This day, a Wednesday noon after Cedric* had cut my hair, I spend some time in the kitchen of the salon, when I realized that Reiner was in an extraordinarily good mood. I seized the (rather rare) opportunity and asked him if I could accompany him during his next appointment to “ask some stupid questions”. With a smile on his face, Reiner agreed.
His next customer was a woman in her fifties. She was an art teacher at a comprehensive school – an exhausting job, because it is impossible to thrill students for anything these days, she complained. She was a very talkative lady who showed some interest in my research, but also in my life as a student in Amsterdam more generally – up to the point where she asked me how much I paid for my room in Amsterdam. She also took my student status as a starting point to report extensively about her children. She seemed to be especially proud of her 27-years old daughter who started her own business one year ago, after having completed her bachelors in psychology and having worked for a consultation firm afterwards.
The woman – let’s call her Magdalena – had shorter than shoulder-long hair. Her hair was dark brown or even black and she had an appointment with Reiner to have it recolored as well as cut – a typical two-hours appointment. Most strikingly, Magdalena had extraordinarily thin hair. One could see her white scalp shining through the dark hair at the back of her head. However, Magdalena knew about her thin hair and seemed to have found ways of dealing with this fact – most obviously in the form of jokes. On several occasions, she made me smile with sentences like “It’s not worth the effort with my three strands of hair” or “He does not need much color with my thin hair”. Nevertheless, Magdalena also expressed her relief that “my children did not inherit my hair”. Was joking, then, just a way of coping with her insecurities about her hair?
While joking seemed to be Magdalena’s way of dealing with thin hair, other strategies involved touch. During the consultation Reiner was constantly combing Magdalena’s hair and once in a while he held his left hand underneath a strand of hair to evaluate it. He decided not just to color the roots, but the whole hair to refresh its shine which it had lost, according to Reiner’s evaluation. In order to prepare the color, Reiner went to the “lab” – a small narrow room in the back of the salon which is full of ingredients and tools to mix the different hair colors. While we were waiting for Reiner to return with the color, Magdalena told me how she became a regular customer of the salon. She was not happy with her former hairdresser, because it was “run-of-the-mill”. Thus, her daughter dragged her to Mastercut and told the hairdresser that he can do anything with her mother’s hair as long as he avoided a “typical teacher’s look”, Magdalena told me jokingly. Her children even arranged a photo shooting after she had her hair done. When her hairdresser left Mastercut, he advised Magdalena to stay with Reiner, and since then, “Reiner has had my hair in his sight” (hat sich auf meine Haare eingeschossen). She compared Mastercut with her former old-fashioned beauty salon where they still did “cold waves like in GDR times”. This change of salons was also visible in her hair, Magdalena explained. While her hair was even thinner back then, it looks “healthier” and “shinier” now. Magdalena admitted that the difference between the two salons is also quite obvious with regard to the prices. Here, she paid much more for having her “three strands of hair” done. But Magdalena made it clear that she did not only come to Mastercut for the haircut. She enjoyed the atmosphere here, she said and pointed at the fresh violet flowers and the burning candle on the reception desk next to Reiner’s work station.
Reiner came back with the trolley on which he transported the bowl with the brownish paste and a tool that was a combination of a brush and a comb – one side had flexible filaments, while the other had plastic teeth. Reiner had put on a grey coat with orange stains and cut-off sleeves. It appeared to me that the long coat without sleeves suited Reiner’s clothing style, which was often made up of asymmetrically cut, frayed garments. Reiner started to color the roots of Magdalena’s hair, beginning at the side parting with which Magdalena entered the salon. As soon as he had started, Magdalena asked Reiner about his vacations in Iceland. While covering Magdalena’s hair with the color, Reiner extensively talked about his holidays – about the rainy weather, the pristine landscape, the stinking sulfur springs, and the fresh meat which he and his girlfriend had bought from local farmers. At a certain point, I was wondering if Reiner’s unusually talkative attitude was also a tactic to keep me from asking too many questions about what he was doing. In comparison to the other hairdressers at Mastercut, I would describe Reiner’s character as rather reserved. On another occasion, Reiner himself ascribed his quiet, sometimes grumpy, attitude to the fact that “I’m the only hetero in here”.
While responding to Magdalena’s detailed questions about Iceland, Reiner repeated the same procedure over and over again. He covered the roots with color by using the brush-side of the tool, used the pointed end of the tool to separate the just colored strand from the untreated hair underneath, turned the strand over and colored the other side of the same strand. Then he repeated the same procedure with the new parting – painting, parting, flipping over, painting again – until all hair roots on Magdalena’s head were covered in color. Afterwards, Reiner used the comb-side of the tool to comb the color from the roots into the ends. Additionally, he used his gloved fingers to spread the color along the strands of hair. He put down the hair strands that were now fully soaked with color on rectangles of transparent plastic foil to prevent the color from staining Magdalena’s face and neck. When he had combed the whole hair into a thin pony tail, Reiner once again painted over Magdalena’s hairline and then ended the first part of the procedure, by explaining in his Berlin dialect: “I’ll just clean your contours and then we let this work in” (Ick mach’ dir mal die Konturen noch sauber und dann lassn wa det einwirken).
