in…. But I haven’t. I’ve actually been thinking more about… There’s still interest, you know? ”
“You mean libido don’t you?” Jean chuckled. “It’s ok, you don’t have to answer, I can tell from the way you’re grinning that you’re talking about sex. Yeah, they tell us all that we’ll be drying up and happily celebate, but for some of us it’s the exact opposite. That’s why cougars are a thing. My husband complained he wasn’t a teenager anymore.”
“You too?” I was relieved. “I feel like I have been going insane. I think about it so much some days I can’t concentrate and get anything done. I am just constantly distracted. I had no idea this was a possibility. So you get why I don’t want to look like I’m ready to join a convent?”
“Listen, you will be more comfortable with short hair and it can look just as good as long hair.” Jean assured me. “There are reasons the whole women of a certain age going short is a cliché. You don’t have to look like a celebate old lady, with short hair. You can still be sexy. Heck, being comfortable makes looking confident and sexy so much easier.”
“I guess that’s true for some women.”
“It’s going to look better short. The wiry white hairs will blend in if all the hair is short enough to stand up a little. It’ll draw attention upward and away from the skin under your chin. It isn’t going to make you look older.”
“I don’t know. I’ve always had long hair.”
“And things change. Your body is changing, other things need to change to go with it. You don’t wear the same clothing size you did when you were 25 do you?” Jean pointed out. “Your hair’s texture is changing, a new style will just work with it better. Just as you fit better in a different clothing size, a different hair length can be a better fit.”
“You’ve got a point, but… I’m still…”
“Listen, you hate it, it’ll grow back.” Jean assured me. “Another advantage of being old, a year and a half to grow it out no longer feels like an eternity at our age, now it feels like the blink of an eye.”
“Ok, I guess you’ve convinced me.” I said nervously.
“So a nice fresh pixie?” Jean asked. “How about completely off the neck in the back, above the ears, with some height at the top?”
I just nodded along as Jean kept describing and demonstrating. She even pulled up a few pictures as she went. I balked a little at quite how short she suggested taking it, but she said “the bolder it is the more it says ‘confidence,’ it’s compromising on the length that will make it seem conservative and old.” Soon the details were settled, and she had all my damp hair sectioned.
One section hung down in the back, and lay against my neck. The dampness seeped under the collar of the cape slightly. Jean ran her comb through it a few times smoothing it against my neck.
Next thing I knew, I felt the tips of her scissors poking in under the long loose hair. Then I heard the snipping begin. I prayed I wasn’t going to regret this.
I felt Jean’s warm fingers on my neck. I felt the long hairs that clung to my neck peeled off of it. But then, I did not feel the hair being lifted up and pulled, since they were no longer attached, the only thing I felt was a slight breeze on my neck. I heard a little plop as the long wet hair was dropped to the floor.
Then I felt Jean combing my hair into her fingers as she pressed them against my nape. I heard the snipping begin again. The snipping ended, and I watched Jean shake snippets of my hair from her hand onto the floor. I felt her combing more hair into her fingers that once again were pressed firmly against my scalp in the back.
I knew that this meant that my hair was literally the length of her finger width. I nervously felt my own fingers, trying to translate what I was feeling happening into how it was going to look. I wasn’t going to be able to figure it out though, so I just took a deep breath and tried to relax as best I could.
Once she had cut off all the hair at my nape, she released one of the clips, combed some of the hair down to cover the newly cropped nape, and then refastened the rest of the hair back up. She again combed the hair into her fingers, though this time they didn’t feel quite so closely pressed against my scalp.
I listened to the snipping as I watched in the mirror Jean standing behind me looking down at her hand and scissors. I could see long strands falling from behind her fingers.
I swallowed as I watched my once cherished hair fall to the floor. When I was young, it had been so smooth and silky and dark. Back in highschool and college, over 30 years ago, it had reached my butt. I had ignored the trends and never done a mullet or undercut, instead just keeping my hair gloriously long. Back then, 3 inches below my shoulders would have seemed short. Now I watched as even that version of long was being cut off.
I sighed thinking how I had been back then. Strong and healthy, but I so often held back, trying to be dainty and ladylike. So young and pretty, but I was so self conscious about every tiny little flaw. I never would have considered cutting my hair short, I never had the confidence to face the world without it.
