The Best Beauty Lesson I Got From My Mom Has Nothing to Do With Looks

Except that it started with a hair-dye disaster the day before I left for college.

Hair Salon
Photo: Milles Studio/Stocksy

When the stylist asked for my thoughts on my new color, I swallowed before nodding just a fraction of an inch. “Good,” I said, swallowing again. “I like it.” That was all I could muster before a voice crack would betray that tears were welling behind my eyes.

“It’ll look different when it dries, but I’m afraid we’re not going to get to that, I’ve got more appointments coming through,” she said, whipping the cape off my shoulders — avoiding eye contact — before weaving through the barren salon to the front desk, where she waited for my check. Plus tip.

I stared a second longer at my reflection, unable to believe that the girl in the mirror — the girl with orange tiger stripes woven into dark black curls from temple to tip — was me, and not a sopping-wet stray tabby cat. I was 18, one day away from going off to college, and sitting in a salon chair for something more than a trim for the first time in my life. I remember desperately thinking, “but I even brought a celebrity photo for reference, like the magazines told me to.” (A tear-out of Rachel Bilson’s 2010 ombré was folded neatly in my purse.) How could this have happened?

A bookish nerd-type, I’d always relished my reputation as the realist among my equally grades-obsessed peers. But deep inside, I had hoped that the stylist — a blonde lady my mom’s age with a Kate Gosselin cut herself that, in hindsight, was pretty suspect — was right; that the ombré color I had asked for would magically appear when my hair dried, as if by some kind of magic. It was the same ludicrous logic I had used when she began applying bleach at my temples, even though I knew that ombré should only affect the ends of the hair. “I’m not a colorist,” I thought when she rebuffed my concerns; “she probably knows what she’s doing.”

Desperate not to crumble into a bawling heap on the floor, I quickly scrawled a signature on the check I had brought to the salon — signing away almost half of what I’d earned serving frozen yogurt all summer — before I was ushered out the door.

By the time my parents saw it a few hours later, my hair was crunchy and straw-like (in color and texture). After a double take, my dad let out a bellowing guffaw, confirming, yes, it was exactly at bad as I thought. I expected a similar, “you have to live with yourself and what you’ve done” reaction from my mom, who had greatly opposed my decision to color my virgin hair in the first place, but she was surprisingly sympathetic.

No longer holding back tears, I explained to her that yes, I had asked the stylist if she knew what “ombré” was before booking my appointment; I had shown her pictures of the style I wanted; I had raised timid objections about the placement of the bleach and the length of time it had been left on my vulnerable strands — only to be shuffled out the door with soaking wet hair and my tail between my legs, hundreds of dollars poorer but saying thank you to the stylist and complimenting her work nonetheless.

My mom picked up the phone and dialed the salon. The colorist wasn’t available, the receptionist told her, and wouldn’t be in for the next week, as she was “going on vacation.” My usually reserved mother, whom I had never seen raise her voice — not even when I dropped her ceramic flat iron and it shattered all over the bathroom floor — spoke razor sharp words as I looked on, stroking the brittle orange strands I still couldn’t believe were mine. Her speech is a blur in my memory, but the words “outrageous,” “unprofessional,” and “absolutely unacceptable” are seared into my brain.

“Oh, and I’m canceling my daughter’s check,” she said. “If she would like to discuss why, she can call me back next week.” I beamed with pride. The stylist never called.

Growing up, my mom shared just a handful of self-care tips, but the lesson I learned that day is the only one I’ve kept in mind at every beauty-related appointment I’ve had since: It’s not my job to lie to stylists. Period.

A shy and conflict-averse teen, I had always assumed that I had to be pleasant, agreeable, and conciliatory, no matter the circumstance. During the Great Color Disaster of 2011, the idea of living with my horrific hair seemed more palatable to me than admitting that the service I had received was subpar, and risking a confrontation.

“Speak up, Sammi,” my mom said. “Next time, no one is going to do it for you.”

Her exact words were nothing new to me, an introvert who had earned such a reputation for quietness that one boy poetically wrote in my sophomore yearbook, “you never talk,” but it was the context that struck me. Here was my mother, a reasonable person, confirming that sometimes it’s okay to be upset. That I wouldn’t have been out of line for sounding the alarm when the stylist went in with the bleach for a second coat.

She went on to explain what now seems like the simplest advice. If a stylist asks, “does this hurt?” when raking a comb through your thick curls, don’t tell them, “no, I’m fine,” while choking back whimpers. If they ask, “are you sure” — about literally anything — don’t demure “whatever’s easiest for you.” You can say you’re not happy. You should.

Shortly after my mom got off the phone with the salon, she called her “emergency girl,” a redheaded stylist named Meghan who was able to fit me in for an appointment just hours before I was to hit the road for college. By actual hairdresser magic, she was able to transform my dry strands into a cool, dark hue with raspberry undertones, which eventually faded into the Rachel Bilson-esque color I’d sought all along.

To this day, I still struggle with the balance between expressing my opinions and the need to make everyone around me happy. And I do defer to professionals more often than not. But if something feels off — like, for example, if you’ve never had a salon treatment before but are pretty sure you shouldn’t leave with wet hair — it probably is. Plus, stylists want you to be satisfied, too, not regretting your whole life the second your butt leaves their chair.

Now, I always remember my mom’s words: “Speak up.” And if things still go south? It's always good to have an emergency girl.

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