When I was a little girl, Dad often took me to the barber shop. I sat in a nearby chair and watched with my limited vision, as the barber draped a sheet over Dad and clipped his hair with an electric razor that buzzed and often made snapping noises. It had to hurt, but Dad didn’t complain. I was grateful I didn’t have to endure this since I wasn’t a man.
At the age of four, my luck changed. Mother decided it was time for me to go to the beauty shop. “We’re going to give you a pixie,” said the nice lady, as she sat me in the chair and draped a sheet over me, tying it behind my head. I inhaled the acrid scent of hair enhancing chemicals, and a knot of dread formed in my stomach, as she turned the chair to face the mirror. When she sprayed my hair with water, the quacking sound the bottle made and the cold water that assailed my scalp was my undoing. My stomach heaved, and in minutes, I was covered with vomit. I sat mortified, as Mother cleaned me up, and the beautician put a clean drape over me. The rest of the experience was uneventful.
When I was in the first grade at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind in Tucson, I was the only girl in a class of boys. One of them, whom I’ll call Isaac, sat behind me and delighted in pulling my hair. “Quit it,” I said, batting his hand away, but to no avail. My teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, either didn’t know or didn’t care.
“He’s doing it because he likes you,” said Dad.
“Just ignore him, and he’ll stop,” said Mother. But I couldn’t ignore the pain that ripped my scalp, as the little monster’s fingers grasped wisps of my hair and tugged.
One day, Mrs. Moore, one of the nurses at the infirmary, came to our classroom. “Abbie, you need to go with Mrs. Moore to the infirmary,” said Mrs. Hamilton. “Your hair is falling out.”
It was then that I noticed the tendrils of hair that were cascading from my head and landing on my shirt. Fascinated, I rose and took the nurse’s hand, as we walked out of the classroom.
“Mrs. Johnson, you’re not washing your daughter’s hair. It’s falling out,” Mrs. Moore told Mother on the phone. “You’ll have to come and take her to a doctor.”
Aggrieved, Mother collected me and took me to a dermatologist the nurse recommended. Again, my stomach tightened, as my nostrils were assailed by the odor of alcohol and disinfectant, but I managed to keep my lunch down. After the doctor examined my head, he asked, “By any chance, is someone pulling your hair?”
“Yes,” I said, hopeful that someone would finally do something about it. “Isaac pulls my hair all the time. He sits right behind me in school.”
“That’s why her hair is falling out,” the doctor told Mother.
Later, Mother and I marched into the classroom. “I wasted a lot of time and money on a dermatologist to find out that the reason Abbie’s hair is falling out is because Isaac is pulling it,” said Mother. She pointed an accusing finger at the boy, who sat unmoving in his seat directly behind my desk.
“Isaac, don’t pull Abbie’s hair,” said Mrs. Hamilton, and that was that.
After the fiasco at the beauty shop, Mother cut my hair at home, but she was never satisfied with her work. I didn’t care. I was relieved when she was done, although after the incident with Isaac, I preferred Mother’s scissors to his sharp tugs.
As I grew older, Mother let my hair grow longer and braided it into two pigtails at the back of my neck. In the summer heat of Arizona, I imagined myself cutting off the pigtails, but I knew better since an attempt at cutting my own hair brought similar results to that of Isaac’s hand barbering and a sharp rebuke from Mother. Occasionally, boys tugged at the braids, but not nearly as hard as Isaac did.
When I was about twelve or thirteen, Mother and I finally worked up the courage to make another trip to the beauty shop. We’d moved to Sheridan, Wyoming, by this time, and we went to a place Grandma recommended. I remembered the scent of the chemicals from the previous experience, but this time, I knew what to expect. I just hoped I wouldn’t lose my lunch. To my embarrassment, Mother said to Barbara, the beautician, “My daughter’s visually handicapped so you’ll have to tell her what you’re going to do before you do it.”
But Barbara was nice. She sat me in the chair, covered me with a drape, and turned the chair to face the mirror. “I’m going to spray your hair with water now.”
This time, the sound of the spray bottle and cool water against my head didn’t bother me. While cutting my hair, she was gentle and careful. When she accidentally brushed a mole on the left side of my scalp, she said, “Ooh, does that hurt?”
“No,” I answered truthfully.
The haircut was a pleasant experience, and I realized that going to a beauty shop wasn’t so bad after all. From that point on, I never let my hair grow long enough for pigtails. Mother was relieved not to have to braid it every morning.
Pigtails, permanents, and other hairstyles are great for people who can see well enough to make them look good. I prefer short, straight hair that I can manage easily. As I’ve heard said in shampoo commercials, “I want to wash my hair and go.”