Why I Went Blue in Quarantine and What It Taught Me About Myself
There are two comments I invariably get every time I find myself in a salon chair. First, it’s the always-surprised Wow, you actually have a lot of hair, to which I never know how to respond. It’s the kind of subtle burn that makes me wonder why I lack the Thick Hair Energy required to communicate this immediately upon walking through the door. Second is usually a question about how I achieved my hair color—recently and lovingly described by a Tinder match as “golden brown”—to which I always have the perverse pleasure of informing the stylist that I’ve actually never dyed it. Always, that is, until now.
Stuck in quarantine a couple weeks ago, I did what any self-respecting 24-year-old creative type would do when kept in the captivity of her parents’ home. I gave in to the near-constant stream of Instagram ads from merchants hawking semi-permanent hair dye—promising silky, luscious, even-healthier-than-before locks in any shade of the rainbow—with the intention of doing something drastic and blue. I was overcome by a feeling of “nothing matters anymore” and “even if it looks bad you won’t have to see anyone you know” and also “really?? In the grips of a global health crisis, you’re concerned with your hair not looking beautiful?”
It’s true that even though I’ve secretly fantasized about dyeing it for a while, something has always held me back. On the one hand, as demonstrated by my salon experiences, I am particularly precious about my hair color. I’m afraid of permanently altering my delicate blonde highlights through the use of harsh chemicals and bleaching agents because, as the Tinder matches and the hair stylists have made abundantly clear, I have a natural color that some people pay a lot of money to emulate.
But what I had failed to investigate was the internalized shame that undergirds any reservations I once had about coloring my hair.
I realize that in the U.S., dyeing one’s hair is not much of a taboo. In 2015, The Atlantic reported that 70% of American women use hair-coloring products, though the vast majority are in pursuit of natural-looking blondes and blacks. Still, a person with an arrestingly bright ‘do is hardly a spectacle in New York City, where I live, or San Diego, where I grew up and am currently sheltering in place. But even so, I’ve long felt discouraged from experimenting with my appearance, whether it’s my hair color or my clothes. This hasn’t always been the case; when I was little, my personal style knew few bounds, and I was encouraged by family and teachers to play and express myself in this way. Yet as I grew up, internalized homophobia and misogyny dramatically narrowed my own understanding of how I should or shouldn’t present.
I remember the first time a guy I liked (a loose term) called me “hot.” It was 7th grade; he texted it to me. I was at home in the bathroom and I raised my gaze from my flip phone to the mirror, where I was blushing. A goofy, gap-toothed smile spread across my baby-round and freckled face. In a year, I would get braces and my period, then eventually my figure; but for now, I had no idea what to make of that information. I don’t recall how I responded (though I’m willing to bet it was something like “:P oh em geee stop no im nawtttt”) but I know from that point on, I started to see myself differently. With my induction into Hotness (also a loose term), I was officially a sexual object. When I got dressed in the morning, I had my audience in mind; instead of expressing myself more authentically through my appearance, it felt like my job was to give them what they wanted. All of a sudden, my looks no longer belonged entirely to me. And as my own sexuality started to develop throughout high school, I felt even more pressure to look a certain way so that I could pass for straight instead of bisexual or queer—labels I wouldn’t even be able to claim for myself for another several years.
Since college, I have been slowly chipping away at this image of myself as public property.
During my junior year, coincidentally also the year I took my first queer theory class, I was possessed by a need to ditch my mass-produced Forever21 and H&M wardrobe in favor of much funkier vintage and secondhand pieces. I started testing out new layering techniques, pairing patterns and cuts together that previously felt in some way off-limits. This was the first time since puberty that I could remember giving myself license to consider how I wanted to dress myself instead of just going for what was trendy or “flattering,” or what would get attention from boys while ultimately disappearing me into the crowd.
Makeup has functioned as another tool to help make myself invisible. I started wearing it in middle school, mostly to cover acne and give the illusion of a natural face. But around the time that I changed my wardrobe to reflect more of my personality, I changed the products on my vanity, too (and by vanity I mean the seemingly bottomless basket that I have haphazardly filled with old bronzers and defunct brushes and stashed on the floor of my closet). I started playing around with lipsticks in kooky shades like forest green and shimmery purple, a personal favorite, and I purchased colorful eyeliners and shadows. Gradually, I started wearing them out more and more.
In spite of these exciting, albeit non-committal, experiments, dyeing my hair has remained my aesthetic white whale (technically “blue whale” but you get it). Before taking the plunge, a blue head of hair felt like my boldest rejection yet of the beauty burden placed upon women, and I was admittedly a little nervous about so visibly taking that stand. Market-fueled misogyny conditions women to invest unholy amounts of money, time, energy, and worry into looking “natural”—in other words, we are required to put a whole lot of effort into looking effortless. But blue hair is unmistakably unnatural; it stands out. Blue hair says, “Sure, I’ll be concerned with the way I look, but I’ll do it my way.” Some may read it as queer (a welcome interpretation) while others may read it as counterculture. Some may even read it as a false revolution under a form of capitalism that pressures us to spend money to change ourselves, period; and still others may not read anything into it at all. They don’t have to.
Because as much as I would love to be showing it off in the company of my friends and fellow humans, dyeing it during quarantine is an added reminder that what I do to my body is my own decision that doesn’t have to affect anyone else.
At this point you’re probably imagining me—liberated self-accepting goddess that I am—with this gorgeous, flowing, electric blue mane that can be seen from space. The reality is that I don’t have the patience or skill required to do what they in the biz like to call a “good” job dyeing my own hair. Consequently, I wound up with a more muted shade of blue and there are fully patches without much or any dye at all. I’m sure the salon professionals of my past would be horrified, but I am learning not to care. Slathering some potent goo all over my head and playing mad scientist alone in the bathroom was fun. My natural color will come back in four to six weeks, at which point I will once again welcome the doting Tinder matches and hair stylists. But until that point, I will walk around (from my bed to the living room and also maybe the kitchen) with a reminder, painted onto my head, that my body is not just a tool wielded for the delight or intrigue of others, especially if that means putting my own delight in the backseat. This body is here and it is mine. Color me delighted.