Letting their hair down

At Waves salon, female midshipmen get blow-dries, eyebrow waxes and - best of all on their manly campus - girl talk.


Elizabeth Grider is a strapping midshipman who practically never cries, so she was surprised to find herself leaking tears on her first day at the U.S. Naval Academy, as the barber hacked away.

"I couldn't look," said Grider, now 20 and in her second year.

It wasn't just that the mandatory above-the-collar bob was ugly (though it was, and everyone called her Q-tip for the rest of the summer); it was the sight of a dark, shining pile of clippings left behind on the floor. This feeling of loss, she knew, was not shared by her male classmates, most of whom seemed content to be shaved down to a nanometer.

At the co-ed officer training college, hair sets uniformed women apart, from the first-day shearing to the moment at graduation when they toss their caps to reveal French braids and buns instead of high fades and flattops. Yet, until recently, they shared a barbershop with the men, an experience many capable midshipmen - who had no problem firing guns and sweating buckets alongside the guys - found so uncomfortable that they fled to local malls, squandering much of their meager monthly stipends for more tender treatment, and some privacy.

Now, though, the academy has opened Waves, a beauty parlor that caters to their needs. The salon offers hair cuts, braiding services, relaxer treatments, even eyebrow waxing - luxury within the limits of academy grooming rules.

Most importantly, though, Waves is a hairspray-scented oasis for women, who make up just about 16 percent of academy students. United by a common enemy - hair - they can also discuss coming dances, boyfriends, diets and other gossip they can't bring up around the guys in the weight room or in calculus class, said Liz MacDonald, the salon's platinum blond supervisor.

"Girls can be comfortable here and let their hair down," said MacDonald, who opened the salon at the end of last year.

"It's like the one place where you can be a girl-girl," said 19-year-old Pia Chapman, an academy rugby player who frequently pampers her sassy chop of hair at Waves. "A lot of times you have to put on the, `Yeah-I'm-a-girl-but-I'm-going-to-kick-your-butt-anyway' facade. Here you can say, `My hair's dried out and I feel like crap.'

"And everyone says, `I know what you mean.'"

Because the women are almost constantly in uniform, MacDonald said, for many hair becomes a more important means of self-expression than it was in civilian life, though they must abide by a strict set of rules. Older midshipmen are allowed to keep their hair long, but the academy regulates style: Braids must be the same diameter; ponytails are not authorized. Recently shorn younger students resort to inventive, if somewhat desperate-sounding, remedies like "the sock bun," which involves the hiding of a toeless sock in cropped hair, to create the illusion of fullness. Before the mirror every morning - and using no more than the allotted two barrettes - they define the distinction between what is professional and what is too flashy, a line as fine and straight as an admiral's part. Before Waves opened, most walked it alone.

Of course, the academy has offered free hairstyling services to women since they were first admitted in the late 1970s; there was even another salon, but that closed in the early 1990s, when the campus' several barber shops were consolidated. After that, few women took advantage of the service, even though a sympathetic somebody eventually hung a curtain in front of the women's section. Men still made fun of the shower caps and chemical smells.

"The guys would all say, `ohhh, she's trying to look hot!'" recalled 20-year-old Danielle Still, a midshipman who suffered through a few appointments there last year.

Now, though, the salon area in the basement of Bancroft Hall, the midshipmen's massive co-ed dormitory, is perhaps the only place on campus besides bathrooms and bedrooms where the sexes part ways. Leaving their flat-topped white hats, called covers, at the door, the men file into a football-pennant adorned barbershop on the left. Women head right into a smaller room, where customers sit with their hair wrapped in purple towels, chatting over the drone of blow dryers and flipping through magazines that explain how to do your hair like Denise Richards or LeAnn Rimes.

The newcomers yank their bobby pins and shake out their buns. They take a seat, smile, listen to an elaborately braided beautician sweet-talk a tomboyish midshipmen into a new look:


"Just the dead ends."

"Angle around your face?"


Still, after a simple cut, the stylist triumphs with two French braids, tucked in at the nape of the woman's neck.

Some of Waves' services, like chemical straightening treatments, were available in last year's barber chairs. But the salon has hired another stylist specializing in women's cuts, is offering a few more exotic services, like the eyebrow waxing, and plans to add more, like manicures and highlights (unlike men, female midshipmen are permitted to dye their hair).

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