The Unbearable Existentiality of Haircuts

At age seven, a young Jean-Paul Sartre went out with his grandfather to get a haircut. When his mother saw him for the first time afterward, she supposedly threw herself on her bed and sobbed. This moment, according to biographers, marks Sartre’s coming-to-terms with “the fact of my ugliness,” a recurring theme throughout his texts and a quality some suggest as indispensable to his philosophical queries.

I am a woman who doesn’t like to fuss. I pay bills on time, I wash my roommates’ dishes without leaving a note to say I did, and I can kill monster centipedes who surprise me in the shower when I’m naked and defenseless (more or less) without a flinch. I make a wicked mushroom lasagna; I make songs out of people’s last names, but I do not make a fuss.

Except for whenever I’m sitting in front of a giant vanity mirror with a Velcro cape snug around my neck, watching near-helplessly as a person I’m about to give a week of grocery money to snip at my hair and, along with it, my self-control. It happens almost every time, except for a few touched-by-an-angel moments, and I’ve given up trying to stifle the urge to punch and kick the vanity into the wall. Maybe it’s the setting that triggers my discomfort? A traumatic hair injury from infancy, still unresolved? Whatever it is, I’ll always exit a salon with a lump of remorse which, over the course of my returning home, will metastasize into flaming, stage-five, untempered, hide-the-knives RAGE. I want to scratch at the eyes of everyone I see – loved ones, even – especially the ones who say, “Oh, it’s not that bad”, or “It’s just hair.”

IT’S JUST HAIR. If I cut off the tip of your nose, you’d be pissed if someone said, “It’s just your face”! Noses grow back; hair grows back. But in the minutes and hours after a haircut, I become irrational. I cannot be reckoned with. The rage must run its course. Until either 1) my senses dull themselves to acceptance or 2) the hair grows out a sixteenth or so of an inch. By then, I’m able to move on and genuinely express remorse to those poor friends who happened to be home after my appointment.

Since most haircuts are so devastating – and my reactions to them so horrifyingly violent – I will put off the next one for an otherwise unreasonable length of time. Just enough time so that I will have forgotten most of my murderous feelings and will even look forward to getting a cut.

My most recent episode happened just this way. I had moved to a new neighborhood and was in serious need, it being over 6 months since anything had been pulled, shorn or taken off my head. I walked in the day of my appointment, shook hands with the stylist, and sat down at her DIY-themed and well-appliqued station.

And everything is going great. She is talkative and interesting; she perfectly balances out the lather/head massage part of the wash; and we go over – pretty thoroughly – what I want done. Yes, I’m trying to grow it out, something easy that I can hop out of the shower and tousle around. Maybe some styling cream. That’s all I use. Yes, just clean up the ends. No, leave the bangs. Yup.


The first sign that this conversation meant nothing to her happens when she starts cutting the hair that falls in front of my face at a downward slope. She’s doing face-framing layers. Did she mishear me? Just clean up the ends means no new layers, to you too, right? But it’s done so quickly, there’s no time to correct her. And I’m in the middle of debating how I should tell her to please not do those layers when she steps over my knees and does them. Just wipes out the other side in two long and one short snip. I have to consciously loosen my locked neck muscles. I stop thinking of things to ask her about her cat. I know where this is headed.

Later, I will go over this innocent conversation in my head looking for clues, as if I’d just gotten dumped by someone after we’d been on what I thought was a fun weekend trip together. How could it be possible not to realize we were experiencing two completely different things?

All hope for weekend trips with sexy new men dies around this time, and I can hear its last desperate gasps for breath – just a trim! – as she circles the scissors in undulating, rapid-fire snips near the crown of my head. I recognize this move, and my lips shrivel immediately. This is the haircut given to little girls and near-menopausal mothers. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the very first haircut a stylist learns. It’s probably described  in textbooks as “sassy,” “urban-inspired,” and a look that’s “textured.” It’s the haircut I was given at my town’s Cost Cutters in grades 7-9, before I upgraded to a nicer salon in the hopes that those stylists would know better. They didn’t. Though I might have – might still – expect that in the rural Midwest. But in Brooklyn? There is no excuse for this cut happening on anyone’s head. There’s no irony to it, no vintage ’90s feel. This was an unexpected blow, and I can see my face reddening in the mirror. There’s a numb feeling.

It’s all over between the stylist and I, and she knows it. She steps back to let me judge for myself. I look for a second or two and I make sure to avoid her eyes in the mirror’s reflection. Fifty strands – and I’m rounding up – dangle in admirable tandem at my cheeks. If someone were to draw my silhouette head-on from the neck up, it would be a lightening bolt curved into a downward frown. The ends are curling outward, searching; they know it’s not right. In a sudden show of intuition, the stylist senses my disappointment and exclaims, “Oh I’m not done!”

I can’t move, and I think I black out while she blow dries my hair, doing that curling-under “trick” with a round brush. My only thoughts are that she must be of an under-wordly spirit, or the girl-whose-boyfriend-I kissed-in-2nd grade’s guardian angel, because she is ruining everything in my life right this second.

Does anyone actually do this spider-arm thing on their own head? Not since 8th grade have I even attempted it, mostly because it’s impossible, but also because it gives shorter hair the affect of a surfer boy who knows way too much about styling products and loves Farrah Fawcett. This is an open plea to any hair stylists reading – as much as it may seem to the contrary, I respect what you do and I’m thankful for it. But WHY do you insist on ending like this? I know you’re using just as many hands as I have and your arms are coming out of the same spot as mine. But it’s not the same. I can’t do that. I don’t even want to do that!

I finally leave the salon after leaving a tip that says, “I don’t hate you, but HOW COULD YOU?” and get home to let my grown woman tantrum ensue. And then, a turning point: I start to wonder if I’ve been given this haircut not only once or twice, but dozens of times by trained professionals all around the country, not because they are so amazingly inept, but because they know something about me that I don’t. That they can sense something – in my dress, speech, behavior, who knows  – that says I’d wear that “sassy, urban-inspired, textured” look from the 90s reject bin, and wear it proudly, too. Without a fuss or care for any the universal hair laws against the bowl-cut layer and tapered front that makes the side of my scalp and profile look like I drunkenly pasted sideburns behind my ears instead of in front.

After I’ve sat on this a while, throwing back some chocolate peanuts and wine, I head back out into the world and buy a new pack of bobby pins at the drugstore down the block. I’ll cut anyone who thinks I’m in that aisle for butterfly clips. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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