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The Hairdresser Breakup

After the crying, there's only one thing to do. But how?

By Traci Hukill

A few years ago a friend offered to cut my bangs. I agreed. I was broke, and she was reportedly licensed by the state of California to perform such services. So one afternoon I submitted to her scissors. When I stood up and shook myself off, I was perilously close to having a mullet. In the back my hair fell to the waist; in front it poofed up, two to three inches long, in some kind of hair version of shock, not unlike what the rest of me was experiencing. It was one of the last days of an already dicey friendship.

A bad haircut is bad. Real bad. The chaos it visits upon a woman's self-esteem could be measured on the Richter scale. When a haircut disaster happens and the tears have dried, a woman has three options: (1) live with it and hope the stylist gets it right the next time; (2) go back and ask the stylist to fix it immediately; (3) end the relationship.

Most stylists, I'm guessing, would prefer Option No. 2 (several hairstylists contacted for this article did not wish to be interviewed, so I'm speculating). Any professional worth his or her salt would naturally want to retain a client--and we are assuming that defensive attitudes like the one that led a Pittsburgh stylist to shoot a dissatisfied client are not the norm. The polite and respectful complaint is definitely the courageous option, the one with integrity, the choice that leaves the greatest possibility for satisfaction all the way around.

But what if this is not the first bad haircut? Or what if it's the first bad haircut in a string of mediocre haircuts? Or what if the stylist is a bore or has halitosis? What if the first haircut was great--like true love it was, remember?--but it's now been a couple of years and the magic's gone? What if you just need a change? What then?

At this point, some people lay the groundwork for what they are about to do next. I know a woman who tells hairstylists whom she's thinking of leaving that a family member has started doing hair. Some people claim they're broke. (Sometimes they are.) I've heard people use the excuse that their old hairdresser moved back to town. These gambits ensure they can come crawling back if things don't go so well out there.

But most of us just cheat. You ask around, you make a few phone calls and one day you slink into another stylist's chair, just to see. Oh, everyone knows your game. You show up with three months' worth of roots and long bangs, no explanations, reading InStyle on the couch and eavesdropping on the stylists' banter with the regulars. These are people who know each other, people who are happy with their hair and happy doing that hair. You want what they have, and you will serially date every stylist in town until you find it for yourself.

That's what you do.

And you pray you don't run into your old stylist. Because he or she would definitely notice that your highlights are more honey blonde than ash blonde now, and he or she would certainly be pierced to the heart to know you're getting your hair cut someplace else, right?

Not necessarily. Years ago I asked a hairstylist (safely, because I was moving away in a couple of months and he knew it) how he felt when clients stopped coming in or, God forbid, started going to someone in the same salon. He shrugged. "It's fine with me," he said. "It happens. Sometimes they come back. That's fine too!"

Which got me thinking. Maybe they get bored with us. Maybe our just-take-a-half-inch-off-the-bottom routine gets a little tedious for someone who spent two years learning how to whip up Hollywood-style glamour. Maybe our stories about our boyfriends are less than fascinating 2 1/2 years on. Maybe, because they're professionals, they understand that sometimes clients leave and it's just business.

Beauty magazines and any number of blogs would have us believe we owe our hairstylists a little note or a phone call when we leave. That may be true for longtime client-stylist relationships, or if you're one of the last 35 people in the nation with notecards and stamps and time on your hands. Most of us, though, should just move on when the magic fades and quit feeling bad about it. Everything changes. There's no sense fighting it.

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