Insight into the common mistakes and misconceptions about hair and hairdressers in fiction
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Welcome to our Ask an Expert series! Despite our research, we as writers can get a lot of real-life details wrong. People who are experienced in their field will spot them instantly—and are likely tired of seeing them. Here’s our chance as writers to get direct advice to avoid these pitfalls. Today’s expert is licensed cosmetologist B. C. Marine.
A lot of misconceptions start with the profession itself, so let’s start there.
Is a hairdresser really an expert?
Yes! Despite the public perception of beauty professionals as unskilled customer service workers on par with waitstaff, these are not jobs that someone can walk in off the street and get. These are absolutely skilled trades, and while most of these professionals do not have four-year degrees, they are not uneducated. Nail technicians, estheticians, barbers, and cosmetologists all require hundreds to thousands of hours of school to apply for a license. It’s not unusual to see about half the students in a beauty school class drop out before the end of the program. The license application process involves both written and practical exams, and in my state, so many people fail them that it’s considered impressive to pass both on the first try.
In addition to the obvious technical skills, beauty professionals learn necessary elements of physiology, chemistry, anatomy, pathology, and business. A large percentage of them are actually small business owners or self-employed, renting a booth or room from a larger salon or setting up mini shops. If you listen to two hairdressers talking shop, you might be surprised to hear them casually talk about parietal ridges or the occipital bone. Though there are some truly ditzy people out there, many more downplay their knowledge so as not to intimidate their guests. I can tell you from experience that customers often don’t take well to finding out their hairdresser is actually intelligent or well educated.
Nobody on the job is new.
This might be a bit obvious with my talk about training before, but beauty professionals go through apprenticeship during school. They perform real services on real people, so by the time they are in a salon, there are no basics they haven’t done before. They will experiment with variations on certain things—a new perm wrapping technique or a new pattern for applying color—but they’ve done all the services. Even in school, they’ll try everything on mannequins first before they’re allowed to graduate to working on real people.
We all have battle scars.
You’ve likely noticed that most beauty professionals are relatively young. This isn’t because they kick you out if you’re too old to follow trends. It’s because the jobs are tough on the body. These occupations are more hazardous than most people realize: carpal tunnel, contact dermatitis, back problems, and foot problems all commonly develop on the job and can be career-ending. The toxic fumes used in some products can also lead to asthma, cancer, and dementia, and the popularity of Brazilian blowouts has led to many hairdressers getting levels of formaldehyde poisoning normally seen in morticians.
If you’re writing a character who has been a beauty professional for a while, they’re bound to have some kind of work-related injury or condition. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of what and when. Cosmetologists and barbers especially all have scars on their hands. We have all burned ourselves on hot irons and cut ourselves with shears and straight razors. Part of training is learning to hold tools pointed away from the clients, which often means pointing them at ourselves. Constant shampooing can make the skin on our hands crack. We get hair splinters and inhale and ingest hair—it permeates everything and burrows into our clothing and skin. And we casually handle all of this because our colleagues are doing the same.
Cosmetic Processes and Services
With the prevalence of home hair color and scissors in everyone’s homes, it might seem easy to have your characters change their looks as the plot needs it, but as any pro can tell you, there are plenty of ways that can go wrong.
Haircuts: Don’t try this at home!
We’ve all seen the style-savvy character grab a random pair of scissors on a whim and give themselves or a friend a makeover with a perfectly chic new haircut. That’s not how it plays out in real life. Technically, you can cut hair using anything with a sharp edge, but the scissors from your kitchen or office will not produce as precise a haircut as a pair of sharpened hair shears will, no matter who is wielding them. Add in someone without training, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. If it’s just a straight line on hair that isn’t too thick or a plain buzzcut, an amateur with a steady hand and good eye might pull it off. Otherwise, things go south quickly.
I will never forget a particular incident that happened while I was in school. A local library wanted to hold an event for hair donations, but nobody there bothered to connect with any salons and beauty schools. They held the event anyway, and when people showed up, a couple librarians grabbed some scissors from their office and decided it wouldn’t be that hard to cut off some ponytails. Several poor patrons came to my school to have their bizarre haircuts fixed. Even with instructors helping and occasionally stepping in, some of them were too messed up to completely even out.
Sorry, Haley Mills, but there is no way you gave yourself that pixie cut in The Parent Trap.
Hair coloring is not magic.
I won’t go into full details of how it works because you don’t have all day to read this, there is a limit to what it can do and how many times it can be used. It’s a form of dye, not paint. What’s the difference? Paint covers something with a new color. The old color might show through if the paint isn’t thick enough, but with enough coats, you can replace the color of anything that way. Hair color does not work that way. Have you ever drawn on colored paper with a marker or highlighter? You’ve probably noticed that the resulting color is always a mix and never lighter than the paper you started with. And if you have, say, black construction paper, the markers won’t show up at all.
Hair works much the same way. With virgin hair—hair that’s never been colored—regular color with the right developer can lighten a few shades, but if you try to do too much, it can damage the hair or turn bright orange or yellow. On hair that’s been colored before, it will not remove the old color but will mix with it instead. The darker the color, the more limited the outcomes are. The only way to remove previous color is with lightener first, and even that only gets you a few extra shades at a time. If you’ve ever heard of double-processed blond, that is the first step of the double process. The hair must be lightened first, and then a toner or dye is applied to get the right tint.
If the old color is a bright red or dark brown, it can take multiple sessions with lightener to get to blond without frying the hair. There is no way that someone on the run is going to accomplish it with a box of color from the grocery store. As for fashion colors—ones that don’t occur in nature, such as green or blue—most of them stain the hair and cannot be removed until they fade and grow out. If a character needs to get blend in suddenly, you can have them go deep red if they started with pink or orange; otherwise, dark brown is really the only dye that will work, and it will have an undertone of whatever they started with.
Timing is everything.
Most chemical processes weaken hair by design. Whether it’s color, lighteners, perms, or relaxers, they accomplish permanent change by breaking down a part of the hair and reforming it. Unless your goal is to have a character’s hair melt—and that can be a compelling plot point—they can only do so many of these processes back to back or at all. Image a strand of hair as a Jenga tower. When you pull out a block and place it on top, that’s a perm or dye. If you do it too many times or too quickly, it will collapse on you.
This is why spy shows usually opt for wigs. If a character needs to change their look every few days, they can’t do that to their real hair. It generally takes at least two weeks in between processes, and you can only do a handful of times in total over the same piece of hair. However, due to the extreme breakage involved with perms and relaxers, they can never both be done on the same hair until one has fully grown out.
We’ve only just begun…
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that can affect hair! I’ve really only scratched the surface today. If you’d like more in-depth examples or answers, let us know on Facebook or Twitter. You can also follow my #BeautyWritingTips on Twitter on Tuesdays.
Are you both a writer and an expert in a field yourself? Contact us, and you might get to be featured in a future An an Expert blog post!
Join us next week for another Ask an Expert with Renee Frey on dancing and theater.
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