Euny Hong is a journalist and the author, most recently of “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” (Penguin, 2019). She has lived and worked in the U.S., France, Korea and Germany. She tweets @euny.
NEW YORK — First, they came for the hand sanitizing gel, but I already had a liter, so I said nothing. Then they came for the loo rolls, but I had plenty of those, so I said nothing. Then my roots started to show, and I panicked along with so many other women — while the men, still, said nothing.
But as the weeks wear on, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that men are just as vain as women.
In April, when their hair started to get shaggy, the men finally broke their silence. At the highest levels of government, they started making nervous jokes that betrayed their agitation.
In a speech at the National Assembly, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warned France would start to look like “La Gaule chevelue,” or “hairy Gaul” — that pejorative term used by Julius Caesar’s minions to connote the areas roughly comprising modern-day France and Belgium — unless the country reopened its hair salons.
Hair salon reopening policies are not governed by unifying EU laws; there is no “Bologna Process.”
Meanwhile, far-left MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted a picture of himself with a sad little stiff paintbrush of a ponytail and the caption: “I don’t get it. Are we opening hair salons on May 11 or not?” The picture quickly became a meme, with some comparing Mélenchon’s new look to that of rabble-rousing 18th-century French statesman Maximilien de Robespierre.
The French weren’t the only ones worried about their grooming options. In an unedited, not-meant-to-be-seen version of Italian President Sergio Mattarella’s late March national address, presidential spokesman Giovanni Grasso is heard off-camera telling Mattarella he has a “tuft out of place.” The latter replies with mild annoyance, “Eh Giovanni, I can’t go to the barber either.”
Meanwhile, chapeau to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who recently revealed that he has been cutting his own hair since university, a level of resourcefulness that may well explain why he never seems to get into any kind of permanent trouble amid innumerable no-confidence votes.
In a crisis that has put a spotlight on the huge survival advantages of the haves over the have nots — as the wealthy, for example, flee epicenters of infection to sequester themselves in their country homes — hair seemed, for a while, to be the great social equalizer. No one, neither man nor woman nor prince nor pauper, could get a haircut.
Just how desperate people are feeling about this became obvious when a lifting of lockdown measures in some countries — including Germany, France and Belgium — had Europeans throwing themselves at their hairdressers.
In the last week of April, the German version of the haircut-booking web portal Treatwell showed an increase of 1,064 percent over their normal level for hair appointments. On May 11 — the date of France’s official déconfinement — French hair salons not only bucked their sacred tradition of remaining closed on Monday, but went so far as to open at one minute past midnight. In Belgium, some hairdressers pulled an all-nighter, working until 4 a.m. to fit in their most impatient clients.
Hair salon reopening policies are not governed by unifying EU laws; there is no “Bologna Process.” So far, the basic rules for Germany, France and Belgium are similar: sterilized equipment, masks, no more coffee or magazines (which begs the question where we’re supposed to go if we want to read sticky 14-month old issues of Paris Match).
But if you’re living in Germany, you won’t have access to all the same services of pulchritude as before. If you’re desperate to dye your eyebrows, your only option is to hitch an illegal ride across the border. You’ll also have to shampoo your own hair at the salon before getting it cut, whether you already washed it at home or not.
But for all their impatience, Europeans have viewed temporary hirsutism as a necessary a necessary evil for which regimes and governments cannot reasonably be blamed. Broadly speaking, the mentality is one of people versus the virus.
Not so in the United States, where the people’s right to a haircut has become a three-way proxy war between state governments struggling to enforce lockdowns, right-wing extremists who feel that access to barbers is an inalienable right (next time you see a photo of anti-lockdown protesters, look for the signs among the guns saying “WE WANT HAIRCUTS”), and people on the left opposed to making low-paid workers like barbers to expose themselves to danger.
So absurd has this haircut war become that in Lansing, Michigan, a group calling itself the Michigan Conservative Coalition held a demonstration called “Operation Haircut,” in which they defied lockdown by … giving free haircuts on the lawn of the state capital building. (I wasn’t there, but I have a feeling it wasn’t as rousing as the organizers imagined. An outdoor trim isn’t exactly Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech.)
What is it about the lack of haircuts that pushes people over the edge? We’ve been denied the right to go to the cinema, to see our parents, to get drunk in public. We’re working with babies on our laps and using Kleenex to turn doorknobs. Regardless of whether we find a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s not reassuring to find evidence that, really, we’re only two centimeters of hair away from a full-on Lord of the Flies situation.