My sensory experience of a shampoo and set
I am in the hair salon of the care home where I have been carrying out research for the last few months. There are no clients, but instead of heading off home the hairdresser is kindly staying to give me a ‘shampoo and set’ – something I have never had before.
It’s quiet so I can’t experience the usual comings and goings of residents and the manoeuvring of wheelchairs. But after watching so many others go through this process (both here and in other settings where I am carrying out this research) I’m keen to know what it’s like.
Even though this is part of my research, sort of an experiment, I am still nervous. I don’t want to end up with hair that I don’t like, that changes how I look. Hair feels integral to my appearance and identity, to ‘who I am’.
The consultation begins with the hairdresser asking me how I would like my hair. In my mind I’m creating hairstyles from ‘Madmen’ and thinking about the burlesque revival and Lana Del Rey’s vintage style. I show her a picture of a woman with a demi wave and the hairdresser says she won’t be able to do that look. She reassures me that she won’t give me tight curls – she will use her biggest rollers on wide strips of hair. There’s a lot of trust in this (fleeting) relationship.
The hairdresser moves me to the sink, it’s a front facing wash, not a back wash sink like they have in most salons today. She puts a towel around me and I lean over the sink. Water rushes; it takes a few moments for the temperature to become warm enough. Then the water rushes over my head and I feel very wet. It’s dark as I face into the sink and can’t open my eyes. I hold the towel around my face. The shampoo massage is lovely; the hairdresser has very firm hands and I am relieved of any tension. Then the rinse and I felt aware of all the water flooding over me; the hairdresser held my head over the basin and I felt drenched and encased in water. The water is warm now, and the smells of the shampoo and conditioner fill my nose. As the hairdresser firmly lifted my head up from the sink water drips down my face. The light changes as I come up from the dark depths of the sink. I wonder what this experience would be like if I were a person with dementia, maybe without my glasses and hearing aid.
After I have been towelled dry, my hair is sprayed with setting lotion. When I’ve been filming I’ve noticed women jumping slightly and exclaim how cold the lotion is, so I was at least prepared for this. The setting lotion will help to keep my new curls in place. I sit in front of the mirror having my hair combed and parted and put into rollers. The hairdresser moves very fast: parting hair and rolling it up deftly. She says it is important not to leave a ‘hook’ at the end of the roller; this happens if you don’t get all of the hair over onto the roller. As my hair is quite thick it isn’t uncomfortable, and I quite enjoy the process of my hair being combed and pulled, there was something therapeutic in the rhythm but I could imagine it might tug if my hair was thinner.
I like how I look with my hair all up in rollers; it’s old fashioned image. The mirror is pretty big, and I face myself the whole time, but not everyone does always face the mirror like this. I usually film from the side and it made me realise that I haven’t always caught this aspect of the salon and mirror.
The hairdresser brings the dryer over to me so that I am still in view of the camera which is filming the process. The dryer is a standalone hood dryer; it feels very strange under it at first. The hood is lowered over me and comes down as low as my eyes. There is sudden hot air and noise – I feel like I am enclosed inside an engine and it sounds like it is going to take off. A recent Radio 4 play by Alex Blumer explored the experience of soundscapes to people with memory loss. She describes all sounds as noise until you know what they are. Going into the dryer could well be a terrifying experience for a person with dementia and I have regularly noticed discomfort when people initially go under the dryer.
After a while I become accustomed to the warmth and begin to enjoy it and then feel sleepy and then after more time I become fidgety. I don’t want to be encased in the dryer any longer. I feel cut off and trapped. It was a relief to come out from under the dryer after half an hour. This is actually longer than many of the residents sit under for, because their hair is thinner and dries quicker or because they can only bear it for 15-20 minutes.
The rollers come out very quickly. My hair is bouncing curls. It looks shiny and thick but I really hate the style. I look strange and ‘unlike myself’. An aim in this research is to try to explore the role that appearance plays in this sense of self. Certainly this self staring back at me in the mirror is not an image I want to see; the light of the salon, the size of the mirror and this mirror image gives me a vision of myself that I don’t want to recognise.
For more on Alex Blumer’s play see (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ouch/2012/03/blind_playwright_plays_with_so.html?postId=112034090).
An hour long Women’s Hour programme (Summer 2011), describes the strength and occasional intensity of the relationship between women and their hairdresser ( Women’s Hour Hair Programme).