From ages 17 to 27, I allowed one person to touch my hair: Paul, Master of the Effortless Blonde Locks.

Paul and I were separated by a continent (I was in Oakland and he was in D.C., where my family lived), but I went home twice a year and each time I booked a cut. At 28 though, when my Saturn Return hit and I moved to LA, I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was an adult and that I should probably have a hairstylist in the state where I planned to die.

Since moving, I’ve had roughly 6 haircuts and all by someone different. Each cut has been a counter-cut; an attempt by the new stylist to fix the previous stylist’s mistakes. And having the “right” cut is important to me because 75% of my self-worth rests in my hair. Thus, when I sit in a stylist’s swivel chair, I mean business. I want a trim not a “‘do.” I like my hair long and natural and yet I always leave the salon with some “trendy” cut, so choppy and asymmetrical that I look as if I’ve taken scissors to my head in the throes of a manic episode.

My most recent ‘do – a two-story house of a haircut; the underlayer, normal and nice, the top, choppy and angled – created a shelf-like effect that was so sensational, so noticeable, that a friend deemed it: “shelfgate.” Infuriating, since I’d explicitly told the stylist, “no layers,” but that hadn’t stopped him from stealing chunks from my hair whilst spritzing me with an intoxicating tea tree oil elixir. He was just doing his art of course, and as an obnoxious artist myself, can I really condemn him?

In a Racked article on “hair shaming,” Tiffany Yanetta, a fashion writer living in Brooklyn, quoted salon owner Tommy Lovell: “There’s an amount of artistry that goes into doing hair, [and] that can breed arrogance.” I reached out to Yanetta and asked how best to prevent a stylist from going wild with his or her “artistry.” She suggested describing in “explicit detail” what you want, and recommended bringing a photo.

My friend Caitie Delaney, a writer living in Los Angeles, shares my distaste for layers, which she’s communicated, repeatedly, to stylists. But, “they ALWAYS tell me they know better, in varying degrees of politeness.”

Yanetta explains that “layers never mean the same thing from hairstylist to hairstylist – sometimes it’s just a few [pieces] that frame the face, and sometimes it’s short, choppy strands that start at the crown.” She says it’s often unclear whether they just aren’t listening or whether they’re interpreting based on their own idiosyncratic definitions. “This is why I stand by the ‘bring a picture’ rule.”

Yanetta and Delaney express a tendency to freeze up in the chair. Delaney told me she always assumes the stylist knows better and doesn’t want to insult them. She tries to be a “cool client,” and it always gets her into trouble. Yanetta, on the other hand, says she feels shy in the chair, “because I don’t know how to say what I want, or I don’t know how to get what I want out of my particular hair type.” She continues, “I always say ‘beachy’ and ‘volume’ and ‘movement,’ and I rarely walk out with any of that.”

My friend Jetti Allen, a design researcher and illustrator living in Oakland, argues for the other side: “Hairstylists have a really tough job.” Like any other customer service gig, “they’re judged based on client satisfaction and customers don’t always know exactly what they’re looking for.” Allen speculates that stylists tend “to play it safe by sticking to haircuts that satisfy normative beauty expectations.” But as a gender nonconforming person, Allen finds that logic lacking. Recalling one specific experience that forever changed their approach to haircuts: “I went to an upscale barbershop I’d never been to before and asked for an undercut.” Somehow the barber convinced them that they’d get a “softer” look with scissors instead of the standard clippers. “I agreed for some reason, trusting that maybe the barber had a better idea of how to go about it, and before I knew it, I ended up [looking like] Liza Minnelli.” Allen assumes the barber was just trying to “do a good job by making me look ‘pretty,’ but I just felt really sad and misunderstood.”

I relate to Jetti’s feelings of helplessness. Being bulldozed by a stylist can really rock one’s sense of agency and trigger an avalanche of anxiety. I may not have a say over being paid less on the dollar than my average male counterpart, and I certainly can’t do anything about the fact that the earth is spinning in space, but I can count on my hair being long and luscious. Or, at least, I could. Until the tea tree oil elixir guy turned my hair into his art project.

I ended up ditching “shelfgate” for a new cut. I never would’ve chosen to style my hair this short, but it’s healthy now and back to being all one length. Recently a friend texted me, “hair is a construct,” which really helped me get over myself.  I now realize that perhaps I was irrationally attached to the idea that I needed to have long hair to be myself. Few haircuts are unfixable, and most styles can be pulled off.

That said, I’ll never again set foot in a salon without, minimum, five photos of my desired cut accompanied by a bullet-pointed one-sheet detailing, explicitly, all of my hair needs.

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