It all started with a very simple comment. A co-work looked at me the other day and asked, “When are you going to dye your hair again?”
I was a little surprised by her question. It was true that I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to my hair lately. Life has been so busy that I really hadn’t given a lot of thought to my style or color. Over the last several weeks, I have just been washing my hair in the evenings and then giving it a few quick strokes with a brush before rushing off to work in the morning. I don’t fuss with my hair for the rest of the day. This is fine for me. I have never been an “every hair in place” kind of girl. I like my hair wild. I admit though that sometimes it looks a little too wild, a little too untamed. I don’t think I’m lazy. I just have more important concerns than the color or cut of my hair.
Yet, I felt myself cringe a little as I looked at my coworker. Her hair is always creatively styled and her makeup always looks professionally applied.
I hesitated for just a moment before answering her question. Unfortunately, my reply wasn’t very motivating. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I’ll take care of it when I have more time.”
“Well, it doesn’t look bad right now,” she assured me, “but your color is kind of faded. Your hair is the color of a peach. I always picture you as a vibrant redhead.”
Her words made me smile. A vibrant redhead. I had experimented with that color in the past. I loved it, even though, I reluctantly admit, that years ago, it also made me very uncomfortable.
When I was born, I was completely bald; there was not a single strand of hair on my smooth, tiny head. As I grew into a toddler, I had just a few wisps of pale blond hair. My mother always loved to tell the story that when I was three years old, she had pulled the few strands of my hair up to the top of my head and secured them there with a small plastic barrette. While we were at the grocery store, a man kept staring at me before walking over to the basket I was sitting in and looking down at the top of my head. “Oh, she does have hair,” the man said to my mother then. “I thought you had just stuck that clip straight down into the top of that poor baby’s head.” Mom always thought that was adorable. The story though haunted and embarrassed me for most of my life until I finally learned to laugh at myself.
But awkward comments were to be expected. My childhood hair was always very fine and pure platinum blond. I was very different from my both sisters who had thick hair. My oldest sister was a dark brunette, while my other sister was a redhead. We looked like a rainbow when we stood side by side. The full light spectrum was always reflected off our hair whenever we were together. I was the lightest, the palest everywhere we went; I was the one who always seemed to fade into the background. Being a very shy child, I didn’t mind. I rather liked it that way.
As I grew older, my hair darkened, until one day, when I was about 15, a neighborhood fried commented to me, “You’re going red! Oh my gosh, you have red hair now!”
I was horrified! I didn’t want to have red hair! Red hair was so rare where I was growing up that my sister was continually teased about her coloring. She was always noticed and the center of attention at any gathering. I didn’t want that. I wanted to stay pale and blonde and wallflower-y alone. But I couldn’t fight it at the time. Against my will, my platinum blond coloring continued to darken to auburn.
After a few years, as I slowly gained more confidence, I grew into my hair and I was proud of the color. I wasn’t vain about my appearance. There was still too much about my body that I hated. I wasn’t thin; my long feet turned out awkwardly. But I started to appreciate my red hair color which made me look much different from other people….in a good way. I liked the idea that my hair was uniquely my own.
My hair wouldn’t stop changing color, though. It went from a pale blond to a light red to a dark red until gentle gray strands began to shoot out all over my head. I started to get gray hair at an early age. I was only 26 when the first few gray strands appeared. I must have inherited this trait from my maternal grandmother. Grandma Edie was completely gray by the time she was 27.
Okay, I may have slowly learned to enjoy my red hair but I wasn’t so appreciative of the gray, even if it was premature. It just made me feel old and I cried every time I was asked at a fast food restaurant if I wanted the senior discount.
It was time to dye my hair.
At first, I decided to relive my childhood and dyed my hair platinum blond like Marilyn Monroe. But I’m not Marilyn and the color just once more made me look pale and washed out. My life had changed; I had changed, and I was no longer accepting the wallflower position. Red is the color of my soul. But just like figuring out the dosage of prescription drugs, it took several experiments with different products, mixtures, and timing to get the right tint of red that made me feel the most comfortable. Some reds were just too brassy for me; others made me look like a large carrot; a few dyes turned me into a pumpkin head. I even tried burgundy once and really liked it until I realized it had faded to pink. Yes, that’s right, I walked around with pink hair for several weeks before I finally took the time to dye it again.
Several shades later, I finally found the hue I liked the best and thought was the most flattering for my features. I loved being strawberry blond. It wasn’t too dark for me and the red shined brightly out in the sun.
This was the shade I had been using when my coworker made her comment to me. The problem wasn’t with the dye but with the fact that I just hadn’t taken the time to touch it up again. My gray roots were beginning to show, but I still didn’t really care. It was true, though. I was a peach with rotting, gray areas. I decided to freshen myself up and started shopping through hair dyes that afternoon. I reached for the box containing my usual strawberry blond formula but then stopped. A vibrant red? I had tried that before and many people made comments that my hair was a spark, a fire, a beacon, a siren. But…vibrant red…Yeah! That’s me! Feeling adventurous and frivolous, I bought the red dye and hurried home before I could change my mind.
