Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Ladies of the Hair Salon, anthropologically speaking

My host sister leads me to a curtained doorway on a Moroccan side street and pulls me inside. I'm apprehensive, excited, anxious; I'm about to see the inner sanctum of a demographic to which I've never before had access.

The ladies of the hair salon.

Whether they abide in a physical hair salon, as is seldom the case, or whether they function among us, it is quite easy to spot an LHS (Lady of the Hair Salon) when you see her. She's fashionably dressed, capable of taking the most unfashionable discards and creating an outfit of beauty. She knows words like 'bronzer,' and her make-up kit is a marvelous thing. We know her by the way she walks, the way she holds herself, the way she presents herself to the world. She is an LHS.

It is hard, sometimes, to enter a group to which one does not belong, but this group has long invited me to enter. It was I who hung back, reluctant to give myself over, not knowing if I would emerge a changed woman. It is difficult to suppress your innate personality for the sake of integration, to give up the core of who you are in order to make yourself more like the peoples around you. My core personality could not be more perplexed by this group. When my fashion consists of ponytails and tennis shoes, when my make-up kit includes three items and one of them is toothpaste, when I had to Google the word 'bronzer' before I wrote that... it's clear that I am not an LHS.

Today, though, it was clear: they weren't taking 'no' for an answer. And thus, I found myself going behind the curtain and venturing into a whole new world.

I was greeted immediately by the Moroccan hairdressers, efficient women who were capable of divining my needs despite the language barrier and my lack of knowledge. I submitted myself fully, undergoing the most extensive transformation I've experienced in all my travels. My hair was sprayed and blown and pulled and clipped and a variety of other past participles that appear to be unique to this particular social group. This was followed by the transformation of my face, as layers of a variety of smooth creams were applied to my skin and eyelids and lips. I sat as still as I could, afraid to so much as blink in the fear that they might misunderstand my intentions and potentially drop mascara in my eye. It was difficult, I grant, as my eyes fought their attempts, but sheer will prevailed, and I was soon made over.

Next came clothing, as we left the salon proper and returned to the native dwelling. A blue jelaba (more jargon, which I understood to mean the style of robe native to Morrocco) was waiting, and the LHSes wasted no time in stripping me of my ties to the outside world and cladding me in its silken folds. My feet were tucked into lopsided white shoes, taller in the heel than in the toe, magically making me taller when I walked. Or, at least, they were meant to make me taller; I do not appear to have the genetic make-up that permits one to totter on such shoes, but perhaps it is something I can develop in time.

When my makeover was complete, I was led into a room full of friends, who cheered when they saw me. I felt a redness rising on my cheeks, but that may have been due to the pink powder that had been dusted over my cheekbones earlier in the day. We partied all afternoon, getting henna on our hands, eating delicious treats, dancing to Moroccan music. There was an aura of festiveness and revelry in the air that seemed peculiar to me, given that I was so dressed up. How can one be so festive when one's clothing does not let her breathe and one's makeup does not let her blink and one's shoes forbid her from moving?

I was intrigued by the behavior I saw, so like any anthropologist, I took advantage of my opportunity to observe. I was amazed to discover that the LHS aren't so different from you and me. First, in observing the atmosphere of the salon, I noticed that despite the efficiency, each woman was treated to a period of personal attention as she underwent her transformation. She put herself in the hands of a professional, relieving herself of the responsibility of caring and thereby freeing her brain waves for other things.

But more than her brain is freed. This appears to be a place where, despite the emphasis on being "made over," the LHSes can be free of judgement, whether their own or someone else's. She finds release there, an escape of sorts. Here, in the inner sanctum, she can laugh and joke and chatter with like-minded individuals, and she can do so without fear.

I do not feel this way when I step foot in a hair salon, but I can relate to the feeling. It exists in other communities; I feel the same when I dance, or when I read, or when I play a good game of soccer. When I let go of reality, when I enter a world of other people like me, I don't have to worry about how I appear to those around me. I am removed from myself, and at times, that is a joyous way to be.

I next attempted to understand the reasons behind the frequent forays to the hair salon. All of these women are beautiful anyway, and besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Why spend the money and the time to change your appearance if it doesn't need changing? It is a conundrum that I have long labored to solve, and I think I at last observed the answer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The LHSes find their beauty in a hairstyle and some eyeshadow, and for them, that attitude doesn't fade when they step outside. In knowing that they feel beautiful, they become beautiful, which adds a spring to their step and a confidence to their actions.

Again, other social groups can relate to this feeling. I know what it is like to carry myself with pride, knowing that I just beat my 5K time or that a magazine wants to publish my work. These elements of my being and my life give me confidence, just as the LHSes gain confidence from their time in the salon, and both of us complete our activity with slightly higher self-esteem than we had before.

My final observation was this: revelry is also in the eye of the beholder. If you are most comfortable, most confident, happiest in silk robes and high heels, wear them. If you'd rather go wear jeans and a T-shirt and go square dancing, wear them. If you'd rather stay home and read a book, do so. Know who you are and what works for you, and don't apologize for it.

That said, go out of your comfort zone sometimes, not because you are told to but because curiosity is a blessing and the world is an interesting place. The LHSes and I have different ideas about how to party, but that's okay. Deep down, I still don't fit in the world of the hair salon, but that's okay too. We had a wonderful time together, and I came away with a deeper understanding on the elusive Ladies of the Hair Salon. Also with henna on my hands, which is pretty darn cool.

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