There’s a phrase that goes, “Good, cheap, fast. Pick two.” The point is that anything worth having won’t come fast and cheap. I heard the phrase for the first time when I was planning my wedding and I thought about it constantly, my every wedding decision exemplifying this predicament. When I think of the pick-two quandary now, far removed from wedding stress, I mostly think of hair. Great hair.
By great hair, I mean, to put it bluntly, wealthy-looking hair. I mean Jennifer Aniston in a Smartwater/Emirates/Aveeno campaign hair. Hair that is always perfectly cut, perfectly colored, perfectly styled, shiny and flowing and entirely without tangles so you can run your uncalloused, white collar fingers through it without snagging a manicured nail.
The wealthy-looking hair I covet can come in many forms. There are the blowouts that give Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton the full-bodied, shiny hair of fairy tales. Jameela Jamil, Dakota Johnson, and Zooey Deschanel have the type of whimsical bangs that would inspire a haircut I’d soon regret. Priyanka Chopra, Kate Hudson, and Anne Hathaway all have different hair, but there is one thing they have in common: Their hair looks moneyed. It’s the hair of shampoo commercials and superhero franchises and Met Gala appearances. Moneyed hair is why Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s hair looks bohemian rather than unkempt. It’s why Gigi Hadid’s messy bun can be accompanied by couture.
There’s another thing these models of moneyed hair all have in common: They represent the Western, white ideal of beauty. Which is certainly not the only type of hair that projects wealth, but it’s a dominant type, and the type I, as a white woman, associate with. Society stigmatizes hair that doesn’t fit this category, which can be extremely damaging to people and communities of color. I realize that my and others’ obsession with “good hair” only reinforces this standard, and my complicated relationship with representations of wealthy-looking hair probably doesn’t come close to how many black women feel about this “ideal.”
Wealthy-looking hair has a price tag, and I don’t have the means to afford such a price tag.
Even though it feels unattainable—gorgeous hair shimmering in the distance like a mirage—I continue to long for wealthy-looking hair because I wasn’t raised with much wealth myself.
Growing up, I didn’t think of money beyond how many weeks of allowance it would take me to afford that Spice Girls tape. Likewise, I didn’t realize my family had less money than my friends’ families—just that we had different things. They had air conditioning, and we had huge fans in every window that turned our home into one big, noisy wind tunnel. When I slept over at friends’ houses, I’d marvel at the luxury of sleeping under comforters in the middle of the summer. But it was air conditioning, not money. It would go on to be Abercrombie jeans and Ugg boots and summer vacations and SAT tutors, but not money. I didn’t yet understand that having or not having things had any direct correlation with money.
This is not to say that I grew up poor. I never longed for a warm bed, bath, or meal. My family was working class—just in the lower income bracket of our working class neighborhood, which left me feeling like an outsider.
I was on the outside of wealthy hair.
Several factors converged to ignite my obsession with wealthy-looking hair.
My friends would get highlights done by hairdressers whose names they knew. “I’m going to Theresa after school on Thursday,” they’d say to me. I envied their familiarity with their hairdressers. I had always gone to the Hair Cuttery, where I sat down in the next available chair. The hairdressers didn’t know me, nor I them. I envied my friends’ highlights, too. I was only allowed to use boxed dye; the dimensions of meticulously applied highlights eluded me. Really, I envied it all: their routines and their hair. But still, I wasn’t yet aware this had any correlation with money.
In college, I made friends with girls from wealthy suburbs. They only drank certain brands of bottled water and their specificity amazed me, as did their hair—a dance major with a head of the shiniest coiled hair and a sorority sister with blowouts that somehow endured during her worst hangovers. At this point, I began to see that one’s hair is, in fact, reflective of their socioeconomic status. It was also the beginning of the Great Recession, and my economics, history, and political science teachers thoroughly detailed the privileges afforded by wealth. They taught me about dividends and taxes and generational wealth, while I also learned about the wealth gap through my friends’ glorious heads of wealthy-looking hair.