That afternoon, I mixed up the color and quickly applied it to my hair. I wasn’t very careful with it. I wanted to hurry up with the processes. I’m not girly-girl enough to spend a lot of time on my hair. I really didn’t want to mess with it. I put the dye on and waited half an hour before rinsing it off. I wrapped a towel around my head and squeezed out any additional water. I took off the towel and didn’t really pay much attention to the color. My hair is usually dark when it’s wet…no big deal. I was sure it would be much lighter once it was dry.
About an hour later, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. “Oh, my God, what have I done!?” My hair was certainly vibrant red, the color of blood, Midwest harvest summer sunsets, cherries, Mars, and measles. I was horrified…it was horrible.
Too make the situation worse, my sister-in-law, Mary, was very nice as she complimented me on the new hair color…but then kindly pointed out there was a big problem. Because I had been in such a hurry to complete the process, I hadn’t realized that I had missed applying the mixture to a large chunk of hair in the back of my head. Peachy strands stuck noticeable out through the red. I was shocked as I stood with my back to the bathroom mirror holding up a hand mirror in order to stare at the back of my head. But there was nothing I could do about it now. I didn’t have any of dye left. And besides, it was late. I needed to get some sleep for work the next day. I went to bed knowing I had no way to fix the situation. I spent most of the night telling myself all kinds of things: My color doesn’t matter. I am not my hair. I cannot be defined by the way I look. Who cares what other people think or say? Other peoples’ opinions shouldn’t matter to me. It’s only hair, just dead protein. I can change it again. I could cut it all off and it would grow back again. No big deal.
But it was no use. I have to admit that I, who never really fussed over my hair, felt stupid and ugly. Maybe I was upset because this was absolute proof to me that I am completely klutzy with hair and make-up. I would never be beautiful. I can handle that actually. I know I am a good person. But I didn’t know if I was ready to face the awkward comments from people concerning the way I looked. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know what excuse I could give. What was I going to do?
The next morning, I walked into work with the collar of my coat pulled up over the back of my head. I ran down the back hallway to my locker and yanked it open. I suddenly sighed with relief as I discovered the answer to my dilemma. I had forgotten that yesterday my supervisor had handed out Santa hats to everyone. I never liked wearing the hats which usually were too big for me and put a lot of static into my fine hair. But now, I grabbed the hat and plucked it down onto my head. The peachy patch in the back of my head was now covered. I couldn’t tuck all of my hair underneath the hat so I allowed bright red strands to hang around my face and shoulders.
But then, something really unusual happened. It was so strange, I still don’t quite understand it. Almost everyone who saw me that day complimented me on the way I look. I heard endless comments of “Wow! Love the hair!” “ That’s a great red!” “ What a beautiful shade!”
Now, of course, I didn’t let anyone see the peach patch in the back of my head, which could have easily changed everyone’s opinion. I also admit that I wasn’t very gracious about the compliments. I was so taken by surprise by everyone’s comments that I responded by saying, “Th…Thank you…? I really don’t like it myself.” Or I said, “Thanks…I’m trying to get used to it myself.” Why did I respond that way? Why couldn’t I have just said “Thank you” and walked away? But never feeling very secure with my looks, I felt so ugly and unsure of myself that compliments were hard to accept. I felt the need to apologize for who I was and what I had done. I had to keep insisting to everyone that I was unattractive.
That evening I bought more hair dye and corrected the error I had made the day before when I colored all but the back of my head.
Now, my hair was completely vibrantly red…and I smiled as I looked at it. It suddenly felt so right! Yeah, maybe it was attractive. Yeah, maybe I did look good. As I brushed out my hair, I had thought about the compliments I had received that day. I realized then that opinions didn’t matter. No one’s thoughts about another person were important. And hair is such a trivial matter. But what I responded to now was everyone’s kindness when I was feeling so low and unsure of myself. I smiled as I thought of everyone’s loving, positive reactions when I was feeling so ugly. That’s all that really seemed to matter.
So now my hair remains a bright red. I always loved red but was always worried about people laughing at me or teasing me. I realized now that the reason I wasn’t comfortable with Mars red was because I was afraid of other people’s opinions. Even now, there are strangers who walk by me and groan, “God, that’s BRIGHT red!” Or they call me “beacon.” But it doesn’t matter now, because I feel good. It’s funny how I love bright red hair when I love myself. I need to trust myself and know what I like and not worry about other people’s thoughts. Hair doesn’t define the person I am inside. I know who I am so what matters what happens to my body? I know what my flaws are…I know where my scars are…but it’s strange how they don’t matter if I don’t focus on them. I am very happy with my hair if I don’t give it too much attention.
I’ll keep my hair red for now. It is uniquely and personally me. It defines who I am and is part of my journey. Maybe someday, I’ll change it again but right now I feel happy. Besides, I am not my hair…I could dye it purple if that’s the way I feel.
I smile as I think now of my coworker. She was right…
I am a vibrant red!