Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
A year ago on October 14, a friend of mine from high school died of metastatic colon cancer. I just donated my hair to women with cancer for the fourth time, so in honor of Erika, I’d like to tell you about my first time donating. Also, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and fittingly, October 7 and October 14 are “Bald and Free” days. – Sarah
When I was fairly young, maybe four or five, I asked for short hair. I loved throwing my long locks back into a ponytail, so perhaps I wanted the ease of an above-the-ear coif. After the cut, however, I cried. I thought I looked like a boy, and even though I was what would be considered a tomboy, I didn’t want to look like a boy. I didn’t cut it again (aside from trims here and there courtesy of my mom) until I was in middle school. Even though I didn’t go very short that time, I saw how fun a haircut could be and started a cycle of growing it out and chopping it off that lasted through college. I kept going shorter and shorter, including a brief pixie phase my sophomore year, so growing it out became more of a challenge. But, somehow, the year I graduated from college I managed to start growing it long. And it got really long.
When it hit my shoulder blades, I started thinking about donating. My sister had already donated her hair to Locks of Love at least once, and I’m guessing a couple of my chopping sessions would have been sufficient for the length requirement, but for some reason 10 inches seemed daunting. But, I was determined. By the time I moved to NYC a year after graduation my hair reached well past my shoulders, and my first winter in New York, it started nearing my waist. Long hair can be a pain, especially if you’re not great at fixing it (which I’m not). I loved my pixie cut for the ease of wetting it, finger-combing it, and going on my way. My go-to styles are down, down, down with a clip, down with a headband, straightened (but down), three versions of a ponytail (high, low, and on the side),* and a bun. Every once in a while I pull out a braid or a twist or something and, if the occasion calls for it, curls. Most of the time I let it air-dry because I usually don’t have time to blow-dry it. But long hair can also be easy, in that you just throw it in a ponytail and away you go.
Sometime in December of 2005, I reached the point where my long hair presented more pain than ease (so much shedding, so hot on my neck, not styling the way I wanted) and I had enough to donate, so I found a place in Chinatown that advertised donation cuts for free. Free was great because I was working for the city at that time not making very much money, and because if I hated my haircut, at least it wouldn’t have cost me anything. The receptionist assured me when I made the appointment that I could get a donation cut on January 2, which I had off in observation of New Year’s Day. I thought a new ‘do in the new year sounded wonderful. I found a fun, choppy style (called the Wispy Flip)** and psyched myself up for the change.
The day after New Year’s Day, I rode the train to Chinatown and found the salon on one of the main drags. I brought a photo of the aforementioned Wispy Flip, rubber bands, and a plastic baggie to collect my ponytail. I had everything I needed. Except, apparently, an appointment. The receptionist (who was different from the one I spoke with over the phone) couldn’t find me in the system anywhere.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I just called not that long ago.” She shook her head. “Can I at least get a walk-in cut?” I said. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while.”
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist said. “The stylist who makes the donation cuts only does them on Tuesdays from 11-4.” It was Monday. And I worked until 4:30 most days, so a donation cut at this place wasn’t an option unless I took time off of work, which wasn’t really an option. Their regular haircut price was triple what I usually paid in Wisconsin, and I knew that if I waited, I would lose my nerve and just end up getting a trim.
Dejected, I wandered around Chinatown, looking for a different salon. My resolve faded with each step. Finally, I passed a place that advertised $20 haircuts. I figured it was worth checking it out–$20 was more than free, but much less than the cost at the other salon–and from the window they didn’t look super busy, so I imagined I’d be able to get in fairly quickly.
When I walked in, I could see why the cuts were so cheap, why it possibly wasn’t so busy. The other salon had orchids sprouting from square vases filled with blue rocks, and they featured state-of-the-art equipment, luxury products, a modern decor. Everything was bright and white and clean. Ocean Salon had none of those things. The dated brown walls and yellowed linoleum looked better suited for someone’s basement than a salon. I didn’t see any blue jars of Barbicide*** anywhere, and it looked like no one swept regularly between cuttings. But I didn’t want to chicken out, so I approached the woman at the register.
“I’m hoping for a haircut,” I said. “I want to donate it.” She didn’t seem to understand what I was saying, and, to be fair, the primary language in Chinatown is Chinese, which I don’t speak, so it wasn’t her fault. She found a stylist who spoke English and brought him over so I could explain what I wanted.
In addition to the 10-inch requirement, Locks of Love has several other rules for donations (hair has to be clean and completely dry, it has to be in a braid or rubber-banded in a ponytail, it can’t have been bleached or be too gray, etc.). I had familiarized myself with the list before I went, but before I could protest, the woman sat me in a chair over a sink and started washing my hair. Since this is how most haircuts start, I didn’t remember the dry requirement until it was too late. Well, I can always dry it, I thought. After the washing came a five-minute neck and shoulder massage, which was good because the tension of trying to donate was getting to me.
Then the woman brought me back to a chair where the stylist was waiting. “It has to be 10 inches,” I said, trying to make sure he knew how important this was. It wouldn’t matter how dry or clean or neatly bundled it was if it wasn’t 10 inches. Without measuring, he grabbed a piece of hair and started to cut.
“AND,” I said, “it can’t be off the floor.” He nodded and brought the woman over to stand next to me. Then he chopped my hair in seven or eight snips–never once measuring–handing each chunk to the woman as he did. She held them until he was done, then she quickly rubber-banded them together and handed me the dripping clump before going back to her post at the desk.
I sat there as the stylist trimmed and clipped, sheared and snipped, all the while clutching my damp ponytail. I was certain it wasn’t going to be long enough, convinced that it would be too wet or improperly bundled and all that growing out was for naught. Not only that, but I imagined (due to the lack of Barbicide and the accumulation of hair on the floor) that I would leave with lice or something.
But it was a follicular miracle! Not only was it exactly 10 inches, but the haircut was pretty darn cute, too. And, no lice. I left the ponytail drying on my radiator for a few days, then sent it off to Locks of Love. A couple of months later, I got a postcard in the mail saying “Sarah went to great lengths to help a kid with cancer.” It was a thank-you note for my donation. Success! Although my recent donations have been less stress-filled and eventful, it feels good every time to know that someone out there has benefited from my laziness when it comes to getting my hair cut.
If you want to know more about hair donation, visit Locks of Love or Pantene Beautiful Lengths. I’ve donated to both, but the last couple of times it’s been to Pantene Beautiful Lengths because they only require 8 inches (not 10) and because there was a recent controversy with LoL.
*That’s also how I do high-fives.
**Or, as one of my roommates at the time called it, The Whippenpoof.
***No, that isn’t what happens when somebody kills Barbie.