For weeks now, Anya had been teasing her followers. Her Instagram grid was filled with photos that showcased her curly, hip-length red hair. Resplendent in a golden hour glamour shot. Playfully covering her chest while she held a box of Godiva chocolates (one of her brand partners). A looping Boomerang video of her hair cascading down her back as she removed it from a topknot. A close-up of her curls spread over a table with Christmas ornaments artfully arranged atop it. (That last one one left her neck sore for several days.) Each post had a caption that told a little story about the photo, and then ended with the following:
Enjoy these photos while they last! On January 5, I’ll be donating a ponytail to Wigs for Kids, as well as making a donation to the American Cancer Society. Tune in to watch the cut on Instagram Live at noon that day, and chip in on my fundraising campaign at the link in my bio!
Donations poured in. By the week of the haircut, Anya had raised almost $100,000—way more than she’d been expecting. But there was something else that was unexpected, too: the number of donors who left a note indicating they’d be willing to make a larger donation depending on how much hair Anya cut.
The truth was, Anya had only been planning on donating fourteen inches of her hair—which is a big deal for some people, but for Anya, it would have meant her hair would still reach the bottom of her shoulder blades. Still, the donors’ comments had her thinking: should she cut more, if she could raise more?
Two factors played into Anya’s consideration as she considered this prospect. First was that cancer research was a cause very near to her heart: her best friend, Beth, had been diagnosed with leukemia in fifth grade and spent much of middle school in and out of treatment, missing class often because she was too weak or tired from the treatment, and, when she did make it to school, hiding in the back of the classroom with her hoodie pulled down to her eyebrows because she was embarrassed by her bald head and sunken features. Although Beth was officially told she was cancer free at the end of eighth grade and was now, more than 20 years later, thriving as a personal stylist, Anya never forgot how hard those years were for her friend and was determined to do what she could to help other kids in the same situation.
The second factor that Anya had to consider was fourteen inches was far from the biggest haircut she’d ever had.
As ninth grade neared and the newly-cancer free Beth was fretting about what the high schoolers would say about her uneven, shaggy crop (she was several months out of her last round of chemotherapy but her hair was growing back slowly, and she didn’t want to be forever branded as “that girl who had cancer”), Anya was determined not to let her friend suffer alone. One week before the start of classes, after spending the day shopping for first-day-of-school outfits with Beth but coming home empty handed after her friend tearfully declared she couldn’t find anything that looked right with her hair, Anya declared to her mother: “I want to cut my hair short so Beth doesn’t feel like she stands out so much on the first day.” Anya’s mother, seeing the determination in her daughter’s eyes, sighed as she looked over her daughter’s glorious red curls, then said: “Just don’t shave your head, okay?”
The next day, Anya called Jennifer, the stylist she had been visiting since she was four years old, and made appointments for both herself and Beth. Anya didn’t tell Beth what she was planning to do, just that she had booked them both appointments to get tidied up before school started. When they arrived, Jennifer greeted them warmly and asked who wanted to go first. “I will,” Anya said, practically running to Jennifer’s station. Jennifer invited Beth to sit in the chair in the next station over as nobody would be using it that day, and asked Anya if she wanted the usual—cut off the split ends and bring the layers up to add volume to her heavy hair. “No,” Anya told her. “But let’s talk about it while you wash my hair, okay?”
At the shampooing station, Anya told Jennifer about her intentions. “I want you to cut all my hair off. Mom says you can’t shave my head, but you need to make it at least as short as Beth’s will be after you cut hers. Shorter, actually.”
“But,” said Jennifer, “with your curls, I’m not sure your hair will play nice with that short of a cut. You might wind up looking like Little Orphan Annie, especially with your hair color. What will the high school boys think?”
“That there’s someone to make fun of other than Beth.”
Jennifer let out a big sigh. She had been caring for this hair for ten years and she hated to think about it lying on the ground. But she knew Anya well enough to sense she couldn’t be dissuaded. “Fine,” she said. “At least you can donate the ponytail, I suppose.”
Jennifer led Anya back to her station. Beth barely looked up from the copy of Short Haircuts Magazine she was frowning into, trying to find a haircut that wouldn’t mean sacrificing too much of the hair she’d so impatiently grown back. Beth had been at the salon with Anya enough times to know Jennifer always cut Anya’s hair dry so she could see her curl pattern. She didn’t think anything of it when Jennifer picked up her blowdryer and spent several minutes getting Anya’s hair dry. She was so lost in her magazine she barely noticed when the dryer shut off. “Beth!” exclaimed Anya, after a few minutes trying to capture her friend’s attention. “I need you for a sec.” Beth looked up from her magazine and was surprised to see that Jennifer had gathered Anya’s hair into a ponytail, which she held aloft. “Jennifer says that because my hair is so long this is really a two-person job—one person to keep the ponytail taut, and the other person to cut if off. So…which would you rather do?”
