Until a few weeks ago, the last time I subjected my hair to a major cut was 1989. At 35, I had been spending my summer at the bedside of my mother, who was dying of an inoperable brain tumor.
The cut turned out to be a good idea for reasons beyond aesthetics. This proved to be the summer when my losses included not only my mother but also my marriage. It seemed appropriate to shed my hair at such a moment.
Eventually my boy’s cut grew out, and in the 23 years since, I’ve kept my hair long, with no plan of additional revision. I even looked with a certain pity at the shaved necks and utilitarian bowl cuts I observed among a growing number of my female contemporaries, viewing the moment of lopping off one’s hair, for a woman, as a kind of death, or at least, further acknowledgement (if any more was needed) that youth and sexuality were over and cronehood was looming.
Not for me. My knees may ache and my brow might appear lined (at least when the Botox wears off), but so long as my hair hung past my shoulders, as it had when I was young, I could believe that some aspect of the girl I was at 18 still resided in my 58-year-old body.
This was my position until I found myself having coffee with a young friend of my daughter’s I’d known since her teenage days; she is now a fashion consultant. “All that hair’s weighing you down,” Karen said, her own hair barely grazing her earlobes. “You’d look great with a short cut.”
No more short hair for me, I said. But I could feel myself wavering. From the moment I walked out of that cafe, I started studying the heads of short-haired women. I followed one a whole block out of my way, just to get a closer look at the back of her neck.
Photograph by Eric Ray Davidson. Makeup by Lisa Aharon for Chanel at Kate Ryan.
The big reveal Garren shows Maynard her new haircut - eight inches shorter.
Whereas in 1989 the lopping off of my braids had marked a monumental loss, the place I found myself in now was a happy one. At a period of less confidence, I might have felt the need for wavy tresses, but at this moment my sense of well-being did not reside on my head but in it.
Over the next days, I spent hours studying images of Michelle Williams. Ellen DeGeneres. Victoria Beckham. Joan of Arc. It’s not easy, assessing how good a short haircut may be, when the person sporting it is Audrey Hepburn, who would look beautiful bald. But one style she wore, around 1967 (the movie was “Wait Until Dark”), merited particularly intense scrutiny. There was Hepburn’s neck, naked for the world to see, and her chin line, clear as the edges on a Richard Neutra house. The option of hiding behind your hair doesn’t exist if you don’t have much of it. This was both disconcerting and appealing.
“Men don’t like short hair,” Karen told me, a fact later confirmed by the baffled looks I got from male friends to whom I announced my plan. Then again, should my hairstyle be dictated by the desire to please men or myself?
I considered a moderate position: cutting a few inches, leaving my hair above the shoulder. But this was a halfway measure. I was in or I was out. I chose in. And I wanted the best person I could find. One name kept coming up in my research: Garren.
“Garren’s a legend,” a fashionable New York friend said. “An artist.” And he prices his work accordingly. A haircut will set a person back $800.
Appointment booked, I flew to New York and checked into Garren’s salon in the Sherry-Netherland on Fifth Avenue. I’ve visited a fair number of salons but no place like this. In the past, I might have been intimidated by the polished marble floor, the specially bottled Garren water, the shampoo chair with massage rollers. But Garren was easy to talk to, particularly about a subject of unfailing interest to him: hair. We discussed the shape of my face, the relationship of my eyebrows to my hairline. We talked about my lifestyle and my neck. All of these were elements to be considered — and not lightly.
For reference I had a picture of Winona Ryder from 2002 that appealed to me, in a cut by Garren, I learned. It turned out that Winona and I had a few features in common: a very small head, a natural wave and no patience for maintenance.
Then, with less ceremony than I’d anticipated, the snipping (part scissors, part razor) began, and in under 30 minutes — too fast for me to register second thoughts — there was a pile of hair (eight inches) on the floor. The face in the mirror was still mine, but it was so different I hardly recognized myself. The assistant, Francis, held up a mirror so I could study the back of my head: an architecture of layers that produced more volume and body than I’d known existed. And I could still feel a fringe of hair on my neck, which was reassuring.
Maybe the models whose hair Garren cuts respond with greater cool, but as for me: I threw my arms around him. I walked around in a kind of daze for 20 minutes — smiling at strangers and half-expecting them to applaud as we passed on the street. Then I headed to Forever 21 to buy a bunch of big, cheap earrings to go with my expensive cut.
In the days that followed, I gave my haircut a run for its money — riding in a convertible, sleeping in odd positions, swimming laps and exiting the pool with no time for a blow-dry. Through it all, Garren’s handiwork continued to look as good as it did the day I got up from his chair. The only time it didn’t was when I went to my favorite salon for my first post-cut shampoo and blow-dry. And I learned, in the process, that the one thing not to do with a Garren cut is fuss over it. From what I can determine, the use of my blow-dryer is unnecessary, as is my hairbrush. Sometimes I scrunch my mop of hair in one direction, sometimes another. I may use a little product for volume, but if I don’t, that’s O.K. too.
My children all weighed in with approval. Even some of the men who’d expressed distaste for any and all short haircuts on women seemed to come around. The one with whom I spend the most time developed a new saying, delivered several times a day: “Have I mentioned lately, I really like your hair?”
A few days after my return home to California, I announced on Facebook that I’d cut my hair. Within a couple of hours, there were 97 responses, many of them lengthy meditations by women on the significance of a haircut.
One man — unknown to me previously — observed that I must be the most self-obsessed person he’d ever encountered, to give so much thought to a subject as shallow and meaningless as my head of hair. Most shocking of all, for some, was that $800 price tag.
It’s only hair, of course. Still, two weeks later, I observed in myself a marked elevation in energy, optimism, ambition and confidence. Last week, I set about learning to perform a cartwheel and tackled my first soufflé. Three nights ago, I scored six points in a basketball game. Tonight I go line dancing. As for any possible links between sexuality and hair, I will simply say, a good haircut can definitely put a person in the mood for showing it off.
It is possible, I suggested to my Facebook critic, to care simultaneously about global warming, genetically engineered crops, world hunger, fracking and one’s hair. You can mourn your mother at the cemetery or in the beauty salon. You can mark the last gasps of your 50s by donating your miniskirts to Goodwill and giving yourself a sensible bowl cut, or . . . you can do something a little different.