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I’ve been reflecting on hair and hairdressing services over the weeks of lockdown and subsequent easing in the UK. As lockdown was introduced towards the end of March there was a rush of bookings at hair-salons by people (mostly women) keen to get their hair into a shape they could manage over what might be a long haul. ‘Fair enough,’ I thought. But one of the things I found when doing my research into older women’s construction of identities in their talk and practices in a hair-salon,[1] was the way colleagues would describe it as ‘trivial’, wonder why I was not doing something more serious and ‘worthwhile’, and would laugh about the focus on a hair salon as a site (and older women as subjects). So it came as no surprise to me that this rush of hair-salon bookings before the lockdown prompted a spate of judgmental tweets and posts on newspaper comments pages, with such women being called “pathetic” or “vain”, and one man talking about how his wife (aged 74) was wasting money wanting to have her hair done.

We’re probably all conscious of the way society castigates as vain women’s interest in caring for their hair and other aspects of their appearance… whilst at the same time pointing the disapproving finger at women whose appearance – in society’s judgement – fails to meet certain unwritten standards. But what is it about hair and other aspects of appearance that is so ‘trivial’? Why does caring about having hair styled, coloured or whatever spark such scorn that people feel moved actually to express their feelings in writing? After all, hair and how it’s done gives off powerful messages. If we just consider length: long hair on a young woman may signal desirable and sexy femininity; but on older women it’s a different matter. ‘Sexy old woman’, after all, would be seen as oxymoronic in most societies; and long hair on an older women denotes something unnatural, scary, witch-like. Or think about colour. While grey hair on a man still, even in 2020, tends to signal distinction, grey on a woman says she’s reached (or is long past) her ‘best by’ date. No wonder some women say they’ll dye till they die – and no wonder that there’s little discussion (at least where I did my research) into the whys of dyeing grey hair. Now there’s an omission that says a lot about societal norms!  And then quite apart from colour and quantity, just having hair tidy versus a mass of messy locks can speak volumes. Richard Ward and Caroline Holland[2] quote Alan Bennett’s[3] reaction to his Mother’s unkempt hair when he visited her following her admission to a mental hospital: ‘She was mad’, he writes, ‘because she looked mad’. So how we look – including how we manage our hair – is important. It ‘says’ things about us – like, for example, as I found, that women who have a shampoo and set ‘are stuck in their ways’.  And that in turn shapes how we’re treated (like those shampoo-and-set clients rarely having even a minimalistic consultation discussion).

So that’s one thing the hair salon does: it helps us – particularly those of us who are older women – achieve a look that says something about who we are. It helps us manage our ‘on-sight’ identities, to look authoritative at work (if that’s what we want), glamorous when going out (ditto), and comfortable in our bodies. It helps us negotiate the difficult path between the well-known Scylla and Charybdis of ‘looking like mutton dressed like lamb on the one hand’ and ‘letting ourselves go’ on the other. And perhaps it’s the latter that we really want avoid. ‘Letting ourselves go’ might leave us, after all, just a gnat’s leg-span away (as Humphrey Lyttelton might have said) from looking like we’re in the grip of ‘real old age’, that is, the cognitive decline that so many of us fear (and whose onset we monitor in others and perhaps also ourselves).

Then there’s also another side to hair-salons, and it’s a side that doesn’t seem to me to get so much discussion on the public stage. It’s this: what about the people (again, I’m really talking women here) for whom the salon visit was their main outing of the week, a time when they could tell stories, gossip, tell their troubles, have a laugh and ‘construct’ themselves as busy, interested in the world, etc. In short, have some social interaction. During lockdown, what social interactions were people having for whom that salon visit was the only outing of the week? I remember vividly one December day in the hair-salon where I did my research. A heavy snowfall overnight had caused a spate of client cancellations.  Then the door was pushed open and in came one of my participants, a 90-year-old woman moving slowly and painfully on two sticks. Greeting everyone cheerily she said to me, “You’ll be able to write about these mad old women who come out in the snow.” This woman enjoyed going to the hairdressers ‘now’ because, as she said, “it’s the only time you can have a good laugh”. And she wasn’t the only salon client who regarded their weekly, fortnightly or monthly appointment as the outing of the day or the week; or as an even rarer venture out of doors, as for one client, who announced one cold winter morning as she came in wearing wellies, and all red-cheeked, “it’s the first time I’ve been out in two weeks!”

Hair salons, particularly those orientated to an older clientele, can offer a sense of belonging that may be expressed in the familiarity clients and staff show in each other’s lives. There can be a sense of relaxed community. “It’s lovely coming here,” one client commented to me; and “I don’t have to be anything other than me” remarked another. This isn’t just a feature of the salon in SE England where I did my research. Frida Furman made similar observations about ‘Julie’s International Salon’ in mid-west USA;[4]  and on the other side of the Atlantic, ‘Sue’s Salon’ in South Wales was likewise described as cosy place with a friendly social atmosphere.[5] Perhaps it’s a feature of many of the small independent hair salons across the UK, particular those catering for an older clientele.

So back to the lockdown and the comments about the triviality of the hair-salon visit. Furman (1997: 4), having encountered reactions ranging from amusement to light mockery about her research in ‘Julie’s International Salon’, quotes Evans and Thornton: ‘the practices which a culture insists are meaningless or trivial, the places where ideology has succeeded in becoming invisible, are practices in need of investigation’ (1991: 48).  And can it really be so trivial (or ‘pathetic’ or ‘vain’) to want to be treated in a particular way (and so manage your appearance accordingly)? Or to enjoy a regular tête-à-tête with someone who’s close to being a friend? The fact that people characterise hair-care and appearance practices in this way highlights that there’s still a need for investigation of these practices and of the places where these practices take place.

[1] Now a monograph published by Routledge: R.Heinrichsmeier (2020), Ageing Identities and Women’s Everyday Talk in a Hair Salon: https://www.routledge.com/Ageing-Identities-and-Womens-Everyday-Talk-in-a-Hair-Salon/Heinrichsmeier/p/book/9780367245511

[2] Ward R and Holland C. (2011) ‘If I look old, I will be treated old’: hair and later-life image dilemmas. Ageing & Society 31: 288-307.

[3] Bennett A. (2005) Untold Stories. Daily Telegraph.

[4] Furman FK. (1997) Facing the Mirror: Older Women and Beauty Shop Culture, New York: Routledge.

[5] Symonds A and Holland C. (2008) The same hairdo: the production of the stereotyped image of the older woman. In: Ward R and Bytheway B (eds) Researching Age and Multiple Discrimination. London: Centre for Policy on Ageing, 26-44.