On my first day of junior high, I walked through the front doors of Boston Latin School. I would walk through those same doors 180 days out of the year for the next six years. On that first day of seventh grade, I remember all too clearly the outfit I had painstakingly chosen for such a momentous occasion. I felt that however I looked that day would be how my high school peers would see me for our whole experience together. Sure, high school is all about growth, but in my thirteen-year-old brain, this first impression meant everything.
This be-all-end-all defining outfit ended up being denim shorts, slip on black and white checkered Vans, and a blue Ramones tank top that was lined with circular studs around the collar and straps. To compliment this blue tank top: a lime green bra (not that I had much need for one at the time). When I got out of the car and out of my mother’s line of vision, I slid the lime green straps out from under the tank top’s fabric so they rested more visibly on my shoulder. I felt like a total badass. In reality, I probably looked comically too small and awkward to pull off such a look—like a kid dressed as a “rocker” for Halloween— but the overdone mom version of what they think a “rocker” should look like. Regardless I felt powerful and that was all that mattered.
Earlier that summer I had checked something vital off of my angsty teen checklist. I snuck out. Big time. All summer I had been begging my mother to let me go to the Van’s Warped Tour. Every time I asked to she shot back with visions of me crowd surfing to my death, punched in the face and bloody, an intricately woven list of “what ifs” that she had conjured up from friend’s horror stories of their kids at music festivals. She had these nightmare visions of me being drugged or my drink spiked—or even worse—me willingly tripping acid with some scary biker dudes. Crazy stuff. I was only interested in the music. A whole day of some of my favorite bands all playing back to back. I waited until the day the festival came to Massachusetts, told my friends I was totally allowed to go, waited for my mother to leave for work, jumped out of bed already dressed in my blue Ramones tank top and Vans, and hopped in my friend Ashley’s parent’s van and we were off.
Wearing the tank top again at school for the first time since the festival felt electric. I was powerful, rebellious, unstoppable. Until of course, I sat down in homeroom and in walked this unbearably cool upperclassman. She was a girl much taller than even the boys in our homeroom with a mean face that shouted “don’t mess with me”. But beyond this steely exterior, what drew me in the most was her hair. On top of her head was a messy, unbrushed bob of the brightest shade of bubblegum-pink hair I had ever seen. I sank in my seat. She had topped me with that pink top-knot. Defeated, I somehow, in my teenage brain, decided what had to be done next. I had to dye my hair. How else could I accurately express myself—and so quickly—upon meeting someone new? In that moment for some reason, my hair became my new tool for self-expression. I was determined to use it to its full potential.
At the time, I was a very big fan of the “scene queen” movement on Myspace (if you’re unaware of what this is, I highly recommend a quick google search to witness the cringe-worthy innovators and torturers of their own follicles). Particularly I was most fond of one model: Audrey Kitching.
I hungrily devoured all of her blog posts, waiting anxiously for new photos of her and her iconic, ratted out pink hair. I was an emo kid who wanted desperately to be one of those cool Myspace scene kids (what a painfully funny and dated sentence). I couldn’t tell you why their big colorful hair, coontails, bad extensions, excessive black eyeliner and facial piercings were so intriguing to me but something about it screamed “rebellion”—and as a thirteen-year-old kid, what’s more appealing than that?
I guess my mother was tired of listening to me whine. For Christmas that year, being a bit more conservative in taste than I, she settled on a Conair hair color roller. The contraption came with several different colored chalks that you could put inside the roller. You’d then put strands of your hair through the device and, in theory, have fun and colorful temporary streaks. The very first day back to school from Christmas break, I walked back through those same front doors with streaks of bright blue running through my mousy-dirty-blonde hair. I felt pretty damn cool all day, until, of course, it rained. My white tee-shirt now donned the blue streaks as they slid now in liquid form from my hair. The outlines of my face haloed by blue chalk, I rode the bus home furious with this poor excuse for a new look. Audrey Kitching would be so disappointed.
After the dramatic hair tantrum of the century that followed that day, I think my mother softened to the idea of me dying my hair for real (after of course laughing at the hilariously rain-ruined job the roller had done). Either that or she figured if she let me do it now I’d be over the phase faster. Whatever the case may be, in March around the date of my birthday she drove me into downtown Boston to a hair salon owned by a friend. That morning I scoured the internet and printed out my favorite pictures of Audrey Kitching’s hair for inspiration and direction.
I very clearly remember this first time that I dabbled with bleach and dye. I remember the choking smell and the unscratchable itch of my scalp. Mostly I remember laying back with my head in the sink as the hairdresser Ruby rinsed the dye from my hair. I focused on the songs playing on the salon radio and on Ruby’s fingers massaging the conditioner from my long hair. In my head, I practiced my “surprised mirror face” I had seen women in movies do when the hairstylist finished their new do for their post-break-up transformation. I very strongly believed in this narrative—even then.
I sat up in the leather salon chair and opened my eyes. But I didn’t see Audrey Kitching or my scene queen hair icons reflecting back at me. I think my mother had made a deal with Ruby that she’d only bleach and make select strands in my hair and bangs pink. While it wasn’t the full coverage dye job I had in mind, to me, the peaks of bright pink looked like flames. I felt the beginning of something powerful and dangerous creeping in. Like that feeling after your first tattoo when you know beyond any help that you are addicted and will be back for more.
Throughout high school I had a different hair color every year. Freshman year was blue, for obvious reasons. Sophomore year was blonde. The blue had faded out to a dull brassy bleached blonde and I couldn’t be bothered to mess with it. Junior year I went back to bright pink and senior year I felt it only appropriate I go bright fiery red. Heading to college and prepping for whatever that whole future thing had to offer, I figured better to come at it strong.
I ended up writing my senior college essay about my hair. An odd choice that concerned my English teacher and guidance counselor, but I found it to be a really telling and interesting way to divide time and narrate where I was at certain points in my life. What is the power of a new hair color? Is it a marketing scheme concocted by hair product companies and beauty magazines telling us if we change something about ourselves physically, all our problems will melt away? A little bit, yes. But for me, it’s more about self-expression and empowerment. I value my ability to alter my appearance to fit a mood or new venture or impulse. In emotionally turbulent times such as high school when you are looking for any chance you can get to figure out who you are, experimenting with hair colors really gave me a non-permanent and non-detrimental outlet through which to figure out who the hell I was or planned on being when I was a grown up—or whatever you want to call it. As much as a new shirt or new pair of shoes can change your day or your mood, looking in the mirror and seeing a new hair color or new look can be really invigorating. Experimentation can open you up to wildly new opportunities and experiences. I have found that using my changing hair color to do just that has opened me up to being more adventurous in other aspects of my life that may seem of more consequence than just appearance.