I learned how to wash my hair properly when I was 29 years old.
I wasn’t surfing a wave of scurf and grease, or anything – and I definitely wasn’t one of those bold, confident people who say, "I heard that your hair washes itself if you leave it for six weeks! So I thought I’d give it a go!" I rubbed my hair with shampoo and smothered it with conditioner every two days. I spent money I didn’t have on it, hoping for a miracle, thinking that the right hairdresser could fix it, and fix me – if my hair was silky and smooth, I could be too – while the brittle, fried knots I was living with represented a personal failing. I dreaded washing my own hair, and worse, drying it, because being on my own with my hair meant being on my own in my head. It was a chore to rush so that I could get on with the business of distracting myself from myself.
Then I met Ian. He was recommended to me by a glamorous person I didn’t know very well, a silky, smooth-seeming person. I believed Ian could fix me, transform me and help me escape myself, head first. Ian was very expensive, which sat well with my insecure conviction that if I can’t afford something, I probably really need it. And Ian was rude about my hair.
"It’s in appalling condition," he sniffed, picking up a strand that was attached to a clump that was turning into a dreadlock. "I suppose you shampoo it once and then comb the conditioner through with your fingers." There was another way?
"Ian, I’m very busy. I have a lot of hair." Of course, he had time for elaborate, hair-based rituals – he was hanging out with hair all bloody day long. I had a packed schedule! If I spent too long on personal grooming, how would I make time to say yes to everything that everyone else wanted me to do? Or get any self-loathing done?
"I wouldn’t treat a hat the way you treat your hair." I sat and sulked silently for a few minutes. I didn’t deserve good hair. I didn’t deserve good anything. It was a follicular representation of my earthly value. For a day or so, I’d have a smooth, beautiful blowout and then the facade would crack and I’d be left with a tangled mess. Like my career, my finances, my love life – it might look good for a limited period, and then I’d be left with unmanageable tangles because I didn’t deserve any better.
But if you can comb out all the knots, you’re one step closer to speaking up in a meeting, or telling your bad boyfriend to f*ck off, or opening that terrifying envelope on the mat.
Ian was the first person to tell me the methodology behind good hair. As I sipped champagne (Ian is anti prosecco) he explained that the chemicals that make shampoo lather are the ones that dry your hair out, the first round of shampooing just loosens the dirt and the second actually gets your hair clean. He said that unless I combed through the conditioner with a proper device, I might as well sing my hair a lullaby in order to make it soft and manageable. Perhaps because I looked like I was about to cry, Ian softened. "Lots of girls would kill for hair as thick as yours. But no one has good hair unless they put the work in. Take better care of it, and it will take care of you." According to Ian, I could no longer blame my crappy hair, and by extension, my crappy life, on bad luck.
At the time, the idea of taking care of anything was daunting. I was a plant-murdering, dinner-skipping, overdraft-charge-accumulating disaster. But Ian gave me a small project. He believed in me. So I ended up in TK Maxx buying bargain sulphate-free shampoo . It sparked a tiny revolution that started on my head but became body wide. Every time I stood in the shower, pouring a second measure of shampoo into my palm, I’d think, "However badly you fucked up today, you are washing your hair like an adult!"
A couple of months later I returned to Ian. He was pleased by my measurable progress. I started to investigate the world of masques, occasionally combing a fistful of goop through my hair before going to the gym. Every deadline I met and vegetable I ate seemed to add a brick to this new path I was building – the road to becoming A Sensible Adult Woman With Nice Hair.
If you’ve ever had a bath or a cup of tea, you’ll understand the humble, healing powers of hot water, and standing under a shower feeling my dirty hair becoming clean seems like nothing less than a rebirth. For too long, washing my hair had reminded me of the Sunday night scent of soap, salvation and school in the morning. The weekly hair wash was the worst kind of ritual. My little sisters would try to resist it, I’d be begged to set a good example and we’d all leave the tub smelling of Head and Shoulders. It was about doing the bare minimum. Cleanliness had everything to do with decency and nothing to do with personal vanity.
When I was old enough to be responsible for keeping my own hair clean, it was all I could do to endure the chore. Even as an adult I couldn’t bring myself to make time for it, or for me.
But when I started washing it under Ian’s instructions, I started to feel lots of surprising things – it was OK to be on my own for an hour and in a place where I couldn’t instantly reply to messages and emails; it was OK to be naked, and look at my body without shielding my eyes as I got used to the sight of my knees, shins and nipples; I probably wouldn’t leave the shower with shampoo-advert hair, but it was mine and that was enough. It was a basic place to start, but the good feelings trickled down like warm water on my bare back.
If you’re feeling low, and want to feel loved, stop what you’re doing and wash your hair like this.
You will need:
- A sturdy comb
- Hot water
- A soft towel
- An hour, and patience
1. Step under the warm water, and take a little shampoo in the palm of your hand. Use both hands to rub it vigorously into your scalp. Be firm. You’re using the heat and strength of your hands to smooth every scary, pointy thought in your head. Rub until your hands ache, and rinse.
2. Do it again. This time, the shampoo should foam only a little. Think about how thorough your work is – you’re not just moving the dirt around, you’re sending it down the plughole. Months, if not years, of lingering bad dates and mean friends and shameful mistakes and other people’s cigarettes – all gone now. No more.
3. Squeeze your hair. Divide it into sections, squeeze and squeeze again. Get all the water out. Now take your comb (my preferred brand is a Tangle Teaser) and prepare for battle. This is the hardest bit. You’re running up a hill. You’re taking on Godzilla. But if you can do this, and comb out all the knots, you’re one step closer to speaking up in a meeting, or telling your bad boyfriend to fuck off, or opening that terrifying envelope on the mat.
4. This is the fun part! Give your hair a final squeeze, and then take the most delicious smelling conditioner you can afford. Section by section, comb it through. You’re fattening the turkey. The follicles are becoming plump and powerful, sucking up all the moisture and nutrition that you’re giving them because you followed the rule.
5. Use your fingers to make sure your hair is coated. Give it a final gentle rub. Rinse out all the conditioner with cool water.
6. Wrap it in a towel, and dry it very gently, if at all. It’s clean. It smells good. No matter what comes before or after, at this moment you have the cleanest, softest hair in the universe.
Giving hair-washing instructions might seem more obvious and condescending than launching a food blog with a recipe for beans on toast. What wasn’t obvious to me was that the way we choose to take care of ourselves often has a bigger impact than the one you immediately see on the surface.
I don’t have the grandest, glossiest hair in the world – but I do have a sense that in one tiny area, I’m nourished, healthy, and doing my very best. No one benefits from it but me. We all need to find spaces to be that selfish – because that’s when we work out how to be alone with ourselves, and at peace with ourselves. You could learn to cook a gastronomically ambitious range of dinners for one, or memorise a poem in a barely known ghost language that you recite only when no one is around. Be wildly ambitious in your selfishness! But it doesn’t do you any harm to start with really clean hair.