One bad hair day can lead to skipped meetings, postponed appointments and even harsh words to friends. Anna Blundy examines our "crowning glory" to find out what we do in the name of vanity.
Why we despair about our hair
Bad hair day? Me too. Mine looks sort of droopy, dragging my whole face down like a bloodhound's. In the past few years it's gone pale greyish brown for no known reason, and I look as if I've been depressed for decades. Sometimes it is a sunny blonde colour, bouncing outwards in youthful abandon, adding an inch to my smile and a spring to my step. Not today.
According to a recent survey published in the British newspaper the Daily Mail, the average woman will spend an incredible 26 years of her life suffering from bad hair day syndrome - that's three days a week. It sounds silly, but how we look really does have an impact on the way we behave. I ask a friend how she feels about her hair and she says: "My whole life is a bad hair day. Last week someone told me my hair looks nice from the side. It's the most soul-destroying thing anybody's ever said to me. Only from the side!"
It is no secret that most people, and in particular most women, care about how they look and want to look their best. We dress up to go out in the evening and we smarten up for job interviews. However, hair has a special role to play in our day-to-day behaviour, negatively affecting our mood far more than an imperfect outfit or an unflattering bag. Most of us will admit to crying when a haircut goes horribly wrong. I have grim memories of a particular perm in the late 1980s.
An international businesswoman, Marina Jankovic, 33, who travels frequently to Dubai, says she will not leave the house if she has not been able to use hair products, and she is not joking. "My hair went grey when I was about 18, and it is frizzy and disgusting," she says. "I have to dye it every two weeks and I use gel, spray, anything, any product. I have actual nightmares about surviving some kind of apocalypse and there being no hair products available. I would have to stay in my cave and die." When I suggest that there must be times when someone rings the doorbell and she has to open up and take delivery of a parcel or flowers, she gives me a one-word reply: "Turban."
A 10-country survey conducted by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund found two-thirds of women withdraw from normal activity when feeling low about their looks, including hair. More than half the women interviewed have avoided offering an opinion, going to the doctor or appearing at a job interview because of the way they look that day. These statistics show that a bad hair day actually can ruin your life.
"The extent to which girls and women are changing their lives to accommodate how they feel about themselves is really alarming," says Sharon MacLeod, spokeswoman for the fund.
Alarming, perhaps. Unexpected, no. There is something almost magical about women's hair and their relationship with it, inextricable from feelings of femininity, vitality and self-worth. Think of Rapunzel throwing down her hair for her handsome prince to climb. I grew up watching my mother putting rollers in her hair, blow-drying it with a rectangular hair dryer that once exploded, and brushing her fringe under with a cylindrical brush that looked as if it were designed to sweep tiny chimneys. Forty years later, this is still part of her daily routine.
"I can't even describe to you what it would feel like to go out without blow-drying my hair," she says. "It would be all stuck to my head and you would be able to see my hideous forehead." She shudders at the thought. "It has never happened and it never will." She happily insists that she would cancel any kind of appointment, date or job interview without hesitation if she hadn't had time to do her hair.
When I was little she would plait my long blonde hair for me and tell me how much she envied it, giving me the impression that the whole world would envy it, too. I now plait and envy my own daughter's beautiful, thick and wavy chestnut hair streaked with burnished gold. Lucky for me, I was immune to bad hair days until after my children were born when the whole lot suddenly went mousy, greyish-brown, heavy and sluggish. Yuck. Now I have it dyed and styled every three months by Naz and Marcello at Toni&Guy. I am deeply attached to both colourist and stylist and can absolutely understand why Oprah devoted a whole programme to the guilt of leaving one hairdresser for another, not that I ever plan to do this. I know when I'm due for a cut and colour because I start feeling generally down-hearted, and when I catch sight of my gloomy hair in a mirror or shop window I have to look away.
I am not alone. According to a US poll carried out by ShopSmart, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, waking up with bad hair leads the average woman to be in a grump for an hour and a quarter. One in 10 girls would cancel meeting a friend and one in 20 feels she has been dumped by a boyfriend for being so moody about her hair. On the upside, 56 per cent of women surveyed said they were nicer to people when their hair looked good.
But women's fear about losing their hair is so universal that it suggests there is a deeper meaning behind our concern than just vanity. Our hair is part of our armour, part of the invincible self we need to show the world. Without it, like Samson, we would be powerless.
A survey conducted on behalf of the anti-ageing supplement Inversion Femme by the research experts Nielsen shows that more than two-thirds of UAE women reported having experienced hair loss, partly as a result of desalinated tap water and extreme weather conditions.
The International Society for Hair Restoration Surgery says that a number of scientific studies have shown that women are more likely than men to suffer psychologically painful effects as a result of hair loss, and that the psychological effects are likely to be more severe in women than in men. This is perhaps do to with the fact that a woman's hair is traditionally viewed as being her "crowning glory".
