How looking after my hair taught me to look after myself too

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Daisy Buchanan
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I can sum up the first half of my twenties with the label “the dry shampoo years”. The summer of 2011 was, if you’ll forgive the revolting expression, a crusty one. It was fun – well, at the time…

In my early and mid 20’s I was convinced that fun lurked in the shadows, tasted of rum looked and always felt slightly hungover - but I was possessed by an odd and directionless energy. I had no idea where I was going, but I was determined to get there as quickly as possible. If you went back in time and took a photograph of me at any given moment, I was probably wearing wonky false eyelashes while holding a large glass of white wine and my breath, hoping that my bank card didn’t get declined as I attempted to pay for my next adventure. 

I broke my heart, and phone screen, with regularity and alacrity. I was rarely at home for long enough to give my hair a proper wash. It took too long. Making toast for dinner took too long. My hair was also too long, broken, bleached and dry from my occasional attempts to straighten it into submission. Most of the time I scraped it into a tight pony tail, or pushed it on top of my head in an octopus bun, my split ends splayed into straggly legs, waving for help. The booze, the boys and the bonkers adventures were a brilliant way of distracting myself from myself. Although I wouldn’t have been able to formulate this thought at the time, self care scared me. Looking after myself spent time alone with my thoughts, an idea I’d greet with a big, fat, “no thank you”. But brittle, damaged girls often end up with brittle, damaged hair – my follicles knew I needed fixing, long before I did. 

When I was 24 I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, after growing up believing that it was normal to be constantly deafened by panic, as though it were white noise. I started seeing a counsellor and taking anti anxiety medication, but it took me a long time to realise that my mental health could be managed holistically, and that self care could help. 

Because I am a cliché, it took a man to turn my life around. Shortly after I turned 29, I met Ian. Ian was a hairdresser who had come highly recommended by an actual person with great hair, and not a Groupon offer. At the time, my life was starting to come together, but my hair was still breaking apart in my own hands. My looming thirtieth birthday felt like an arbitrary deadline. Everything else was going pretty well. I was engaged to someone I adored, and instead of seeking attention from bad boys, I was putting my energy into my career, which was much better for my mental health. I was starting to think I might be a grown up, and I longed to look like one. 

However, things did not get off to an auspicious start. “This is awful,” said Ian, glumly, attempting to pick up a strand of hair, and grabbing a fluffy ball of split ends instead. “Are you washing it with Fairy Liquid? How did it get like this?” I bristled. “Yes Ian, I know, that’s why I’m about to pay you more money than it would cost to go on a last minute three star all inclusive holiday in Tenerife. To make it nice.” Ian did not rise. “I bet you only shampoo it once. I bet you just pump the conditioner into the ends and rinse it straight out without even bothering to comb it through.” Um, yes. Wasn’t that how most people washed their hair? 

Ian taught me to shampoo and rinse twice (once to loosen the dirt, once to wash), squeeze out every drop of water, and then comb through your conditioner with a tangle teaser. When he whipped out his hairdryer, I noticed that my hair seemed smoother – in fact, his round brush glided through, and he didn’t have to tug, or mutter swearwords under his breath. My hair seemed nourished, for the first time in a long time. 

Ian explained that parabens made hair dry and frizzy, and that conditioner did nothing unless you really worked it in. Even though I was sceptical, I stopped on the way home and bought some posh shampoo. I followed Ian’s instructions. At first, it felt like a bore. I rubbed the shampoo onto my scalp, and nothing happened. I rinsed. I repeated. And that’s when the revelation happened. Just as Ian had promised, the second shampooing had resulted in an explosion of foam, proving that the dirt was gone and the deep clean was in process. Oddly, it reminded me of one of my favourite childhood activities – a trip to the car wash. The foam felt transformative – as though I’d managed to conjure up a bonnet of bubbles before rinsing it off to reveal brand new hair beneath it.

I realised that being alone with my thoughts in the shower was actually enjoyable. It was soothing. Applying a method and following Ian’s logic gave me a purpose. For the first time in years, my mind stopped racing. In the water, I stopped worrying. It reminded me of being very little, sitting in the bath with my sisters, as my Mum shampooed my scalp, tender and careful as she tried to keep the soap and water away from my eyes. Washing my hair felt like an act of self -parenting. Perhaps I wasn’t as bad at being an adult as I thought I was. Maybe the real secret of being a grown up was slowness – taking the time to put more effort into doing less, and doing it for ourselves.

I wrote about hair washing in my book, How To Be A Grown-Up, and I’ve been astonished by the way readers have responded to it. I’m still getting tweets from people saying that my method – OK, Ian’s method – hasn’t just changed the way they wash their hair, but the way they feel about themselves. It has made me realise the importance of rituals. I can’t tell you how to make your hair look good, once you’ve rinsed off the conditioner. But I do know that the practice has its own power, that it’s important to spend time alone and naked, with nothing to distract us, doing something that’s entirely for our own benefit. I think this also applies to baths. Bathing is meditative, and I wasted gallons of hot water in my twenties by leaping out like Archimedes, almost as soon as I’d got in. My “eureka” moment came when I was able to lie still, persuade my brain to slow down, and simply enjoy being in the water.  

Sometimes I think of my hair like a rescue dog. For a long time, no-one was looking after it, but it has responded to kindness, care and nourishment. It feels loved, and now that I’m in my thirties, I’m starting to learn the art of self compassion. Ultimately, washing my hair properly is a very simple act of mindfulness. It’s an activity that quiets my mind and puts me back into my body. I’m thinking with my hands, concentrating on the scents and sensations I’m encountering, as I meet them. It takes a while to wash your hair properly, but when you decide to spend that much time with yourself, you’re choosing you. I’ve finished neglecting myself and running away from myself, and now my hair, and my soul are in great condition. 

Images: REX/Daisy Buchanan