I’ve just about isolated the culprit when the door swings open. My fingers move from desperate, primate sorting to smoothing. I smile at my co-worker who’s walked in. She’s not a day over 25.
She’s years away from understanding what it’s like to be caught, face awkwardly close to the mirror, confronting the white hairs that have taken root.
The light in the office bathroom tells the whole truth.
Ever since I stopped dyeing my hair, I’ve been waiting for the whites, the grays, the sad, old, hairs to arrive.
And they have arrived, like unwelcome aliens from a planet I am destined to visit. It’s in the bathroom in my office where they show up the most. Or the rearview mirror when I’m driving. They seem to thrive on putting me in dangerous situations. And yet, I haven’t started dyeing my hair again.
The First Time
The first time I dyed my hair, I was a senior in high school. I spent the summer before my senior year at a six-week math workshop for girls. The program, held on the campus of a small private college in New England, was two airplane rides away from the Northern Florida town where I grew up. At the time, it didn’t seem far enough.
I had convinced my parents that sending me away for the summer where I would live in a dorm with other girls from around the country and study math would be a good experience to have on my college application, but my true motivation was escape.
After a junior year spent slamming into adult decisions and following around a not-very-nice boyfriend like an abused puppy, I had the urge to cloister myself away with other girls. Girls who just wanted to learn math. Simple, safe, and far, far away was what I was after.
The program was my first experience with diversity. My roommate was African-American, from a New England inner city. Another friend was born in Manhattan and lived there, an only child in her parents’ Upper West Side apartment. I met a smart and spirited skater girl from Nashville who wore long sleeves in the summer heat to hide the cuts she left in horizontal rows up the insides of her arms.
I made friends with ska girl from Puerto Rico who wore baggy Ramones t-shirts over her bird-like frame and introduced me to Manic Panic, a hair dye favored by punks that came in a rainbow of colors. Her shaggy haircut was mostly black except for her bangs which she swapped out regularly with a different color.
I was the strawberry-blonde soccer player from the South. When I would get my hair trimmed back home, my mom’s hair dresser would tell me, “Women pay big bucks trying to get this hair color, but it never looks as pretty as this.” I liked my hair. It was just different enough.
On the weekends when we weren’t studying math, our counselors would drive us into the closest town where we would pretend to be older, college-age kids shopping for used CDs, hanging out in coffee shops, and flipping through racks at vintage stores.
I came home with several items of velour apparel previously worn by grandpas, a collection of Indigo Girls CDs, and a jar of Manic Panic in Flaming, a nuclear shade of orange-red.
At home, the jar sat untouched. Then a few weeks into my senior year, after a particularly ugly phone call with the boyfriend I was still trailing around, I pulled out the jar and rubbed the orange goo over my entire head.
Everything was bright, flaming orange: my hair, my hands, the bathroom counter, the towels, the neck of the white t-shirt I was wearing, the tiles in the shower.
If I couldn’t escape back to math camp for girls, at least I could conjure up the spirit of my adventure.
Over time, Flaming faded to a dull, sad-clown color, and eventually my hair went back to its natural state, much to my mother’s relief.
The Reign of Blonde Ends
I didn’t dye my hair again until I was a sophomore in college. I went to college on the same campus that I lived in that summer in high school. I dragged a desk chair into a dorm bathroom and enlisted a friend to paint chunky blonde streaks into my hair using a do-it-yourself kit I bought at CVS.
It was my second New England winter, and out of boredom and the need to be seen as pretty, fun, and desirable (all things blondes are known to be), I went blonder. For the next 20 years, I kept up the regimen.
Every 8 to 12 weeks I would go and have my strawberry-blonde hair highlighted. Thousands of minutes and dollars spent on maintaining a blonder shade of my naturally blonde hair.
Then, last year, I stopped. Not because of the time it took or the money spent, but because I was curious. I wanted to see what would happen to my hair. And, I wanted to know how it would make me feel, to not be bleached out anymore, to shed the blonde and the persona that it came packaged with.
After a year, my hair is a dark shade of reddish-blonde. The highlights have all grown out and been cut away. My hair is the same color it was my junior year of high school. The color it’s supposed to be.
Except for those few pesky white hairs popping up while I’m at work.
Do Blondes Have More Fun?
My first dye job was all about rebellion. I am not like them. But my blondeness was about conforming to accepted standards of beauty. I am like them.
Now, having natural hair feels like an act of rebellion. Just about everyone I know maintains a regimen of hair dye to keep aging at bay.
I keep thinking that I will get used to my natural color, but when I look in the mirror I don’t recognize myself. I feel boring. Plain. Easy to forget. Like I’ve lost a little of my edge.
The only logical explanation is the accumulation of bleach on my scalp over 20 years has given me brain damage. Or, I am much more susceptible to the blondes have more fun mythology than I realized.
In the book Love Warrior, when the author, Glennon Melton Doyle is going through a challenging time, she goes and has all her hair cut off. The way she explains it, she needed to see what she really looked like. And to do that, she had to strip away all the artifice. (For the record, I’ve seen her on Instagram recently, and she has long hair again. And it’s blonde.)
Maybe that’s what I’m going through too. A process of stripping away the unreal things in a quest for something real.
It’s not a maintenance thing. I am well practiced at what it takes to go and stay blonde. It’s something else. Something more aligned with the Flaming orange hair. I am not like them. I am not part of the cult of hair that says we have to look one way or the other.
Admittedly, it’s easier to feel this way when the whites are still in the minority.
Let me be clear: I don’t care if you dye your hair. Everyone should do what makes them feel their best. But the question I’m trying to work through is, does your hair color matter? Or is it just another screen we throw up to alter the view.
When I had blonde hair I was racked with insecurity. I was talking to an old friend about the deep insecurity I felt as a young adult and she said, “But you were tall and blonde, I don’t get it.”
That was not how I saw myself at all.
Maybe that’s the point. It doesn’t matter if we like or don’t like what we see when look in the mirror. The only color that matters is the shade of our soul when we close our eyes.
When I close my eyes, I see purple, more like a vibrant lavender. Maybe that’s what everyone sees. Or maybe that’s the color of my soul. My birthstone is amethyst after all. My hair, well, it’s staying as is for now. Unless I decide to dig up some purple Manic Panic.