Gabrielle Baker is sitting in the front seat of my car with the vanity mirror down. Her posture is perfect, her smile is sparkling, but her hair, oh, but her hair looks fantastic. Every once in a while, she swings her head a little bit to make her hair dance, smiles again and looks about 16.
This morning, I sat in the beauty salon, peering over my delicious People magazine, watching her get her hair cut. She sat in the far corner with a black smock wrapped around her, and her wet hair was combed like an awning over her face. My beloved hairdresser Kathy, with bubblegum pink hair and skin sleeved in tattoos, was asking her questions and 12-year-old G was prattling on, as she often does since she’s never once been shy.
Gabrielle has magnificent hair: the color of spun gold, soft, yet so substantial that when she pulls it into a ponytail it’s as thick as your wrist. Sometimes while she’s brushing her teeth, I stand behind her just to hold the hair in my hand, squeeze it just to feel its beautiful bulk.
For the past year, her goal has been to grow her hair out, which she has successfully done. But long, straight hair is long, straight hair and one morning after 20 minutes of trying to keep it from looking flat, I explained it was time to get it cut. This was met with a firm “absolutely not” so we, with her mom’s consent, decided on getting layers to give it a lift.
Admittedly, I am not well versed in the long hair department. I never really had it growing up, in large part because I never had the hair for it but also because my mom never truly approved. I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing or a French thing, but short hair was always considered more chic than long hair, and I have a very strong suspicion my mom viewed a short haircut as a hard lesson in forming my womanhood.
“Don’t rely on your looks,” it seemed to imply. “Rely on your personality.”
So I scrapped around in boy-short hair for the vast majority of my childhood, admiring girls with long locks but always feeling slightly brave that I didn’t have them. All my mom had to tell me was my short hair made me look “French” and I’d head for another chopping.
But there were a couple of years, when I was about Gabrielle’s age, that I also decided I would grow my hair out. It got to about my shoulders when I decided it, too, needed a boost. After extensively begging my parents, I convinced them what I needed was a spiral perm, the quintessential look in Winnipeg in 1989.
Perhaps because it would make my hair look shorter, my mom consented and took me to a salon that I never went to again but still very clearly remember. It had walls so white they were nearly blue, slick stylists who didn’t smile very often, and Depeche Mode singing, unimpressed, in the background. My mom dropped me off and I settled in, feeling ridiculously grown up.
The hairdresser rolled my hair in pink curlers and tucked long ribbons of cotton batting along the rim of my hairline. Then, as her Pet Shop Boys t-shirt rolled off one shoulder, she squirted some chemicals onto my scalp, whose astringent but exciting scent I will never forget.
She wrapped my hair in plastic, and I was made to sit under a hair drier for, oh, eternity. My scalp got increasingly itchy but I didn’t mind a bit; if this was the price of beauty, I was willing to shell out my share to anyone who was charging. In the meantime, a blizzard had started raging outside, and I wondered if my mom would be able to get back to pick me up.
As the stylist started unraveling my hair, though, I realized I didn’t even care. As the hair started to spring from the curlers, I was an entirely new me. My hair was as electrified as a pop star’s. It made my skin more clear, my nose smaller and my chest bigger. When she worked in the styling paste — whose beeswaxy scent I also remember — I realized I was absolutely gorgeous.
As Gabrielle looks at herself in the vanity mirror and flings her hair behind her shoulders, I realize she, too, is having that day. One in which you feel pretty, powerful, popular. One you’ll never forget. And one in which your childhood is being shed for your adolescence — and, honey, you’re ready for it.