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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When every day is a bad hair day: Getting to the roots of our new reality

(Christine Rösch for The Washington Post)
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We have seen the future and it is dark, gray and messy: Dark roots. Gray streaks. Outgrown cuts. Not just bad hair days, but bad hair months.

Good hair, as it turns out, is not essential during a pandemic. While millions hoarded toilet paper, others beelined to their stylist for one last haircut or color before salons closed. Now they’re staring in the mirror contemplating a crowning glory that is not so glorious.

On one level, this is truly the least of our concerns. It’s just hair. But if you’re lucky enough to be worried about it, it’s also a loss of routine, a loss of control and a loss of self-confidence. The stay-at-home order launched a thousand DIY tutorials about hair cutting, home coloring or embracing your roots. In six weeks, goes the new adage, we’ll know everyone’s real hair color.

Some people have resigned themselves to ponytails or baseball caps. Others have bribed their way into speakeasy salons or illicit home visits. And a few have tackled the issue with a healthy mix of humor and humanity. Kelly Ripa, co-host of “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” posted a photo on Instagram showing a thin gray streak in her honey-blond hair: “Root watch week one.”

“This really struck a nerve with my viewers,” she says. “It’s almost like solidarity, because they’re so used to seeing people on camera looking like they’ve been done by professionals, which they have. . . . I just feel like it’s almost liberating to have the veil lifted off.”

From split ends to gray roots, here’s what to do while hair salons are shut due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ripa, 49, started going gray in her early 20s (“My hair is now totally white”) and has colored her hair for decades. “The grayer my hair got over the years, the blonder my hair got,” she says. Now she’s sequestered at her Manhattan home, doing the show remotely and touching up her roots with spray from a can. “It’s so user-friendly,” she says. “There’s no artistry involved. ”

Fans, always quick to share their opinion at the most trivial change in her hair, have been “so forgiving, because we’re all in it together.” They’re sending her pictures of their roots. Nobody’s perfect, and now we’re all less perfect than ever.

“Can I tell you something? I think we’re all going to be better off for this,” says Ripa. “We’re all being satisfied with less.”

Well, not yet. We're not at the acceptance phase of our hair loss. We're still going through denial, anger and bargaining.

LoAnn Lai, owner of Salon L’eau in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, is trying to cope with clients who are not coping. “They’re panicked,” she explains. “Women get very emotionally attached to their hair.”

Lai closed the salon on March 19 and has been fielding calls and texts from clients who feel unpolished, old, exposed. “We’re all working remotely, so why are we panicking?” she asks. Her theory: “It’s how we see ourselves. If I look in the mirror and don’t love the way I look, it affects how I feel.”

Going outside is our only escape. But now that’s scary, too.

This is not just about vanity. Okay, it’s partially about vanity, but it’s also about maintaining an image. “Hair frames and represents us,” says Emma Tarlo, author of “Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair” and a professor of anthropology at the University of London. “It is intrinsically bound up with our identities and sense of who we are. People grow into particular styles over time, and to find themselves unable to maintain these is disturbing. It eats away at our sense of self. It alerts us to the abnormality of the situation and our loss of control over our own lives.”

Hair is a kind of armor we wear into daily battle; a bad hair day tells the world we’re not at the top of our game. “I usually go to the salon every week,” says Washington-area life coach Shelby Tuck-Horton. “Doing my own hair is not something I like to do.”

Yet now, that’s exactly what she has to do if she wants to look professional on Zoom calls. “You should have seen me trying to blow dry my hair with a round brush. Oh my God. It was hilarious.” She finally called her stylist, Gwen Fields, who walked her through the process. “I didn’t look like I just left the salon, but I looked presentable,” says Tuck-Horton.

But she can hardly wait for the time it’s safe to go back to the salon: “It will be one of the first things I do when we can go out again.”

Not everyone is waiting; desperate hair requires desperate measures. So, some clients are offering their stylists three or four times what a normal appointment would cost to make home visits — despite the guidance to stay six feet apart. "It's tempting to ask and it's tempting to accept," says a stylist with an A-list clientele. "It's just not possible. You either take the virus seriously or you don't."

Clients who are pressuring hairdressers, many of whom lack health insurance, “are acting out of selfish and irresponsible motives,” he adds. “It is a superficial routine. Behind this is personal vanity, because hair is one thing we can really put off.”

Fields, owner of Halcyon Salon in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, closed on March 21 but remains in contact with clients like Tuck-Horton, some of whom use products that must be applied regularly to protect the hair. The items can be found online, so she and her colleagues are kicking around ideas for “virtual styling” — Facebook appointments where they explain exactly how to use each product. In the meantime, some of her clients are buying gift certificates for future visits, a way to support the salon without risking anyone’s health.

Don’t feel like ‘getting things done’? It’s okay not to be productive during a pandemic.

For those who can’t get what they need online, Salon L’eau has launched a curbside kit for at-home care: Clients pay $78 to $85 for a custom mix of professional products they can use to maintain their salon color, plus applicators, shampoo and conditioner. Other salons are delivering similar packages to their customers’ doorsteps.

Of course, in addition to the high-end at-home hair products popping up on phones and tablets, there is always the inexpensive boxed color from the drugstore. For women who have used these products for decades, the current hair panic of the Haves is — if we’re being honest — kind of funny. While hairstylists, for the most part, dismiss the claim that home coloring products can produce professional results, plenty of happy customers would argue otherwise. As Sally Altberger, a property manager in Denver, told our consumer columnist for an article about dyeing your own hair, “Why pay a salon colorist when I can do it myself for $10?”

At the very least, self-isolation is a great time to experiment. Men, relieved of the need to shave, are sporting beards. Some women are dyeing their hair pink or blue. And some people — men and women — are cutting it all off. YouTube vlogger Joana Ceddia gave herself a buzz cut three weeks ago titled, “I finally shaved my head,” which racked up 2.5 million views.

“No one is going to see me,” the 18-year-old told her followers. “If I’m going to do this, it’s going to be now.” The verdict? “I love it. I thought I was going to hate it. I love it. It’s amazing.”

From split ends to gray roots, here’s what to do while hair salons are shut due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

A buzz cut will eventually grow out. But turning gray is a more complicated process. Some women are embracing the chance to see what hue they have (a striking silver? a dishwater gray?) and how they feel about it.

“We’re hunkering down and focusing on protecting ourselves, thereby protecting others, and staying healthy,” Jane Larkworthy wrote in the Cut last month. “It would not be the worst idea to lay off the bleach that made its way into my scalp and nostrils for decades.”

For now, she’s watching the gray coming in as a “welcome curiosity,” but her stylist has promised to leap into action if Larkworthy decides she hates the gray. “When that day comes, I’ll likely be clinging to her knees like a toddler, screaming through uncontrollable sobs, “GET RID OF IT!!” But maybe I won’t,” she wrote. “Maybe revealing our true colors will be a catharsis. Maybe this will shift how women feel about hiding something that’s natural, if we’re newly awake to what’s important.”

And Ripa? What would her viewers think if she decided to stop coloring her hair?

“Initially, if I were to let it go gray, I think there would be disgust and outrage,” she says with a laugh. “But then, eventually, people would say, ‘You know what? I love it! I’m going to do it, too.’ Or, ‘It’s not for me but you look great.’ People get used to all sorts of things.”