I’m apologizing before we’ve even started: I’m nervous. I’m tense. I’m sweating like crazy thanks to another California heat wave that just had to strike this day. Or maybe it’s all because I’m trusting my hair, my looks, my self with someone new…a new hairstylist. This might seem common place for most people, but this is my first real haircut in over 4 years.
At this point, I’m a walking triple-threat of haircare no-no’s: dried out and sun-bleached from my Hawaii spring break (three months ago, still showing strong), plus the green tint from the chlorine of my pool, on top of the stress of my daily exercise routine, which ensures I have to shampoo every single day.
Thankfully Cori, my stylist (pictured left, back when she had brunette hair), understands. Which is why she chose to make a career out of hair, and why I chose her as my stylist. She understands that though many of us don’t see it that way (or at least admit to it), putting your hair and your appearance into the hands of someone else is a major exercise in trust.
“I get it. I have neighbors I don’t even say ‘good morning’ too! I feel like, especially in Los Angeles, we don’t have that kind of connection. We’re in our cars, on our phones, this or that. When [clients] sit down in my chair, I can relate to a lot of people, even when we come from two different worlds. I think that’s what they call the language of the heart: when you can sit with someone and it’s just a common bond of being human.”
Which is absolutely true. Back in 2014, TIME magazine reported that Angelenos spend an average of 90 hours stuck in traffic (that number doesn’t include the time spent driving but not stuck in traffic). While we grow as a city, we’re still experiencing growing pains that often mean we’re pulled apart despite our efforts to band together. Thankfully, the Los Angeles subway system is growing by leaps and bounds, placing residents side by side on a more accessible basis. This comes, ironically, not long after LAX businesses installed computers at customers’ seats, diminishing the chance of happenstance conversation between strangers or even with the bartender.
Today, though, it’s me, Cori, a chair, and a pair of scissors. In other words, it’s all about good old fashioned, face-to-face trust again.
“For me, [styling hair] is selfless. It gets me out of myself…When I’m doing hair, it’s eye contact, it’s feeling, it’s touching, it’s getting to know what [the client] likes, doesn’t like, what they do with their day….
I believe that people are a work of art in themselves.”
“I get a lot of tense people. A lot of people don’t even want to look at themselves in the mirror,” Cori says.
Cori is warm, welcoming, and I already feel pampered as I’m sitting in her chair at Chignon Salon in Old Town, Pasadena. I’m unafraid to look at myself in the mirror not out of hubris, but out of shock at the state of my hair. Yet I can’t look away. It’s grown halfway down my back, a tangly and a tinged mess, the result of virgin hair grown back after chemo that was played with and processed a bit too much without being cut for healthy ends as hair needs. That’s right, I’m a cancer survivor.
In fact I did my treatment, and subsequently lost my hair, right here in Los Angeles at Cedar Sinai. At first, being bald was liberating, fun even. I connected deeply with many cancer survivors in LA during treatment, and continue to do so now with organizations like the Foundation for Living Beauty. But when chemo ended and I just wanted to grow up (I was only 17) and not be known for being sick anymore…I wanted my hair back.
When it did grow back, I trusted my hair with stylists who made me uncomfortable with their insistence that I cut more off than I was prepared for, to keep it healthy. So I gave up on stylists all together. The positive side is that, like many women who take their hair and looks into their own hands, I found a strong and permeating sense of pride and self-acceptance in owning my looks. The negative side is that I didn’t see just how unhealthy my hair had gotten, until today.
It’s humbling to open myself up to another person who is helping me look better, and thus feel better, and dare I say be better about welcoming in the opinions of others again.
While many women in the years since chemo (not all of which even know I once was bald), have lamented about how ‘unruly’ their hair is, or complain about how they can’t seem to make it look the way they want, I have only one response, which I repeat constantly on my website to women, especially cancer survivors:
Any day with hair is a good hair day.
The Business of Hair:
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of hair stylists in the US, now over 600,000, is set to increase by next year to 700,000. A surprising 26,000 of those stylist are here in LA, some charging well over $100 for a cut. In Pasadena, an affluent suburb, prices still remain tame. Cori trained right here at Chignon under the master stylists, and now charges a mere $56 for a women’s cut (men’s start at $36).
Lately, thanks to a huge spark in social media, many women are joining the movement to embrace natural hair textures and colors. Though some are also leaning toward the opposite, taking huge leaps into what Cori calls ‘creative color’: the pastel streaks, the dizzying purple hues melting into one another, the blondes going rose pink. In both ventures, however, women and men are taking their looks into their own hands and away from societal norms and standards, affectively accepting their own opinion of how they want to look as worthy.
We might not all admit it, but our hair stylists has a lot more to deal with than our cowlicks. A professional knows we’re also bringing a lifetime of woes and insecurities, and her/his job is to turn those bad habits and self sabotage into self esteem.
Art in LA and the Artist in Cori:
“When I moved out to Pasadena, I started me whole life over. I got extensions, and I would wear these extensions every day, and I’d take hours getting ready, I’d put so much makeup on. I spent so much time on my outward appearance that it felt false, and it didn’t give me what I thought it would give me. [Then] I did something with my hair that I’d always wanted: I cut it, dyed it dark, and got betty bangs…
And I felt free! I didn’t have to wear extensions! It was like I felt free again. And then I started to get really into vintage clothing… as soon as I cut my hair [my life] just evolved.”
Cori has been working since she was 15, growing up here in California, which makes Pasadena such a great location for her. Los Angeles as a whole has done a tremendous job in recent years of creating an inclusive, inviting and thriving creative community, and is quickly becoming the hub of invention and innovation.
On a larger scale, that means fashion designers are debuting in LA over New York for their fashion week collections. Citizens are enjoying free access to remarkable art at the Broad every day. On a smaller scale, artists can exhibit their works in known, reputable places. New co-working spaces are popping up all over the city to help entrepreneurs (such as WeWork down the street in Pasadena). Loft spaces are filling quickly in Downtown. Los Angeles in reviving and even glamorizing our local arts scene once again, bringing even stringent New Yorkers like me back for a place to work, to think, to breathe, and to collaborate more easily.
In our interview pre-appointment, Cori opened up about her own struggles with self acceptance and loving who she is:
“When I was growing up, I remember thinking I was so ugly, and not good enough. I grew up with a complex like a lot of young girls that don’t think they’re good enough. Now I look back at pictures of myself and see a young girl who’s full of life but at the time I didn’t see it…I kind of had that presence of ‘stay away from me’ because I didn’t like myself…I started to see that I was telling myself stories that weren’t true. I was living in a narrative that was killing me. And I also had people surrounding me that loved me, that helped me love myself…It just compounds, and builds, and it’s slow – it’s so slow.
“I feel like when you have the right amount of confidence, it’s easier for you to want others to feel good too.”
New Hair, New Outlook:
After my hair is blown dried to tousled, Victoria Secret-worthy perfection, I finish with Cori and I’m on my way. For her, it’s another day in the office. The only difference is her office is a mirror and a chair, her work is the confidence and self esteem of others.
As I walk outside into the Los Angeles afternoon, I feel the breeze anew. The sun beats down on my newly chocolate hued hair, and it’s then I realize what’s actually just happened: I didn’t get my hair cut off, I got my hair back through giving it up. Maybe I’ve been to protective with my hair; maybe I’ve been to protective of who I thought I was, or who I wanted to become after being sick…
It’s when we’re too rigid, too stiff, when we hold on too tightly to anything in life that we break. Because nothing in life is meant to last. It is meant to grow, to blossom, and to fade into a new season. As is always the balance, in both loss and gain we may find artistic renewal, if we’re open to it.