Beth looked at her friend wide-eyed and stammered: “You’re…cutting…your…hair…off?”
“You didn’t think I’d let you have the shortest hair in high school, did you?”
“Yeah, but Anya…”
“No buts, Beth. My hair is going to be shorter than yours and I don’t want to hear another thing about it. Now, are you going to cut, or are you going to hold?”
“I don’t think you should trust me to cut.”
“Nonsense!” said Jennifer. “I’m not letting you give her an actual haircut. You’d just be cutting the ponytail off, and I’ll do the rest.” She extended a pair of cutting shears toward Beth. “Come on. You do the cutting. It’s the fun part.”
Tentatively, Beth reached for the shears. “Start cutting here,” Jennifer said, pointing at an area between two rubber bands she had placed near the base of Anya’s skull. “Try not to crunch down too hard. The scissors are very sharp and they’ll cut more easily than you think.”
“You don’t have to do this, Anya,” Beth said, looking at her friend’s thick ponytail.
“I know,” Anya said. “Now start cutting.”
Tentatively, Beth opened the shears and placed them where Jennifer had indicated. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and closed the blades together. She heard the unmistakable sound of hair meeting metal. When she opened her eyes, she saw she had cut no more than a quarter of the way through Anya’s thick ponytail, but still, it was clear that many hairs had been severed. “Well,” Jennifer said, “no turning back now. Might as well finish what you started.”
So Beth kept cutting, less nervous with each snip. When only a few hairs long hairs remained attached to Anya’s head, Beth said jokingly to her friend: “Your hair looks worse than mine right now. Just remember, you asked for this.” She closed the blades one last time and in the mirror saw the ponytail come fully loose into Jennifer’s hands.
“Now,” Jennifer said to Beth, playfully draping the ponytail over Anya’s shoulders for a moment before laying it on her counter, “go sit back down and let me clean up this mess you made.” Beth returned to her seat, and her magazine, but found that instead of thinking about her own impending haircut, she was mostly watching Anya’s. A few longish pieces still remained near her friend’s nape, and Jennifer cut those off first, and then took her comb out of her apron pocket and started lifting and looking closely at what remained. When it finally seemed as if she found what she was looking for, Jennifer began snipping individual curls, no more than two inches from Anya’s scalp, and even shorter on the back and sides. Without the weight of her long locks, each curl sprung back toward Anya’s head, looking far shorter than what Jennifer actually left. Anya stared at her reflection without any sign of emotion and chatted easily with Jennifer.
Beth thought the process seemed haphazard at first, but soon, a shape began to emerge. When Jennifer finally seemed satisfied that she had cut every lock that needed cutting, she grabbed her electric trimmers and gently pushed Anya’s head down so she could clean up Anya’s neckline. “Mmmm,” Anya said. It was the first time she’d spoken since Beth sat back down. “That feels really nice.”
“Head up!” Jennifer instructed her. “We’re almost finished.” The stylist grabbed a spray bottle and dampened Anya’s hair, then grabbed a tube of gel. “Okay, listen,” Jennifer said. “Do not use too much product. It will just make your hair greasy and flat. She squeezed a small amount into her hand, and then showed Anya. “This much. That’s it. No more.” Then she rubbed the gel between her palms and gently combed through Anya’s short curls with her fingers, scrunching occasionally as she went. “Make sure you lift at the roots while you scrunch.” She grabbed her blowdryer off her counter and attached a diffuser, then turned Anya away from the mirror. “I tried my best to stay out of Little Orphan Annie territory, but if you try to blow dry your hair without a diffuser, that’s where you’ll wind up.” Jennifer then proceeded to dry Anya’s hair, using the prongs on the diffuser to keep the hair slightly lifted. “Okay, my dear,” Jennifer said, removing the cape from around Anya’s neck. “You are done.”
“Oh,” said Anya. Where several feet of red waves had once hung, now there were only short curls, twisting casually but deliberately in all directions.
“Good ‘oh,’ or bad ‘oh’?” asked Jennifer.
“I’m not sure. It will take some getting used to. But I did love how quickly it dried, at least. I usually spend at least an hour with my blowdryer.” Then, turning to Beth, she asked: “What do you think?”
“You look like Felicity!” Beth responded. Getting up from her seat, she ran toward her friend and embraced her in a hug. “You didn’t have to do this for me.”
Anya looked at herself in the mirror over Beth’s shoulder. “Felicity, huh?” She sounded amused. “People hated her haircut. Perfect. Now nobody’s going to say anything about your hair.”
“Hop on up,” Jennifer said, patting her seat. “You’re next.”
