One evening last spring, I stopped at my hairdresser's for a quick blowout before an event. Four hours later, I left with my hood pulled up tight over my head to hide the fact that I was walking out without any hair at all.
I have alopecia, the fancy medical name for when your immune system attacks your hair follicles for no reason, causing hair loss, and I've worn a wig since my hair started coming out in clumps more than seven years ago. I'd gone to my hairdresser (who also ordered and designed my wigs) for countless problem-free blowouts over the years. He and his partner, who was the one at the salon that night, specialized in women with hair loss.
That night, instead of a blowout, my wig got destroyed. The hairdresser washed my hair wrong — you can't scrunch up hair on a wig the way you can natural hair — and it ended up in a gigantic knot. All the leave-in conditioner in the world and hours with a comb couldn't help him detangle it.
My hairdresser was distraught as I left the salon completely hairless and called me the next day crying about how much it had upset him to see me like that. I was mostly indignant. How much it had upset him? What about me, the girl who had to hail a cab in the rain while clutching frantically at the sides of her hood, lest it slip off? Yes, there are women out there who go out bald, and look fabulously fierce while doing so, but I am not one of those women. Having hair, even if it's not growing out of my head, is what gives me the confidence to feel good about myself. He swore to me that he would make it up to me, that he would get me two new hairpieces as soon as possible.
Thankfully, I had an old wig at home in decent condition that I was able to wear for what I thought would be a few weeks. But weeks turned into a month, which turned into two months. I would call and text my hairstylist every few days, reminding him again and again that I had a big summer vacation coming up and that I wanted to feel good while taking photos. He swore up and down that it was coming. Then, two weeks before my trip, he told me it was in.
The wig was all wrong. The color wasn't right. The texture felt rough, not sleek. It had bangs, which I had expressly said I didn't want. He swore he'd fix it. I came back a few days later, and by fixing the color, texture, and bangs, he'd broken the fit, and the wig no longer fit my head properly. He promised he'd drop everything else so it would be ready for my trip.
The night before I left for my vacation, I headed to the salon to pick it up after work. When I got out of the subway, I had a voicemail from his partner saying it wasn't ready yet. I immediately called him back.
You know those crazy people you see screaming and cursing into their phones on the street, and you wonder why on earth they're having such an emotionally charged conversation in the middle of the sidewalk? That was me. I was apoplectic. I trusted them with what is, essentially, a huge part of my identity as a woman, and I felt like they were treating me with no respect. They'd charged me $4,000 for the original wig they'd ruined—not exactly chump change. The hairdresser finally dropped it off at my apartment at close to midnight. I took it from him without a word in my lobby and closed the door in his face.
I apologized later for the way I spoke to him, but I didn't, and don't, apologize for my feelings. We ascribe a huge part of our self-worth to our hair. I don't think this is a bad thing at all, but it does mean that when something happens to it, our emotions run pretty high. Think about how upset you feel after a bad haircut. Now imagine paying thousands of dollars for that haircut, and then being stuck with it for years.
The new wig was good enough, but it wasn't great. It still didn't fit right. The cut still looked off. The top was really bulky with the extra hair he'd added to "fix" the bangs, so it didn't sit flat on my head, nor did it have a natural-looking part. He hadn't cut in any baby hairs by the hairline, leaving it harsh. It looked like a wig, which didn't make up for the $4,000 price tag or the emotional cost.
The fact that I wear a wig isn't a secret, but even so, you don't want to imagine every stranger on the street is taking a second look at your hairline. I've been self-conscious about my hair in the back of my mind since I started wearing wigs, but for the first time, I was actively, consciously worrying about my appearance every single day, a fact made even harder that I couldn't really talk to anyone about it. I have wonderful friends who will always listen compassionately, but sometimes you just need someone to understand exactly what you're going through. Everyone's had her heart broken. Not everyone has been scared that a strong gust of wind could unseat her hair.
When I came back to work after my trip and told Cosmopolitan.com beauty editor Carly Cardellino what had happened, she made it her mission to help me find a new, incredible hairdresser. Enter stylist Ursula Stephen, my honest-to-god new fairy godmother. At my consultation, she showed me everything wrong with that wig that I hadn't even realized—like that all the care instructions I'd been given were wrong—including the fact that I'd been overcharged for all four of the $4,000 wigs I'd bought previously. This was the most shocking for me: I'd never shopped around for a stylist, since in the past he'd made me such great pieces and treated me so well, and I'd thought that, if anything, he was giving me a deal on quality hair. Finding out otherwise was yet another letdown.
Ursula promised she'd find the right hair for me, and I trusted her. This is the woman who was so dedicated to getting Rihanna's look right that she once heated up a curling iron in an actual fireplace when the plug converters weren't working right in another country. If you're going to trust anyone with something big, it's her.
Ursula came through so hard that at this point, I would trust her with my entire life. My new wig sits perfectly flat on my head and even has a real hairline. I can straighten it, I can curl it, I can jump in a lake with it. I'm not conscious of it being there, just like how it was when my hair actually grew. If you met me right now and hadn't read this essay, you wouldn't even have a clue it's not my own hair.
Not thinking about my hair all the time has given me back the confidence I didn't realize I was missing — when I look in the mirror, I feel good about the person looking back at me. I've been worrying constantly about my appearance since I first watched my hair slide down the drain in clumps every time I took a shower all those years ago. For the first time in a long time, I feel like me.
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