I’m what you might call loyal to a fault. I feel guilt over minuscule “betrayals” like going to a different bodega than my usual spot where I know everyone’s name, or forgetting a high school acquaintance’s birthday. Obviously, this isn’t a very constructive way to think, but that same sense of duty tends to transfer over to the way I handle getting my hair done.

Even as a kid, I felt very loyal to my stylists: the same woman did my hair from the time I was 5-years old until I was 13, which is when I switched to seeing Chuck, a stylist I stuck with all the way through to the time I turned 21. Before meeting Chuck, I’d made a few botched middle school attempts at DIY highlights, and his professional eye finally hooked me on getting my color done by a pro.

He split his time between LA and Michigan, where my hometown is. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in New York on and off for the better part of the past five years, I spent a long era begrudgingly clinging to our routine and flocking to Chuck for a cut and color each time I was back home in the Midwest, which wasn’t always frequent. I occasionally had to make appointments at random salons in the city between visits with him to keep up some semblance of order to my roots. Each time, I felt like a “cheater.” Usually when I’d see him again after I cheated, I let him know what I’d been up to. I figured he’d be able to tell anyway, what with my cut and color having a slightly differently vibe than the last time he’d done it. Most of the time, he didn’t seem miffed, but I always wondered if I’d committed a beauty faux pas by seeing other stylists on the side—and even by telling him all the juicy details afterward!

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Besides being plain amazing at his work, Chuck always offered me an astronomically good deal that I knew I’d never find in the city, but after my extended saga of sporadic visits to Michigan and months between overdue touchups, I knew it was finally time to suck it up and pay the big bucks to find a salon I could visit more consistently in New York.

Enter a few years spent jumping from stylist to stylist in Manhattan, living on LifeBooker discounts and a prayer. Nobody made enough of an impression or connection to feel worth coming back to regularly and eating the insane cost, so each time I needed a touchup, I’d go to some new place where I could get a discount in hopes that the stylist there would at last be the person I was waiting for. Yes, I was being insanely picky, but that’s because it matters.

Searching for my hair soulmate

The relationship between stylist and client is a special one. I see hair appointments as a necessary evil, because while I love the results of getting my look updated, I hate the idea of wasting a day off sitting in a chair indoors for hours when I could be doing literally anything else. To make it worth the time lost, it’s important to me that the person I share those hours with is someone I care about. Even if neither intends to feel close to the other, the somewhat intimate nature of having long conversations about life with your stylist while you trust them to alter your appearance (and to hold a pair of scissors extremely close to the more delicate parts of your face) can’t help but create a bond. We’re all a bit emotional about our hair, and that’s something we share with the people who style it for us, which is why the good ones are also occasional therapists (I’ll never, ever forget when I went to a haircut appointment with Chuck just days after my dad died and he sent me home afterward free of charge—and showed up at the wake the next day.) Just like one might do in the world of dating, I was holding out on committing to one stylist in the city until I found the one who I shared equal amounts of trust and care with.

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After years on the LifeBooker hamster wheel, I finally met my hair soulmate, who I’ll call Jen. I’d finally thrown up my hands in surrender and accepted that no matter how hard I searched for hidden salon gems in the city, I’d never find the kind of deal I had back in Michigan. Every salon in the New York area had a similar baseline price, and it was a lot, but it became clear that it was time to either pony up to lock down a consistent salon or stop coloring my hair altogether. One day soon after that realization, I walked into a salon I’d spotted in my own neighborhood that I’d never tried before because I hadn’t been able to snag any discounts or deals for it during my LifeBooker spree.

When I met Jen there, I told her I was so over the constant upkeep my blonde highlights demanded, and wanted to spend as little time as possible in salon chairs touching up my roots. She was the first-ever stylist who didn’t dismiss that request. She promised me a life of low(er)-maintenance hair was right around the corner, and converted me to the church of balayage to make it happen. She was pricey, but for once, the hefty bill felt worth it. At last, I had a new hair confidante! No more searching for the perfect match!

That was just a few months ago, and things have been peachy ever since…until a few weeks ago, when I got an offer for a complimentary hair appointment with someone else. I had an appointment with Jen coming up in a few weeks, but a summer of expensive (and very worth it) travel decisions had left my wallet tight, and it was hard to justify paying a chunk of change for a touchup with Jen when I could save that money by going to another stylist. Just this once, to save money, I told myself, like a married woman rationalizing a secret tryst with a young lover (though I still had zero hint as to whether Jen would even feel betrayed by this).

Deciding to be unfaithful

I agonized over the decision for days, even more than I did back when I was cheating on Chuck—after all, it was a lot more justifiable to see someone else now and then when I was living 500 miles away from my stylist. Cheating on Jen felt so…wrong. Was I tempting my good karma by taking for granted the awesome stylist I spent years trying to find? Would she be able to immediately tell the next time she looked at my hair that what she was seeing wasn’t her own work? Would she be bothered by that? Would she even care? After all, it’s not as if I pass through her thoughts more than a few hours every few months when I stop by the salon. She’s probably not sitting around wondering what her clients are up to between visits when she’s got plenty of things going on in her own life.

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I finally decided that for the sake of my wallet, I couldn’t pass it up. When I called to cancel my appointment with Jen, I was pretty honest about why, and I felt the guilt of each word pouring out as I came clean (for the record, everyone I spoke to on the phone at the salon was totally chill and probably could have cared less about my “admission”). Still, I went through a days-long minor existential and emotional journey over a freakin’ dye job, and for what? Did it even matter? Do stylists even care when you cheat on them? I’d imagine those answers mostly depend on the individual, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I had gotten all worked up over ethics, lasting bonds and the true price of customer service for absolutely no reason.

To save me, as well as all the rest of you, from this dilemma the next time the opportunity to cheat arrives (and trust, it will arrive again someday), I finally just sucked it up and asked someone. I’d never been brave enough to ask my own stylists how they really felt about cheating because I was afraid of the answer, but I can’t be the only one who wonders whether it’s kosher!

The amazing Tara Smith of Tara Smith Haircare kindly got real with me about what cheating means to her:

“I really do believe in loyalty and feel that if you find the right hairdresser and they give you the right cut, you should both be honest! I’ve had clients back in London wait for me for almost 5 months for a haircut because they love my work and I’m thrilled that I can have such an impact on my clients. If a client wants to change something up, I think it’s absolutely fine, as long as they share that with their hairdresser because people build connections with one another.” It’s a comfort to know that stylists value that connection as much as we do, isn’t it?

Smith also said that she can’t always tell right away if her clients have cheated on her, but that she’d love to be told the truth if they have, because “why shouldn’t the client be able to say that they’ve gone somewhere else?” She has a valid point—it’s not like we’re married to our stylists! “For instance, if [clients are] traveling or in another country and need a haircut, stay loyal by being honest! In my career there is a lot of loyalty and that’s why I’m so fortunate to have the same clients for years and years and years.” If you must cheat, she says, “the polite way is for the customer to be honest and authentic and not be dismissive or making excuses.” Your stylist will appreciate your honesty.

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At last, the record set straight! For what it’s worth, the stylist I cheated on Jen with did a great job, though the experience wasn’t nearly as much fun as visiting my regular salon. I was told a few days after that illicit appointment that Jen is leaving my local salon. I’m not egotistical enough to think I tempted karma and the universe enough to change her career trajectory, but the timing is still uncanny.

That said, I know that no matter where she works next, I’ll likely stay her client. When I find a great hair match, it’s worth staying loyal to—even if I’m a little unfaithful every now and then.

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