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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

Troubled Tresses Can Color Your Whole Outlook on Life

September 08, 1997|SANDY BANKS

You know you're headed for a bad hair day when the best a friend can muster upon seeing your new 'do is "Uh . . . have you done something to your hair?" in a voice that makes clear he can only assume you haven't looked in a mirror lately.

What does he think, that I don't realize there are two glaring orange patches in the middle of my perfectly coiffed black hair?

Yes, I highlighted my hair, aiming for the look of sun-kissed streaks that would hide my gray, brighten my complexion and take years off my tired face.

At least that's what my hairdresser promised when I sought her advice on how to jazz up my image in time for the portrait that would adorn this column.

And that's what I envisioned during those hours in the salon, as I sat thumbing through fashion magazines with little pieces of tinfoil plastered to my head, bleaching strands of hair to what was supposed to be a warm chestnut brown.

I knew something wasn't quite right when my hairdresser spent more time than usual adjusting the hairs on the top of my head before spinning me around to face the mirror. But it wasn't until I got home, ran my fingers through my hair and confronted my three daughters with breathless anticipation--"So, how do you like my new color?"--that I knew something had gone very wrong.

They stared at me as if antennae had sprouted from the top of my head. Finally, my 6-year-old piped up: "Maybe you shouldn't have used the whole bottle."

I looked in the mirror and realized the truth. It did look as if antennae were growing out of the top of my head.


It's a phenomenon that transcends gender and age, status and race, this preoccupation with our hair. It's the first thing people notice--the blond, the bald guy, the woman with the braids--and how it looks shapes how we feel about ourselves and who we think we are.

Maybe that's because it's the only thing about our body that most of us can control and change. You may not be able to rein in those spreading hips or camouflage that crooked nose, but pay a visit to the beauty shop and . . . voila! Straight hair can become curly, black hair blond, even short hair long.

We've elevated hair style to high art, making bad hair epic tragedy.

Still, hair styling at its best is both art and science. Things sometimes go wrong, but over time, a good stylist can remedy even the most garish mistakes.

So, you think, no problem. I simply march back to the salon, whip off my hat and demand that the color be fixed.

Wrong, wrong, wrong . . . and if you've ever written a check--teeth clenched in a smile--for a bad haircut, a perm gone haywire or tiger-striped hair, you know what I mean.

Instead, I spent hours in front of the mirror at home, combing my hair this way and that, trying to find a style that would hide the streaks. I sought out sympathetic friends, who assured me that, in time, the color would fade . . . and until then, well, the hat looks fine.

I searched beauty supply stores for potions that might return my hair to something resembling normal, until I grew tired of explaining to tattooed young clerks sporting burgundy hair that what I was after was a tad more subtle.

I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. But return to the salon and tell the stylist, "Hey, these bright orange blobs, can you get rid of them because they're just not me?" . . . I'd rather live with the ridicule.


I know I'm not alone. Even among the most bold and audacious--those who send back meals because the portions are too small or return dresses they've already worn--are folks who'll endure a series of bad hair days rather than challenge the hairdresser who mangled their locks.

Maybe it's shock and denial--"It doesn't really look that bad, so I'll just learn to live with it." Maybe deference to the stylist's power to define who we are with the snip of her shears. Maybe just reluctance to hurt the feelings of a professional whose own image may be tied to the quality of the hairstyles he creates.

Or maybe we feel foolish, like one of those love-starved women swindled out of her life's savings by a sweet-talking gigolo. "How could I have been so stupid to trust what that hairdresser said? And how can I ever go back there again?"

Could be there's some dark psychological explanation at work, having to do with low self-esteem or fear of rejection or overprotective parents.

For me, those bright orange patches became a kind of Scarlet Letter--like a giant A plastered to my head to mock my vanity and punish me for having the audacity to think I could find a more glamorous self inside a bottle of hair dye.

And for the week they lasted, they flashed like neon signs of cowardice, proof that I'd sooner spend a hundred dollars for hair I'd have to hide under a hat than speak up to get the look I was after.

Ultimately, it was the prospect of appearing before you in print with that neon-bright hair that sent me back to the beauty shop, armed with advice from my 21-year-old baby sitter, who's worn her hair in so many colors she can't remember her natural shade.

You simply call up the salon, say your color didn't come out quite right and you'd like them to do it over, she said. You don't get belligerent; you don't apologize or grovel. And you leave your checkbook at home.

It happens often enough that salons have a name for it--a "redo," no charge. And no good stylist would dare take it personally, she said.

And so mine didn't, though I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or worse. She smiled when she saw me, then sat me down in front of a mirror and began combing through my hair.

"You know," she said, her eyes meeting mine, "we have to do something about this color."

* Sandy Banks' column will appear on Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is

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