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How I Finally Got the Courage to Break Up With My Hairstylist


“Well, here is the fall look you wanted,” said my hair stylist as she swirled the salon chair so I faced the giant mirror above her station. “What do you think?”

What do I think? I think my splotchy red and brown hair color bears a striking similarity to that of Alfred E. Newman of Mad magazine fame. That was the first thing that popped into my head but fortunately not out of my mouth.

“Wow!” I said to her beaming reflection in the mirror. “Fantastic, as always.”

Anyone looking at the top half of my face — bulging eyes and eyebrows raised to the heavens — might have guessed I was auditioning for a remake of Janet Leigh’s famous shower scene in the movie Psycho. But my Naturally Beautiful Stylist (we’ll call her NBS for short) — who had cut and shaped and dyed my hair for a decade — homed in on my toothy smile as she stepped back to admire her work, adding a touch of hairspray as she remarked my new hair color was perfect for the season.

“Love it,” I said.

Yes, I lied. I lied as I sat in the chair. I lied when I gave her a generous tip. I lied as I paid the bill at the front desk.

Once I made my way to the parking lot and my red Mini Cooper, I couldn’t lie anymore. One glance in the Union Jack-adorned rearview mirror confirmed my hair looked hideous — no lie. It was not even close to the edgy dark hair under blonde hair I had requested.

No, I didn’t cry. That’s not my style either (ha!). I just knew I had to break up with my stylist. I knew the price I might pay in doing so.

Through the years I have come to realize there are two types of people in the world: those with naturally gorgeous hair and those with naturally ghastly hair. Those with the gorgeous hair spent the past decades with tresses that mirrored the ironing board-straight with tiny end flip styles of Olivia Newton John and Diana Ross, the blonde and bouncy style of Farrah Fawcett, the pin-straight look of Ali McGraw and the soft spiral of Donna Summers. You’ve seen them move through the current decades as Halle Berry/Eva Longoria/Sofia Vergara/Gwyneth Paltrow hair look-a-likes.

Those that have ghastly hair, like me, spent the decades resembling a whole different group of celebrities. Mine included Dennis the Menace complete with cowlick thanks to what I hoped would be an edgy cropped cut. And then I spent years with the lank, greasy look —complete with ear poking through — of Kathy Bates’ character in the movie Misery. And none of that rivals that time in my 20s when I happily paid half a week’s salary at a top salon for a perm I thought would add body to the filament I call hair. After an hour at work — 30 minutes of which were spent in the staff ladies room, I returned to my desk with red-rimmed eyes following a futile battle to tame what a taunting co-worker had jokingly deemed “the tumbleweed that landed on your head.”

At least my watery eyes ensured no one else commented on my hair that day.

Through the years I learned that you can’t trust a name salon or even the recommendations of your friends. You have to find a stylist both strangers and friends recommend, ensure the stylist has the personal panache you seek and get ready to pay.

That’s how I chose NBS. The first time I saw the lean, long legged NBS stride across the salon I gawked. I couldn’t assume her thin body or perfect bone structure but heaven help me I wanted her hair.

Through the years we became chums — not really friends, but beyond acquaintances. She told me about her husband’s sudden death and raising her son. I told her about my hobbies, my husband and my work.

And all the while, she styled my hair with the same care she used on her own.

Until about three years ago. That’s when I noticed that no matter what photos I brought in, no matter how much I talked about the look I wanted, my hair became an increasingly bad version of ‘80s volume and color.

“It doesn’t matter how much you like her,” said my best friend Lisa when I called her from the car. “You deserve the hair you want.”

She’s right. So why do I feel guilty that the new stylist I selected — based on Yelp and personal reviews — talked to me for just five minutes and colored and styled my hair just as I wanted? Why do I feel like a traitor when I agree with the new stylist that NBS gave me a ridiculous amount of bangs? What am I going to say if I see NBS at the farmers market, at the store, at the gasoline station?

I predict I’ll greet her warmly and ask about her new husband and her son and her family and tell her I miss her. I do. But I won’t lie about my hair or return to her shop.

Sometimes relationships — business and personal — need to end. This was one of those times.

And now I finally have what I wanted.

This essay was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.

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