It’s funny how much more confident I was now. Yeah, I looked 50, but I looked good for 50, and I appreciate it in a way I didn’t back then. Yeah, I couldn’t lift as much without worrying about injuring myself, but I wasn’t afraid to be a bitch when I needed to. Yeah, my knees hurt when I climbed the stairs, but I knew what made me feel good when making love. I was a new very different kind of strong, beautiful, and healthy than I had been back then.
Jean had just finished cutting off the last of the loose long hair and was reaching for the clip to let more down when Ashley got back with a cart full of mixing bowls. Ashley looked over Jean’s shoulder and wrinkled her brow.
“I thought you didn’t want short hair. You’re ok with this?” Ashley asked me nervously. She looked like she was terrified that she would have to do something to stop Jean.
“I’m still a little undecided about it, but it’s fine. Sometimes you just have to try things out to know what you think. If I hate it, it will grow back, and since you didn’t do it, I won’t blame you.” I reassured Ashley, who nodded and went back to Barbara, where she started what I’m sure was going to be a spectacular rainbow mullet.
Jean released the clip and fastened it onto her blouse’s sleeve. I felt the wet hair plop against the nearly bare back of my head as well as down my neck. She combed out the still long hair, and then combed it into her fingers and snipped it off swiftly.
Jean let down the hair on one side of my head, and combed it out. This was when I was finally going to get to see how short it looked. I watched intently as Jean combed some of the long hair up into her fingers and started snipping it off. It still wasn’t far enough forward for me to get a great view, but at least now it wasn’t purely based on feel. She was indeed cutting it pretty much the width of her fingers long, and Jean did not have particularly plump fingers.
As she worked forward, I could see she was leaving it ever so slightly longer towards the top of the section she worked on. The long strands fell on my caped shoulder.
I watched as my ear was gradually exposed. The tiny scars from the multiple piercings I had gotten in my late teens and early twenties, were suddenly visible. I wondered if any of them were still functional, or if they’d all closed up when I had stopped bothering with them as a young mother so many years ago now. As it was, I only bothered to put earrings in my standard lobe piercings occasionally. Which had turned out to be a good thing, since my holes weren’t stretched out the way some of my friends were. I was wearing simple diamond studs at that moment.
Jean combed the last few long strands up from next to my face into her fingers and began snipping. I watched with great anticipation as the final barrier that had obscured my vision of the new length fell away to my lap. My heart began to beat faster as Jean pulled her hand away, releasing the suddenly short hairs, and giving me my first good view of what I would look like.
I turned my head slightly, so the short side was easier to see in the mirror. It was short, very short. Shorter than you usually see on the old lady cut I had feared getting. I was torn and started nervously chewing on my lip. On the one hand, it wasn’t old-lady-ish; on the other hand, I wasn’t sure little-boy-ish was better.
“Wait till it’s finished to make up your mind.” Jean said in a reassuring tone.
Since it was too late to do anything other than just finish it at this point, I figured she was right. I took a deep breath and nodded. Then sat back up straight again, and tried to just relax.
Jean undid the clip on the other side of my head. The damp hair tumbled down past my shoulder. Looking at myself, one side with long hair and one with short, I couldn’t quite decide which looked better. Jean swiftly started cutting off the long hair, making the question moot. In no time both sides of my head matched, and there was a rather impressive amount of hair in my lap.
Jean spent a bit trimming small amounts here and there. Shaping my sideburns and hairline with the points of her scissors. She snipped around my ears. I sat there watching tiny bits of hair fall, trying to decide what I felt about my general lack of hair. I realized that though I was still super nervous, I wasn’t unhappy.
Eventually, Jean seemed mostly happy with the hair on the sides and back of my head.
Jean reached up and released the clip that held what was left of my long hair against the top of my head. It fell down and partially covered the short sides with hair that still reached to just brushing my shoulders. I was a little surprised that it didn’t reach all the way down to the point 3 inches below my shoulders, but I guess that was because of the layering Ashley had always added.
Jean swept the whole lot of it up with the comb into her hand, and held it all aloft above my head. She combed it all smooth then swapped the comb for scissors. In a single stroke, she sliced off several inches of it. The shortened hairs fell to about the tops of my ears in a jumble. It almost reminded me of playing pick-up-sticks as a child.