I was astonished by how quick this task was finished – the whole period could be filled with Reiner’s report about his vacations. To start a conversation with Magdalena during the development time of the color, I commented on how fast Reiner applied the color. Magdalena responded with a joke about her thin hair and compared the time spent in the salon with her daughter’s four-hours appointment when Reiner “tried out something new”. Magdalena wanted to show me a photo of the result on her cellphone, but used the opportunity to give me an overview of the different looks her daughter had had since she had been Reiner’s customer. In the first photo, her daughter had brown hair. Magdalena explained that Reiner used the so called “painting technique” – “no classic highlights, but sort of reflections”, according to Magdalena. This explanation of the coloring technique which was frequently used in the salon seemed familiar to me. As I was taught, there, by using the brush to paint the color into several strands of hair instead of covering whole strands in color and wrapping them in aluminum foil, the result looks more “natural” because the highlights integrate better into the overall hair color. The second photo showed the daughter with long red hair – for her business photos, Magdalena commented. Lastly, she found the photo she was looking for. In this one, her daughter had bright violet ends of hair. The violet in the ends turned into a darker brown at the roots. Magdalena was fascinated by this look. However, it did not last long. “After six weeks, it turned into a washed-out pink tone”, Magdalena explained with disappointment. For this short durability of the look, the price/performance ratio was just not right, according to Magdalena. Therefore, her daughter went back to a longer-lasting look: “she gets along well with the color she has now”.
In general, Magdalena spoke very well of the salon. She especially appreciated how “natural and not a bit artificial” the customers looked when leaving the salon – “as if nothing has been done [to their hair] at all”. Because of the trust they had built in the skills of the people working at Mastercut, Magdalena and her daughter recommended the salon to another friend who had an allergic reaction when “she apparently visited the wrong hairdresser”, as Magdalena put it. Her daughter advised this friend to give Reiner a call, because she knew that Mastercut has hair colors in its range of products that are specifically developed for sensitive skin or “that don’t contain that much chemistry”, in Magdalena’s words. Based on this example, Magdalena recounted another story about skin reactions. Her sister also had an allergic reaction in the form of a rash on her neck and cleavage, which had been reoccurring regularly ever since it had appeared for the first time, when her sister had visited a hairdressing salon. According to Magdalena, this rash was caused by a fruit shampoo which “must have contained some kind of acid”. As her sister’s dermatologist did not know how to stop this reoccurring skin reaction, Magdalena came to the conclusion that her sister “did not just have the wrong hairdresser, but also the wrong practitioner”.
After thirty minutes of development time, Reiner returned and asked Magdalena to accompany him to the washing basins to rinse out the color. Back at his work station, Reiner started the consultation about the haircut. He recommended to change Magdalena’s side parting for a center parting and cut the bangs straight. This way the hair would look more voluminous, because it would be distributed equally to both sides of the head. During the haircut, it became apparent to me that Reiner’s main concern was to create more volume so as to counteract Magdalena’s “problem” of thin hair. He explained to Magdalena that it was a myth that cutting the hair in the back would make it look thinner on the top. The opposite was true – and he illustrated his point, by using his finger as the model of a single hair. Hair is ablated over time, Reiner explained using the geological term “abtragen”, meaning that substance is lost due to the process of erosion. Using his index finger, he showed that the tip was thinner than the end of the finger. The same was the case with Magdalena’s hair, he explained: looking at her hair, he guessed that her hair ends must be between one and a half and two years old. Thus, by cutting away the thin and ablated ends, he creates more volume in her remaining hair.
During the haircut, Magdalena and Reiner talked about cosmetic surgeries and the fact, as Magdalena put it, that “humans are created this way: they are never happy [with what they got]”. After having finished the cut and before blow-drying Magdalena’s hair, Reiner applied a product to the hair. He answered to my question that it was a setting lotion which gave the hair shine and made it look stronger. Magdalena reported to me that she had had her hair cut short only recently. She welcomed that the shorter hair did not need much care. Reiner interjected that the shorter haircut was not just about being easy-care, which seemed to be Magdalena’s main concern, but that “[the hair] also looks thicker”. Having blow-dried Magdalena’s hair, Reiner corrected the bangs which he purposefully left longer “to see what the crowns in the front will do now”. To cut Magdalena’s bangs, he used the thinning scissors – scissors of which both blades have teeth on the edges like a comb. Reiner explained that with these scissors he would only take away thirty percent of the hair. This way, he added, the bangs would still have volume, but wouldn’t have that much weight. Afterwards, Reiner used his normal scissors (with two straight blades) to cut the top hair in a pointcut – cutting the hair ends in a sharp angle. Anticipating my question, Reiner explained: “again: so that it does not have too much weight”. To finish the look, Reiner held the blow-dryer in one hand and an aerosol “texturizing spray” in the other. He used the two simultaneously, letting the breeze from the blow-dryer carry the product with the purpose of “giving [the hair] a little bit more movement”.
