By Dorothy O’Donnell
I couldn’t summon the words to defend my child.
The hairdresser grabbed a hunk of my daughter’s waist-length mane and scowled. “Look how dirty and messy,” she said, shaking her head. “You need to learn to take care of your hair.”
We’d stopped by the salon spur of the moment after school. It wasn’t our usual place, but I knew they took walk-ins. Sadie needed a trim and wanted bangs. Linda, the hairdresser who greeted us, said she was free and led my daughter to a chair in front of a mirrored wall. At first, my 11-year-old preened at her reflection. But as Linda rattled off a list of her hair crimes, she dropped her gaze to the floor.
After a long day at school, Sadie’s hair wasn’t looking beauty pageant perfect. But I didn’t appreciate the way Linda was treating her, the way she assumed her tresses were always a disaster. Sadie is usually a stickler about brushing her hair and often gets compliments on it.
As Linda continued to criticize her hair—split ends, greasy roots, too long—my daughter slumped lower in her seat. My gut screamed at me to forget the haircut and get my girl the hell out of there. Instead, I chuckled awkwardly and did nothing.
Shy by nature, I grew up with a moody alcoholic father and, at a young age, learned to keep quiet to avoid triggering his anger. I’ve worked hard to shed this behavior as an adult, but still slip back into default mode more often than I’d like.
I’m trying to raise my daughter to be comfortable sticking up for herself. And I knew, as I avoided her wounded eyes in the mirror, that I was setting a terrible example—not to mention being a wimpy mom—by remaining mute while this woman belittled her. Yet I couldn’t summon the words to defend my child.
As I paid and tipped Linda, she leaned across the cash register to offer some parting advice: “Tell her she needs to wash her hair,” she hissed through cupped hands, as if Sadie, glued to my side, couldn’t hear her. “And brush it!”
I gave another feeble laugh, grabbed Sadie’s hand, and fled.
“That lady was such a bitch!” my daughter said as we walked across the mall. “Why did you tip her?”
“Sadie!” I scolded.
But I knew she was right. And that her saying the “B” word didn’t compare to what I’d failed to say to Linda. I stopped between two rows of terra-cotta buildings and looked down at her.
“You know what?” I said. “You’re right. I’m going back.”
“To take her tip away?” Sadie asked, hopefully.
I explained it wasn’t about the money. It was about letting the hairdresser know it wasn’t okay to talk to her like that.
I left Sadie to browse in a toy store and marched back to the salon, my head churning with all the great lines I’d lay on Linda. But when I approached the entrance, I saw she was busy with another client. Other customers sat in the waiting area, flipping through magazines or tapping on their phones.
My throat tightened; my mouth went dry. I froze a few yards away from the door, too scared to go in. Defeated, I slinked back to the toy store and found Sadie in the doll aisle.
“Did you tell her?” she asked expectantly.
I stammered that Linda was busy—maybe I’d call her manager later. Sadie swatted my outstretched hand away like it was a fly and bolted out the door. Disgusted with myself, I chased after her. I steered her back to the toy store, then headed for the salon.
Linda was finishing up with a silver-haired man when I arrived. I took a deep breath and went inside.
“Can I help you?” she asked, raising her brows.
“I just wanted to talk to you for a minute,” I said, surprised at how calm I sounded, how unruffled I was by the curious stares of the other stylists and customers following us as we stepped outside.
“I know you probably didn’t mean to, but you hurt my daughter’s feelings when you said those things about her hair,” I said, looking her straight in the eye.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I was just trying to help her.”
Whether she was telling the truth or not didn’t matter. My anger at her—and at myself—vanished as soon as I said what I needed to. I’d scored a victory for my daughter. For us both.
Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer. She is working on a memoir about raising a young child diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder and blogs at dorothyodonnell.com.