Anya took the seat Beth had previously occupied and took another look in the mirror. She reached her hand up to her head and rubbed gently. Despite the gel, she was surprised at how soft her hair felt. She still wasn’t sure if she liked how it looked, but it felt amazing, the soft curls and their prickly, just-cut edges. She grabbed individual ringlets and pulled and twisted, trying to get a feel for what, if anything, she could do to style her hair for the first day of school, then placed her hand on her neck and ran it slowly up the back of her head, then back down again. “It’s fun, isn’t it?” Jennifer asked her, looking over from the next station over. “I’ve never given a short haircut without seeing the client do that after. Just don’t play with it too much, or it will get frizzy.”
Anya gave her nape one last little rub and dutifully returned her hands to her lap. She noticed Beth had left her magazine on the counter near where she’d been sitting. “What did you decide to do, Beth?”
“I decided to trust Jennifer,” Beth said.
“Good girl,” said Jennifer. “Let’s get you shampooed. And you,” she turned to Anya. “Try not to play with your hair too much while we’re gone.”
Anya couldn’t help but sneak a few more gentle adjustments to her hair while Jennifer and Beth were gone, but they returned soon enough, and Beth sat back in Jennifer’s chair. “So when you say you trust me…” the stylist said to her client.
“I trust you to make me look good. Just keep as much length as you can, please?”
Jennifer came to stand between Beth and the mirror, leaning down so she was eye level with Beth. It was clear she was scrutinizing every one of Beth’s chestnut-colored hairs. “Your hair hasn’t been growing in evenly. I’ve seen that happen a lot with my clients who’ve gone though chemotherapy.”
“What does that mean for Beth?” Anya asked from the next chair over. “If you have to cut her hair too short, you’re going to have to give me another haircut. And I’m still not sure how much I like this one.”
Jennifer laughed. “Your hairs are safe, Anya.” Then, turning back to Beth, she said: “Your hair is going to be longer than Anya’s, for the most part, but I’m going to add a lot of texture to it so as the short hairs grow in more they won’t start poking through the longer hairs too obviously. Did you see that movie, Sliding Doors, when it came out last year?”
“Yeah. But I don’t remember much of it because it was the day after a chemo session and I wasn’t feeling too great,” Beth answered.
“Well, do you at least remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s haircut?”
“Yes, but not from the movie. I just remember seeing photos of her somewhere with short hair.”
“Okay, so you know what I’m talking about at least. How would you feel about something like that? It will be longer in the front than the back, and the texture I add will keep it from looking too flat.”
“I think that would look awesome, Beth!” Anya interrupted. “Definitely longer than my hair. And cuter, too.”
Beth sighed. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
Compared to Anya’s haircut, this one was very precise. Jennifer parted Beth’s hair into several sections, pinning most of them up. “I’m going to start with the back and sides, so you’re not going to see what I’m doing. Don’t freak out if it seems like a lot of hair is coming off. I’m just getting rid of the mullet you’re beginning to grow. I’ll barely be touching the top.”
Beth might not have been able to see what Jennifer was doing, but Anya could. She watched as the stylist combed the first section away from Beth’s head and started cutting about two inches from the scalp. Four more inches landed on the ground. She hadn’t realized Beth’s hair had gotten that long in the back. Jennifer continued making her way toward Beth’s right ear, releasing one section at a time, then returned to the center and made her way left. Comb, snip. Comb snip. It was almost hypnotic, the sound of the cutting as her friend’s long neck and delicate earlobes were revealed.
Soon, Jennifer let down the top section of Beth’s hair. She spent a moment trying to figure out where the part should go, finally deciding to place it over Beth’s right eye, combing most of her remaining hair toward the left. Grabbing an alligator clip, Jennifer pinned the parted section out of the way and set to work on the right side of Beth’s head, this time combing the hair downward instead of away from her head as she cut.
Beth let out a small gasp as her right ear was revealed. “I didn’t realize it would be this short!” she said, with tears beginning to fill her eyes.
Jennifer pulled the lock she had just cut straight up. “This is still a good four inches of hair, my dear. That’s twice what I left your friend with.”
“It looks great!” Anya said encouragingly. She meant it, too.
Jennifer finished up Beth’s right side and moved to her left. Clipping the front section off to leave for last, she began to repeat what she’d done on the right. “You’re going to have more volume on this side because of the part, but that’s a good thing because it seemed like your hair on this side was a bit thinner.” Then she let down the front section. “This is the part that really makes this haircut.” Jennifer combed the hair so it swept over Beth’s left eye. “Sorry, it won’t be there long.” She began cutting the hair in small, fluttering snips on a diagonal, pointing the shears toward Beth’s left jaw. “Now that you can see again,” she said, circling behind Beth. “What do you think? It’s not totally finished. I need to razor in some layers and then I’ll show you how to style it. But this will give you a general idea.”
