The Things we Find Essential

When I heard a woman remark ‘I’d rather die than not have my hair done,’ I wrote the words down, stunned. It’s strange what has been deemed ‘essential’ in the time of Covid-19. Shopping for food, sure. Medical appointments, yes, if necessary. Exercise, OK. And until recently, a trip to the hairdresser. What? As a person who usually gets a haircut once every 12 months, it was beyond me.

But soon enough, Melbourne’s stage four restrictions ripped this ‘essential’ service away, along with other things we had taken to be ordinary aspects of our lives: going out between 8pm and 5am; being outside for more than an hour; and going further than 5km from our homes.

Red flags mark prohibited entry to a playground. A large bowl swing hangs from chains.
Off limits © Anna Sublet

And then it came back to me: going to the hairdresser had been a sort of lifeline for me last year. Yes, me of ungroomed locks and untended knots. It seems a hairdo can offer people so much more than a tidy and trim.

Hannah McCann, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, notes that “in Western culture, one’s outer presentation is seen as intimately connected to one’s sense of identity and well-being.” And with The Black Dog Institute suggesting that “between 25% to 33% of the community experience high levels of worry and anxiety during…pandemics,” perhaps for some of us, a trip to the hairdresser could be just what the doctor ordered.

Last May, I took myself to a new hairdresser for an urgent haircut, facing sudden surgery and the subsequent treatment beyond. A lump, signalling rogue cells, had been found in my routine mammogram. What lay beyond that I did not know, but it sure felt like a kind of reckoning.

I knew that four days in hospital with my too-long hair on a pillow would end up with it like a nest of matted fur, and I wanted to see myself reflected back as, well, not a mess, but together. Coping. Alright.

The haircut and blow-wave sent me off to face the surgeon’s knife with a silky-framed visage that I could smile back at, and a sense of seeing myself blooming.

Once my hospital stay was over, I found myself with restricted movement. I couldn’t lift my arm to wash my hair, so as a treat, I took myself back to the hairdresser for a wash and blowdry. The stylist didn’t know why I had gone to hospital, but over the next few months, every couple of weeks, I went to the salon and ‘had my hair done’.

As I set out for day after day of radiotherapy, I could smile at my face framed by sleek hair. I would put on my designated ‘Locker 12’ terry-towelling bathrobe each session, and take a photo of myself in the changing room mirror. Then I’d wait outside the room filled with radiation, ready.

What had at first seemed like a one-off indulgence–a haircut pre-surgery–became my ongoing link to a self beyond the cubicles and rooms of the hospital. Each wash and blowdry kept me on track to recovery.

July finished, and the radiotherapy too. I rang the clinic’s bell to signal the end of treatment. I could see I was going to be well enough to take my upcoming holiday, a longed-for trip to the west, to a state I had never visited.

I booked a haircut for August, and flew off, emboldened, to the sunset and red dirt and to a world I’d never seen before. I breathed in, and out, slowly, floating in an infinity pool.

Perhaps for some, hairdressing is an essential service. It’s not just about appearances, but as a way for a person to hold onto some part of themself, when things are coming apart.

Still, I wouldn’t say I’d rather die than not have my hair done. It’s been a year since my last salon visit, and my hair is so knotted it is returning to its state of matted fur, but I’m not in a hurry these days. For now, we all need to just hold on and look towards the future, regardless of our unkempt hair. The things that are essential might just be closer to home for the moment.