Cohering concerns in one hairstyle
In the hairdressing salon, different interests and concerns regarding a look come together. They may clash, but, as in the case of Reiner, Magdalena, and Magdalena’s daughter, they seemed to come together and cohere in Magdalena’s haircut. Reiner wanted Magdalena’s hair to look more voluminous and thick. In order to achieve this goal, he recommended a new haircut – a center parting instead of a side parting. He also cut the hair in a specific way – with thinning scissors and in a point cut – to reduce the hair’s weight and increase its volume. Finally, he used different products to make the hair thicker, increase the volume, and give it more movement.
Magdalena did not reject Reiner’s attempts for increasing volume. I think she appreciated them highly. But through her way of addressing her hair she showed that she had made her peace with it – or, at least, she had found a way to deal with her insecurities by using jokes. Her hair is thin and has been thin for a long time, at least her children had different hair. Magdalena had other concerns. She wanted to live up to her daughter’s expectations of not looking too “teacher-like”. This was her principal reason for coming to Mastercut and paying a higher price for a two-hours treatment than in her previous salon.
Practicality was another concern for Magdalena when it comes to hair. The best thing about her shorter haircut was not the volume – this was a welcomed side effect – it was the fact that it was easy to care for. The reverse holds true for her daughter’s extravagant violet hair: it looked astonishing, but it just was not very practical. It washed out to quickly and, in consequence, it was just too expensive considering its short durability. Therefore, also her daughter returned to a color that was easier to handle.
This episode is also a story about nature. Or rather: it is about what is enacted as natural. On the one hand, Magdalena appreciated that the customers of Mastercut leave the salon looking “natural”. On the other, she diagnosed that it is part of the human condition to be unhappy with what one is “naturally” given – be it curly hair, thin hair, or a hooked nose. It seems that there are two natures at play here. In Magdalena’s second statement – that one is never happy with one’s given body – one has a natural body. This body has specific features – such as thin hair – that can be passed on to one’s children. Luckily, not in the case of Magdalena and her children. Contrary to this version of a given nature, Magdalena acknowledges that it is possible to make a different nature in the form of a “natural look”. This second nature may be achieved with the help of specific techniques of coloring hair. As in the first photo of her daughter, the painting technique creates nature-like reflections in the hair, in contrast to plain and artificially-looking highlights. Making nature, however, requires a lot of work in the form of caring for and attending to – in this case – hair. This is shown even in Magdalena’s comparatively quick treatment: Her “three strands of hair” are granted two hours of Reiner’s work time.
And there is even more nature at play here. In Reiner’s report about his vacations, he evoked a certain idea about nature in Iceland. Nature – as in: “the landscape” – is unspoiled by human interference. This is true nature. He experienced this nature in its rough version: The weather was bad. But what else do you expect in Iceland? This nature in Reiner’s account even stinks sometimes, when you are visiting the sulfur springs. But you can also taste nature. It tastes like the fresh meat bought from the close-by farmer. A completely different notion of naturalness was presented by Magdalena when she talked about the hair colors for sensitive skin. Here, nature was an absence. A product is more natural if it does not contain “too much chemistry”, as Magdalena put it. Her sister’s body – a natural unit, in Magdalena’s narrative – got in contact with non-nature in the form of “some kind of acid” in a fruit shampoo. This “unnatural” acid caused her body to react with a rash.
Solid bodies and fuzzy body boundaries
Lastly, there is another story about the body conveyed in Magdalena’s appointment. It is about the body as an entity that is sometimes enacted as an integrated whole and at other times only is and becomes a body in its interaction with its environment. Magdalena had her hair colored. In her hair, “new pigments were stored”, as the hairdressers often put it. The pigments become part of the hair in the way that they contribute to its “(natural) look”. Thus, what the body is, depends on what is enacted – in constellations involving an array of different actors – as belonging to the body. These “stored” pigments, however, also wash out – sometimes quite fast, as was the case with the violet hair of Magdalena’s daughter. But not just the pigments wash out, but hair itself is “ablated”. The body’s boundaries are much fuzzier than one might expect and it takes some strategies to either live with this fuzziness – jokes, for example – or to counteract it – by producing more durable looks, for example. This leaves us with some questions about what the body is: Do pigments stored in the hair through the procedure of coloring belong to the hair? Or is it only a temporary connection? Does hair even belong to the body or is it dead substance exterior to it? The outlined attention to and talk about the body acknowledge its situatedness within material practices of doing the natural body.
While coloring and fading-out of hair color point out the fluidity of the body, Magdalena’s narratives about allergic reactions draw a clear line between the body and its environment. The body of her sister reacted to the contact with an ingredient of the fruit shampoo. This substance – “some kind of acid” – clearly is not part of the body. This contact with an outside had lasting effects on her sister’s body – once in a while she has a rash which even her dermatologist has no explanation for. However, isolating the body as an entity and performing its boundaries again requires material work. This work can be delegated to different actors such as rubber gloves which Reiner used to prevent dark brown pigments from being temporarily stored in the skin of his hands. Thus, Magdalena’s appointment also tells us something about fuzzy body boundaries and the performed work to make the body a (more) stable one.
* To ensure the anonymity of my interlocutors, I changed the names of the salon and the persons mentioned.