It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind when we suggested that Lucy, our 16-year-old, perform community service (a prerequisite to getting into college these days), but she did it anyway: She went and had her hair cut off. This wasn’t an act of adolescent rebellion-although, come to think of it, that may have accounted for some of her motivation. Rather, she did it for Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for disadvantaged children suffering from a medical condition called alopecia areata. The disease, which has no known cause or cure, makes the hair fall out, often in clumps.
While there are dozens of hairdressers-a few in Manhattan-who donate their services to the organization, Lucy went to Frédéric Fekkai, which doesn’t. Her choice of hairdresser wasn’t necessarily the brattish, name-brand, label-loving desire of an adolescent who has read one too many issues of Teen Vogue. It was my wife Debbie’s idea.
Debbie goes to Laurie Green, a hairdresser who recently joined Fekkai after having her own Upper West Side salon for many years. If Lucy was going to disfigure herself, Debbie thought, she could at least have it done by a trusted professional.
Debbie couldn’t bear to watch, so she sent me instead-a reversal of the customary sex roles. “Usually, it’s the fathers who are upset,” explained Susan Stone, Locks of Love’s executive director. “They don’t recognize their little girl.”
I confess to having felt a bit of trepidation. Lucy had long, straight blond hair, and cutting it off-no matter how worthy the charity-seemed a self-destructive act. On the other hand, as one who lived for years under the yoke of a mother whose control over my own hair was nothing short of fascistic (until I put my foot down in my late teens and forbade her to accompany me to the barber), I knew that hair isn’t something worth risking your relationship with your children over.
Not that I entirely subscribe to the notion that “It’s just hair-it’ll grow back,” as Lucy claimed when she lobbied for the make-over. Mine didn’t: By the time I was allowed to grow my hair the way I wanted (and took full advantage of my freedom by sporting an Afro), it had already started to recede. So to me, hair evokes feelings of urgency, as well as anxiety and insecurity.
On the other hand, when you’ve lost as much of it over the years as I have and you realize there’s not a damn thing you can do about it (real men don’t wear hairpieces or get plugs), you tend to become philosophical.
Of course, if you’re going to make an event of the ritual slaughter, there’s no better place to go than Frédéric Fekkai. It bears no resemblance to Michael’s Barbershop on the Upper East Side, where my mother used to take me, and where the comic books had licked and discarded lollipops stuck to them.
Michael’s shelves weren’t stocked with a signature line of men’s and women’s hair products; nor did it have a café serving “Les Sandwiches.” I successfully resisted the temptation to order lunch while Lucy changed into one of the salon’s chic white robes.
Laurie told us that Anna Quindlen, the novelist and former New York Times columnist, had recently been in with her own daughter, who’d also had her hair shorn for Locks of Love. “She had curly hair down to her butt; she had grown it for a long time,” Laurie said. “It’s kind of a trend for these young girls. Someone came in to do a demo from Paris; the model also wanted to donate her hair to Locks of Love.”
According to Ms. Stone, the Locks of Love executive director, the organization gets between 2,000 and 3,000 donations a week, some from as far away as Nepal. “Lisa Ling donated her hair on The View,” she said. “And Ann Curry and her daughter are growing their hair for us.”
It takes from six to 10 ponytails to make one hairpiece, with long, straight blond or red hair being the most desirable. Unfortunately, the majority of the hair that Locks of Love receives is discarded because it’s damaged, dyed, gray or too short.
“Ninety percent of the hair we use comes from children,” said Ms. Stone. “It’s what we call ‘virgin hair.'”
In the end, it all happened so fast that I confess I was looking the other way when Lucy’s 13 inches became hairpiece fodder. One moment they were on her head-the tresses I’d known since she was small, that had graced a hundred home videos, a thousand snapshots, over a decade’s worth of Christmas cards-and the next instant they were gone, severed by Laurie in one confident, unsentimental snip.
The hairdresser placed the shorn hair on the counter before us. To me, it looked like a dead-if golden-animal. Road kill. “It’s better you didn’t bring Debbie,” Laurie acknowledged. “She’d be having tears in her eyes right now.”
Lucy, on the other hand, was ecstatic. Not so much because of her altered appearance-her hair was still wet and stringy-as by the boldness of the gesture.
“I’m so touched that so many kids are willing to give up a part of their identity so another child can reclaim theirs,” Ms. Stone had said to me. But in Lucy’s case, I don’t think it was so much about giving up her identity as asserting it. I’ve never seen her look as giddy as she did while Laurie fashioned her remaining hair into what she described as a contemporary bob. In a matter of moments, she went from being a kid to an ingénue.
“I’m so happy you didn’t bring her,” Lucy said, referring to her mother, as she admired herself in the mirror. “This is so much better than what I had in mind.”
And shorter-her hair hardly reached her jaw line. “Blame it on me,” said Laurie, whose relationship with my wife-who has something of a complex about her own hair-has had its ups and downs. “She’s been mad at me before. It won’t be the first time.
“Tell Debbie I’m going on vacation,” she added, perhaps rethinking her bravado. “Tell her I left this evening.”
But Debbie’s reaction was less violent than I’d anticipated-though my mother did not take the news well. She’d always wanted children with straight blond hair-her spawn all had curly brown or black hair-and I had to hold the phone away from my ear as she questioned our parenting skills.
Lucy sent her hair away to Locks of Love after letting it dry for several days (“If it’s wet, it’s going to mold,” Ms. Stone had cautioned). Frédéric Fekkai gave us the haircut for free, and loaded us down with beauty products, after learning the righteousness of our cause–and that I was writing about the whole experience.
Unfortunately, Lucy’s offering doesn’t qualify as a tax deduction. I checked. “The donation of a ponytail is equivalent to donating a body part,” explained Amy Weeks, Locks of Love’s project-development coordinator. “And donating a kidney is not a tax deduction, according to the I.R.S.”