Would you dare to dye your partner's hair?

As grey roots appear, imagine the plight of a wary partner asked to stand in for the experts… A cautionary tale

Recently, my wife has started walking towards me and bowing her head, as if in penitence. In fact, she’s showing me the roots of her hair. “Howdsit look?” she asks.

Yesterday, she sent me an email from her “office” in the kitchen to mine in the converted loft upstairs. This contained a web link, with no explanation. I clicked the link. It took me to a very long article in American Vogue, “How Hair Salons Will be Transformed by the Global Pandemic”, about what hair salons might be like in the future: face masks, nobody getting too close, that kind of thing. It could have been summarised in a paragraph, but this being Vogue it went on and on and on. I’m sure it was brilliant. Just not for me, and I didn’t finish it.

And yet I am being sucked into this hairy world. My wife has no access to her normal channels – she can’t pop out to John Frieda to get her cut, colour and blow-dry. Do I care? Not a bit. But I care about my wife, and she cares about her hair a great deal indeed, so I get all tangled up in it, like a cheap brush in an amateur blow-dry.

You may have the same thing going on, if not about hair then about something else. Because in every pair of human beings there is always a tiny difference of opinion that feels like a Grand Canyon. One can’t understand why the other cares so little, and the other thinks the first is obsessed.

When I told her I would be writing this article about her hair, my wife said: “OK. Just don’t make me seem too neurotic.” What follows is an attempt to describe somebody just neurotic enough:

1. Soon after we first met, she stayed away from me for a whole month, because she felt that she had been given a bad haircut and didn’t want to put me off.

2. When our daughter was a baby, old enough to sit up in the bath but not yet speaking, I gave her (the daughter) a cheeky little trim. Alas, this occasioned wailing and gnashing of teeth from my wife, and I was not quickly forgiven.

3. I did once try to blow-dry her hair, and did get my cheap brush tangled in her fringe. This time it wasn’t wailing but howling.

These painful memories have been flushed into the foreground by beastly lockdown. With every day that passes, her grey roots become more visible. Until now, this has been managed by the clever application of something contained in an expensive-looking box that she keeps in the cupboard in the downstairs loo. But at some point this remedy will cease to work. And then…

I have been informed that I will be required to colour my wife’s hair, using some kind of kit she has acquired in the post and following instructions not merely pre-recorded on YouTube but administered live and in real-time by an actual, pro hair colourist (but what did you expect, given 1, 2 and 3 above?)

Speaking entirely in the abstract, this kind of challenge appeals strongly to me. I like painting: I paint in oils, acrylic and watercolour. I am currently painting undercoat and emulsion, in that same downstairs loo, with both brush and roller. If somebody presented me with a wig on a stand, a brush and hair colour, I’d fly at it.

But my wife is not a wig on a stand. She’s somebody I care about, with high standards and strong views.

When she first suggested I colour her hair along the lines described above, I proposed that she might instead ask for assistance from our daughter, now a teenager with a lively interest in hair and makeup. I overheard them conversing in the bathroom with the door open. It started well: daughter leapt at the chance, telling mother she’d love to do it.

Unfortunately, mother didn’t stop speaking. Instead, she launched into a speech – a speech that promised to run as long as that Vogue article – about the need for daughter to get it exactly right. The kind of pressure you might put on somebody before brain surgery.

Daughter interrupted: “Actually, no. I’m not doing it. Ask Dad.”

I’m so pleased to have a daughter who knows how to set boundaries, and say no. I just wish it didn’t put me back in the spotlight. The options, as I see it, are these:

a. Encourage my wife to go grey. (Won’t happen. The grey is patchy, won’t look right, she says.)

b. Pray that British hair salons are permitted, like those in the American state of Georgia, as described in Vogue, to let customers in again before it’s too late. (Can’t see it happening soon.)

c. Do it, make a hash of it, take my bollocking. (Not the end of the world, but a painful experience that I’d rather avoid.)

d. Do it, find I am not bad at it, win enduring praise and affection. (Ha!)

e. Procrastinate until she becomes desperate enough to say she won’t mind if I make a mess of it. (Best shot.)

This is not really a story about hair, which many consider to be trivial. It’s about control, responsibility and taking care of each other. Human beings need to feel at least a bit in control, responsible and looked after. By depriving her of access to John Frieda, lockdown has stripped away the illusion that my wife can control the unwanted appearance of grey hair.

Compared with much else that is going on – people dying, losing jobs – this is certainly at the trivial end of how losing control makes us uncomfortable. But, as it happens, I don’t think hairdos are trivial. It’s true that, in order to avoid pointless conversation at the barber’s, I sometimes sit through the entire procedure with my eyes closed. (If it’s a good cut, great. If it’s a bad one, so what? It will soon grow out.) And yet… a few years ago when a thin patch appeared at the top of my head I found it painful to contemplate. The uncertainty was terrible: was I about to go entirely bald? Would I lose it all? How long would it take: years, months, days? Would it fall out overnight? What would people think? Why was my body undermining me like this?

Over time, I came to see that I regularly meet people I know whose hair has grown bushy, fallen out or changed colour and that, after registering the change, I tend not to give it a second thought. Why should anybody care any more about my hair? I’m sure they don’t. By extension, I’m sure most people couldn’t care less if my wife’s grey roots are visible. If they do care, they’re not worth bothering about, surely?

You can imagine how well this line of reasoning works on her – not at all.

The other day, we were watching the news presented by a journalist friend. I told my wife I knew him. She said, “Send him a message.” I did. It read: “My wife wants to know if you TV people have access to secret grooming and haircuts…”

Part of me felt sure he wouldn’t reply to such trivia. But the answer flew back fast. “Sadly not! The makeup artists have been sent home and the women are in fear of their real hair colour coming through.”

And it’s not just the women who want to get their hair right. He continued: “Just before lockdown I eschewed filling up the fridge for an emergency haircut. Priorities are important right now.”

And so we carry on.

My wife bows her head for inspection, invites me to watch somebody on Instagram who just dyed their own hair successfully, or spectacularly badly. And, for most of the time, I pretend to be interested. I’m sure that, in some part of my lockdown life that holds no interest for her, she is doing the same for me.


John-Paul Flintoff

The GuardianTramp

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