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The Beauty Parlor as a Sacred Space

Her late mother, a former beauty queen, was devoted to her weekly hair appointments. The daughter who honored that still prefers to cut her own hair.

By Melanie Bishop

My mother was of the Beauty Parlor generation — a generation of women who rarely washed their own hair. Weekly appointments at a salon provided so much more than a clean head and a snazzy updo. It was time off from motherhood and the relentless demands of domestic life; it was being touched in a way that felt good and required no reciprocation; it was an hour or more under the old-style hood hair dryer, reading a women's magazine without having one of your kids interrupting you, luxurious as the whirr of the dryer blocked out other noise.

A row of retro hair dryer chairs. Next Avenue
"It was time off from motherhood and the relentless demands of domestic life; it was being touched in a way that felt good and required no reciprocation; it was an hour or more under the old-style hood hair dryer, reading a women's magazine without having one of your kids interrupting you."  |  Credit: Getty

It's no wonder women committed to doing this once a week. They needed a break. And because their husbands expected them to look their best, it was a justified expense.

My mother adored her Fridays at the beauty parlor. Where we lived in New Orleans, she went to a place called The Bird Cage. She'd come home looking like Audrey Hepburn — hair shiny and stacked high, with loop-de-loops forming a system of tunnels a child could stick her fingers through.

It was an hour or more under the old-style hood hair dryer, reading a women's magazine without having one of your kids interrupting you.

On Friday nights, we five kids got Mack's Chicken in the Box, delivered, and my parents had Date Night. Sometimes they went out, leaving my oldest sister in charge of us all; sometimes Date Night was spent in their bedroom, with a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Our dad liked our mother looking fancy and took lots of pictures of her.

There was a turban thingy she bought to wrap around the whole shebang while she slept. Kept things from coming undone, bobby pins from falling out, releasing the loop-de-loops. Still, she had to be careful when rolling over in bed, not wanting to ruin the hairdo too soon after having paid for it. Money did not grow on trees. By mid-week, things had tumbled and deteriorated, and she would brush it out and tease it and make a little beehive, something she could live with till blessed Friday came.

A Different View of the Salon

I've always disliked going to the salon. An old neck injury makes it painful for me to arch my head back into their big sinks; I don't enjoy seeing myself in the mirror, hair sopping wet; I've never liked the chit-chat requirement between cutter and cuttee; and when it's over, if I don't like the cut, or dislike the style after blow-drying, I am incapable of saying so.

I tip well and leave, then mess it up in the car, aiming to have it look more like it looked when I walked in. One of the best things for me about the pandemic was giving up salons. My last visit to a stylist (who in fairness gave me great haircuts) was in February of 2020, right around Valentine's Day, and right before the world closed down in March.

By late summer that year, my hair was long, thick and unruly, but salons were still risky. I bought barber scissors for $27 at CVS, then watched a few YouTube videos on DIY haircuts. The one I followed instructs you to put your hair in a ponytail at the top of the forehead — a unicorn look. Then you just cut the ends straight across and, when you unleash the ponytail, you have a layered cut — shorter in front, longer in back. Simple, and so much less stressful than time in a pumped-up chair, in a room full of women, all looking at each other in the mirror.

Even when I was vaccinated and it may have been safe to return to the salon, masked, I saw no reason to. I've now cut my hair seven times since that first DIY cut; it needs it about every four months.

My mother didn't go out of the house without her makeup on; I never learned how to wear makeup and gave it up completely by the time I was 18. Marrying for the first time at age 50, I wore no makeup at my wedding. I was comfortable with my unenhanced face. It was the only face I knew, and the only me my husband had ever seen.

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A former beauty queen, my mother was baffled by my lack of effort. She and I were close, never fought, never went through that phase most teenage girls put their moms through. She was sweet and generous to me, and always on my team. As she got older, though, the gap in our respective approaches to feminine beauty widened, became a thing she obsessed over. "Do you never wear makeup? And your husband doesn't mind?" Why wouldn't I try harder?

The Weekly Salon Ritual

After my father died, my mother's cognitive decline was rapid. Within a year, tests revealed she shouldn't be living alone, and she was in three different assisted living facilities over a nine-year period. The bigger facilities, one in Austin, Texas, and one in Asheville, North Carolina, had their own beauty parlors.

After eight years, we moved her to Prescott, Arizona, where I live, into a small care home. First order of business was finding a salon. Every week, we tried a new place, and none met her standards. Never rude in her life before dementia, she now asked questions of the women, like "Where did you get your license?"

The weekly commitment to beauty, observed her entire adult life, was sacred, a form of worship.

After she was verbally abusive to the poor stylist, at place after place, I would give them big tips. Usually, I could do this covertly, but once she saw me slip the woman some bills and scolded me. Finally, it was a place called Prime Cut Hair Design that my mother liked. It reminded her of salons she'd loved in the past. The stylist was an angel named Vera. "Now this one knows what she's doing!"

Every Wednesday found my mom in Vera's chair. I sat nearby, grading papers; we always went to Starbucks afterwards for a Frappuccino. Hair days were good days for us. When Vera left Prime Cut to open her own shop in a town 30 minutes from us, we of course followed her. There are things you just don't mess with.

Eventually my teaching schedule required that I hire a caregiver to drive my mom on Wednesdays. She did not like this and didn't understand I had to work. We went through as many caregivers as we had salons; my mother wouldn't have any of them. This one had too many tattoos. This one didn't drive right. This one was bossy.

'She Took Me to Church'

Until we found another angel, as rare as Vera — Jillian. Jillian had recently graduated from the college where I taught, was a dream student and equally perfect for my mother. Finally, when I called my mom on Wednesday night, she sounded happy.

"How'd it go?" I asked.

"Jillian is great," she said. "She took me to church and then we got Starbucks."

She often confused words. But just to be sure, I said, "You went to church?"

"Yes."

"Was it near the beauty parlor?"

"Yes, that's what I meant. Vera's place. And we got Starbucks after."

It all came together for me then — her mistaking the salon for church. The weekly commitment to beauty, observed her entire adult life, was sacred, a form of worship.

That Wednesday that Jillian drove her was the last time she ever got her hair done. Two days later, on Friday, just after lunchtime, she died. She was just walking from the lunch table to the bathroom when she collapsed. It was October 3, 2008.

The first location where Vera worked, Prime Cut, is less than a mile from my house, and on the route I take to go just about anywhere. I cannot pass that building without palpable reminders of days we spent together, my mom getting beautiful.

She kept it up, this agreement with beauty, right to the end. Hair done on Wednesday, last breath on Friday. 

Soon I will put my hair in a unicorn ponytail, and saw off a few inches, straight across. As the daughter of a beauty queen, it's the least I can do.  

Melanie Bishop
Melanie Bishop has published fiction and nonfiction in the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Journal of Books, Glimmer Train, Vela, and others. She is Faculty Emeritus at Prescott College in Arizona, where she taught for 22 years. Currently, she’s an instructor for Stanford Continuing Studies. Her young adult novel, "My So-Called Ruined Life" (Torrey House Press, 2014), was a top-five finalist for the John Gardner Award in Fiction. Bishop offers instruction, editing, and coaching through Lexi Services. Learn more at her website. Read More
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