Jean dropped my severed hair to the floor and combed the jumble on top of my head into order again. She sectioned out a small bit of hair right at the crown of my head, and started once again combing it into her fingers. Her fingers weren’t pressed right up against my scalp, but the gap wasn’t exactly huge.
She began snipping away once again. Another inch or so of hair began to fall. A lot of it fell onto the top of my head, where it mingled with the rest of my hair. She combed it off behind me, before combing up another small section into her fingers and snipping it off to match the previous section. Little bits of damp short cut off hair clung to her comb, she just ignored them. She kept repeating the process working her way forward on my head. Something about it reminded me of reaping grain.
Jean made her way to the very front and I watched as the last of the hair was swept up off my forehead, gathered into her fingers, and sliced off just as the rest of it had been. It tumbled down over my face and into my lap.
Wet and combed back the way it was, it was still really hard to get an idea how it was going to look finished. At that moment, I wasn’t loving it though. I frowned a little at my reflexion, and tried to keep an open mind.
Jean continued to snip away, playing connect the dots between the very short top and the even shorter sides. I watched as the shape of the cut subtly changed and the carpet of discarded hairs on my shoulders thickened. After quite a bit of shaping, she went systematically through the hair on top with texturizing shears.
I was covered in quite a bit of hair when Jean finally picked up the hairdryer. She fluffed the hair on the top of my head up as she dried it, giving it that height she had promised would draw the eye up away from the skin under my chin.
The cut was basically done, so I sat contemplating my new image in the mirror as Jean made a few adjustments and used her little humming trimmer on my neck.
The cliché thing to say is “it took 5 (or 10, or 20, or whatever unrealistic number one feels optimistic enough to claim) off,” but really; I had walked in the door looking good for 50, and well I still looked good for 50. It was a new different good for 50. It was a more polished, professional, cooly confident good for 50. I was mildly amused that I could see myself looking more confident, while at the same time feeling so vulnerable. I decided I needed to wait for it to be finished with the stupid cape off to really see it. I closed my eyes, and just listened to the scissors snipping off tiny bits of dry hair.
I felt Jean carefully remove the cape. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. Staring at myself in the mirror, I was every bit the cool polished business lady of a certain age I could have hoped for. I felt the cool breeze on my neck now that it was covered by neither hair nor a cape. The curtain of hair gone, just barely enough to be a small frame around my face, my eyes popped.
The top stood up slightly, not spiked or curled, just a certain amount of thickness. The wiry white hairs sprinkled around my head, no longer were alone in that. The black and dark gray hairs had joined in all standing up together.
It was good, I wasn’t sure how I felt anyway. Jean showed me the back with a hand mirror, it looked very clean and fresh. I sat there stroking my bare neck and velvety nape for a minute. It felt so easy as I ran my hand through the tangle free plush that covered my head.
“Hmmm?” Jean prompted me.
“It feels great. I do look good. I’m going to need a bit to get used to it.” I smiled at Jean. “I’m happy I did it, even if I only keep it till the hot flashes calm down a bit. Being cooler for a while is going to be great. Thank you so much for helping me find the courage.”
“I’m glad you’re not unhappy.” Jean nodded to the side that Ashley’s station was on. “I don’t think Ashley would ever forgive me if you had been unhappy.”
I stood up, I draped my cardigan over my arm and slung my giant purse up onto my shoulder, where there was no longer any hair for it to pull. I took one last look in the mirror, getting the full length view. Yeah, the haircut definitely added to the competent business lady vibe of the blouse and trousers. I smiled a little wider.
At Ashley’s station, Barbara sat with her hair wrapped up like Thanksgiving leftovers. I grabbed a business card and pen from my giant purse, and wrote my cell phone number on the back.
“Do me a favor,” I said to Barbara, handing her my card. “Unfortunately I’m not retired, so I can’t hang out till that’s done, but I’m dying to see it when it is done. Can you text me a few selfies, please?”
“Sure no problem.” Barbara said, tucking my card into a pocket. “If you want, we could even grab a drink tonight so you could see it in person.”
“Ok, that sounds fun.” I had no idea where that might be leading, but what did I have to lose.