The psychoanalyst David Morgan points to the apparent protection long or styled hair can provide, almost like a mask to protect us from vulnerability. Teenagers, a particularly vulnerable demographic, not yet confident in themselves, are especially prone to hiding behind their hair.
"Thick glossy hair that can be tossed around as a sexual signal of availability is also a pointer to good DNA, to youth and health," says Morgan. "Greying hair or loss of hair points to sickness and death and strikes terror into us. By dyeing hair we avoid seeing dying hair."
ColourNation hair salon in London's West End not only can help clients with the desired rejuvenation process, but also boasts a private all-female room for hijab-wearing patrons. The owner, Andrew Flower, says: "I think everyone wants to look nice. You make your first impression in the first three seconds, so the more we can do to make that a good impression, the better. People look at your face when they meet you and your hair frames your face. If your hair's not good you feel negatively scrutinised. But many women like to have beautiful hair just for their own self-confidence, even women whose hair may not be seen in public. Why do women spend money on underwear that nobody is going to see? Because it makes them feel special." Flower says that hairdressing is one of those businesses where people come in miserable and go out empowered, confident and floating on air.
The stylist Salma Begun, 23, often styles the hair of women who wear the headscarf. "Even a flick blow-dry can be maintained underneath," she says. "Obviously, it needs to be twisted in a certain way and tied back, but you should be able to take the pins out at home and all the curls will bounce out perfectly."
Begun believes that hair is the most important aspect of a woman's appearance and that just cleaning it can be a confidence-boost. "Certain haircuts suit you and some don't." She says the tiniest cut can make you feel better. "It's a psychological thing and it's partly about going to the salon and having your hair washed and dried. It's the attention. Clients always go out happier."
Begun, like many of us, insists that she will not leave the house with bad hair.
"It drives me mental," she says. "The whole day is ruined if it's bad. But I get up early especially to do it. There's always a way. Pin it up, or a ponytail is good. If you have a fringe then you have to style it, of course. You can use dry shampoo. There's always something you can do."
And when there isn't, there is always the big, all-concealing hat option.
How to avoid a bad hair day...
• Get up early and spend hours on your hair.
• Go to the salon every day.
• Use satin pillowcases. They prevent overnight crushing of a good hairdo.
...and what to do if you can't
• Wear a hat, a turban or a wig.
• Pile your hair up in a messy bun.
• Put your hair up in a high ponytail.
• For frizzy hair, rub a little hand cream between your hands, then smooth it lightly over your hair to tame it.
• If your hair needs a wash, use a dry shampoo (a powder that absorbs oil to clean hair without water).
• Accessorise. Pull or brush your hair back and put on a headband.
APRICOT OIL AND COCONUT CREAM Leave the mixture on for 10 minutes before washing.
CHAMOMILE Boil in water and apply to blonde hair for highlighting.
COCONUT OIL Apply to dry hair and leave in overnight. In the morning, wash as usual.
EGG YOLK For greasy hair, apply an egg yolk mixed with water, then rinse as usual. For dry hair, mix an egg yolk with almond, oil or coconut oil, apply to hair instead of shampoo and rinse as usual.
FENUGREEK SEEDS Grind and mix with coconut or olive oil. Leave aside for about 10 days, then apply to hair. Leave on for 20 minutes before washing.
ROSEMARY A cup of boiling water poured over some chopped rosemary leaves and then allowed to stand until it cools off is a perfect hair rinse.
SAGE Boil in water and apply to darken light brown hair.
WALNUT SHELLS Boil in water and apply to darken brown hair and tone down grey.
YOGURT Dairy products help protect hair from sunlight. Use yogurt instead of shampoo and then rinse with water and lemon juice to make the hair shine.
Five celebs who've had bad hair days
NAOMI CAMPBELL Extensions should hide a bad hair day, but can result in hair loss. Campbell shows what can happen when hair goes wrong.
ANGELINA JOLIE Adding 20 years to her age, this terrible hair makes Jolie look washed out, overdone and exhausted. Happily, we never saw it again.
MADONNA Overstyled. Obviously, she hasn't woken up with bad hair, but trying too hard can be as bad as not trying at all. Trying to look young and hip has made Madonna look older and clueless.
KATE MIDDLETON Before her royal make-over and before she became the Duchess of Cambridge, her hair wasn't a glossy chestnut brown with lighter lights, but a mid-brown, over-blow-dried, lank 'do that dragged her face down.
KRISTEN STEWART The Twilight actress looks truly strange with this bad, bad hair. Unless, of course, she is trying to look like a depressed and angry teenager. In which case, it's perfect.