Beth burst into tears.
“Oh no, honey,” Jennifer said, patting her on the back. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“No,” said Beth, freeing her hands from under the cape to wipe her eyes. “This is just the first haircut I’ve had since I was diagnosed. I look so…different.”
“You’re not the same person you were then. That’s not a bad thing. Maybe this haircut is the perfect opportunity to meet the new you.”
Beth sniffled. “Maybe you’re right.”
Jennifer picked up her cutting razor and began slicing into Beth’s hair. “If it looks like your hairs are all a different length on purpose, then when those other short hairs get longer they’ll just blend in. Now, chin down.” Jennifer put her razor down and picked up her clippers. Beth jumped a bit at the loud pop. “Don’t worry, I’m just cleaning up your hairline.”
“Feels good, right?” Anya asked, as the clippers made contact with Beth’s neck. “Like one of those chairs at the mall.”
“Sure, if you could wind up bald from sitting down on one too quickly,” Beth quipped. It was clear her mood was improving.
“Okay young lady,” Jennifer said, putting her clippers away. “Let’s get you finished.” She showed Beth how to take a small amount of pomade and warm it between her fingers, then gently rub it through her hair. Then, a quick blowdrying lesson and some pointers on how to style her long bangs to achieve a few different looks. “So now that it’s done, what do you think of the new Beth?”
Beth scrutinized herself in the mirror. “I think…I kinda like her.”
“You mean I didn’t have to chop all my hair off?” Anya teased, coming up behind her friend and examining their reflections in the mirror.
“I already told you you didn’t. But I’m not sure I would have been brave enough for this if you didn’t go first.”
Freshman year started a few days later, and nobody even thought to tease Beth about her appearance. In fact, it seemed her look was becoming pretty popular—and so was Beth. Occasionally between classes, Anya would notice Beth unconsciously running her hand through her hair, pushing her bangs out of her eyes as she talked to one of the more popular kids in their class. About halfway through the year, one of the girls showed up to school with a slightly longer, but still very similar, haircut.
The reaction to Anya’s hair was less enthusiastic, but that was by design. Sometimes one of the girls in her class who had known her before her haircut would tell her how “brave” she was for getting such a dramatic haircut, and one of the boys she’d known since kindergarten told her she looked better when her hair was long, but usually she would get a tepid but neutral “oh you cut your hair!” or “wow it’s so different!”—a way of acknowledging the cut without actually giving an opinion about it.
Anya went back to Jennifer exactly once to maintain the cut, but ultimately decided that as much as she liked the way it felt, she just didn’t like the way it looked. So she began the tedious and somewhat awkward process of growing her hair out almost immediately. Because her hair was curly, she had to visit Jennifer frequently to reshape the growing locks, lest she should start to look too much like Bozo the Clown…but of course all those cuts meant her hair would grow out even more slowly. At least Jennifer didn’t charge her for the quick clean-ups, telling her she’d paid enough when she sacrificed her hair to her friend. At the end of the school year year, her hair hung just below her chin, at which point it became easier to let it grow a bit more between cuts. By the time she started college, it was the length it is now, and although she’d cut several inches off on more than one occasion in the intervening years, her hair hadn’t been above her shoulders since she was growing out that “Felicity” cut.
Anya was unsurprised when Beth announced she planned to keep her hair short for a while, and relieved when she said that didn’t mean Anya had to. Perhaps Jennifer had been right about the new Beth. In the intervening years, it seemed that Beth had a different style every time she went to see Jennifer. Sometimes she’d grow it out for a while, only visiting the stylist for the tiniest of trims but also showing up to school with a streak of blue or pink near her nape that technically broke school dress codes but was so cleverly placed that it was usually concealed during the day. Sometimes she’d get bored of growing it out and tell Jennifer to cut it short again. On more than one occasion, she would tell Jennifer to “just do her thing” and let the stylist decide how much to cut or whether to add any color. When, five years after college, Beth quit her lucrative job to attend cosmetology school, it seemed like a natural next step.
Anya’s phone rang, interrupting her trip through haircuts past. “Hey girl,” said Beth. “Are you ready for me to cut all your hair off on Tuesday?”
Anya knew Beth was teasing. They had been planning this donation for months now, making sure Anya’s hair was healthy right down to the ends so she wouldn’t have to cut more than the minimum fourteen inches. In fact, Beth had styled most of those photo teases Anya had been posting. “Very funny,” she replied. “But since you put it that way, I did have something I wanted to talk to you about…”
To be continued…
Hi everyone! This is my first post, and I’m planning on telling the story over several chapters to come. I hope you enjoy this initial installment.