At the same time, Gossip Girl was cementing the wealth gap of hair into pop culture. The show followed Upper East Siders Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), who were born with trust funds and heads of hair to match. The silky, bouncy hair of Serena and Blair, the latter of whom often punctuated her hairstyles with designer headbands, was juxtaposed against the hair of Brooklynite Jenny Humphrey (Taylor Momsen), who sewed herself knock-offs of the luxury clothes worn by her more affluent classmates. Jenny’s hair was unnaturally blonde and featured a rotation of obvious extensions, limp ends, and choppy bangs that led to publications asking if her character had the worst hair on television.
It’s no secret that perfect hair is a trademark of those who can afford it. When the story broke about Anna Delvey, the woman who claimed she was a German heiress, only to con New York’s elite out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, many were quick to point out that Delvey’s hair was a telltale sign that she was not as rich as she claimed to be. In any given picture of Delvey attending an exclusive event, her hair isn’t shiny, the ends dead, and the color dull. It’s not the hair of a wealthy socialite.
I wanted the type of hair that seemed to open doors. I wanted the type of hair that would make people think I, too, had grown up in a house with air conditioning.
I don’t have the type of money it would take to achieve wealthy-socialite-hair through the typical expensive means, my student loans and health insurance bills taking priority over trips to salons.
Good, cheap, fast. Pick two.
If I was going to have hair like that, it was going to have to come cheap, so I’ve embarked on a slow, but semi-affordable journey to better hair.
I’ve bought the things suggested by beauty editors: microfiber towels, satin pillowcases, Wet hair brushes, pricy shampoos and conditioners marked down at T.J. Maxx. I’ve slathered my hair in coconut oil as a form of leave-in treatment. I’ve opted to clumsily blow-dry my hair with rollers instead of going to Dry Bar. I get trims at salons featured on Groupon or schools at which students cut hair.
I dye my hair a shade of red with henna, which leaves me with a vibrant, yet natural color. It’s an expensive-looking shade, which I don’t pay for with my money, but rather my time. The henna process takes somewhere north of four hours, during which time I wear a helmet of plastic wrap to seal in the color. It’s all an elaborate game I play to achieve wealthy-looking hair for the least amount of money I can possibly spend.
My obsession with wealthy-looking hair, albeit incited by a childhood chip on my shoulder, has taught me important lessons about wealth, privilege, and arbitrary beauty standards. It’s taught me to look at the world with a more critical lens and to identify gaps of access. Flawless-looking skin, white teeth, long eyelashes, and bolder eyebrows are often bought by those who can afford the price tag. Likewise, those with enough money can afford skilled stylists to crop the split ends from their hair and tint it to glow like the sun is always shining on it.
I know there is no deep or real value in wealthy-looking hair beyond the significance society and I put on it. Beyond its beauty, it isn’t that special; it’s just expensive. Like Ugg boots or Abercrombie jeans, gorgeous hair is another monetary measurement one may use to project their socioeconomic status. In other areas of my life, I have no desire to attain symbols of monetary wealth. I’m very happy with my Kia Sportage, thank you. Yet, I can’t stop attempting to achieve wealthy-looking hair for cheap because, misguided as this may be, I view having this hair as the epitome of acceptance.
For me, a head of wealthy-looking hair is my ticket to appearing like I’m finally on the inside. But even when it fools others into thinking I’ve never been on the outside, it’s still only an appearance. Occasionally, my quest for wealthy-looking hair can feel like I’m engaging in a charade, or maybe even that I’m a con artist. When my boss asked me if I was going to have my wedding at my father’s country club, I laughed out loud because he had no idea my world revolved around the compromise of choosing between good, cheap, and fast. At the same time, I felt smug to have duped someone into thinking I was the type of girl whose father belonged to a country club. I bet he thinks I don’t think twice about sleeping under a comforter in the middle of August.