How changing my hair color taught me a life lesson
The very first time I ever dyed my hair, I was thirteen. My parents were ahead of their time on matters of self-expression. “It’s just hair,” they’d say. “It’ll grow back.” So I used my hair to show the world how I wanted to be perceived.
In high school, I displayed my love of X-Files with a shade I called Scully red. After an Audrey Hepburn binge-fest, I went raven black. In college when I sang in a band, it was Gwen Stefani blonde.
After college, I went dark brown. I wanted to be taken seriously.
Brunette, I thought, was the color of Lois Lane and Tina Fey. I wanted people to see me as hard-working, professional, and reliable. And I was. I often worked multiple jobs. I showed up to jobs or rehearsals early. I stayed late. Ultimately, I landed at a start-up, working from home so I could pull off the necessary fifteen hours a day, six and seven days a week.
One day, while walking keys back to my office, a man began to follow me.
He walked too close. It set my body’s alarm bell furiously ringing. I sped up. He sped up. He started to scream at me. I ran into a store. The employees standing at the counter were unmoved. Until he came running through the door, headed straight for me. They hid me in their stock closet and called the police. I sat in the muffled space full of boxes with a wide-eyed stock-girl with a tape gun. “We’re really close to the bad part of town,” she said. I made jokes with her to pass the time during the agonizing wait for the police.
After that, I didn’t want to be a brunette anymore. I didn’t want to be recognizable.
I didn’t want to be a workaholic. I wanted to change everything. I visited my stylist and asked her to cut off all my hair and bleach it any color she wanted. Just like that, I was back to Scully red. Despite my follicular theatrics, I’ve never been particularly attached to my appearance. Because it was never about what I wanted — it was about projecting an image.
All of the sudden, my hair seemed wrong.
I didn’t feel like a redhead. So I asked her to bleach it blonde. That wasn’t right either. After that, I cut it even shorter. It seems silly now, in retrospect, that I was so worried about something so superficial. But at the time, it was what I could control and I was determined to fix it.
Every time I visited my stylist, my heart would pound — almost as quickly as it did when it pumped blood through my veins as I ran down the pavement that day. I’d examine myself in the mirror after my stylist finished her work, wondering if he would recognize me if he saw me on the street now.
Before, my hair had always been part of a costume I wore. Now I needed it to be a disguise.
No matter how many styles I tried, nothing worked. Because my hair wasn’t the problem. I couldn’t figure out how to present the external because I didn’t know who I was on the inside anymore.
I didn’t just need to change my hair. I needed to change my life.
It wasn’t just the post-traumatic stress. (Even though…yeah, the effect it had was significant in a way I couldn’t quite cope with at the time). It was that I had spent so much time carefully crafting a life for myself, a look, that had no real bearing. Because our looks never matter in the moments of our lives: the moments when we fall in love, or achieve something great, or face down our biggest fear.
So I quit my job. I dyed my hair pink, then deep teal, then baby blue. There was something intensely freeing about becoming so visible after a time when I wanted to hide all day, every day.
Instead of copying a celebrity or a character, I'm inspired by the vibrant Bollywood films I watch in my new free time and the tropical, blossoming plants outside my bedroom window. I don’t know what color I’ll land on next. But this time, it will be the one I want.
I don’t know what people think of me when I’m walking down the street. I can’t have any control over that. I don’t have a perfect plan for my career anymore. And yeah…I’m a little worried about bleach damage.
But, it’s just hair. It’ll grow back.