Dyeing your hair is an addiction. Like heroin, or sex, or picking your face until it bleeds, or like not leaving your college dorm room for the entirety of winter because you’re holed up watching the OC (and taking oxycontin). Or like chips. I once tweeted (please hold while I search my twitter history for exact wording), “Don’t publicly protest things or else you’ll just wind up feeling really stupid when you do/eat/wear them.” Either I never protested pink hair, or I’m just a huge hypocrite. Spoiler alert: it’s the latter.

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I’m certainly no stranger to drastic hair changes. When I was twenty (that’s almost eight years ago now), I shaved off my long, wavy, brown locks with clippers I bought at CVS on my ex best friend’s 21st birthday. I didn’t cry when it fell to the floor in cinematic slow motion. Unlike the girly girls who shelled out $200 for split end trims at Frederic Fekkai and left in shambles because they were “basically bald” and looked “butch like Ellen DeGeneres” (even though their mermaid hair still floated well past shoulder length), I was an active pursuant of the non-hetero aesthetic. Fuck the traditional standards of beauty, I raged, as I enrolled in my first gender studies course at USC and listened to Tegan and Sara with a vegan Whole Foods check out girl from the valley who introduced me to probiotics and cultured enzymes and not shaving my armpits.

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Back then, I wanted to take myself out of the running to be America’s Next Top Model — to say with my hair, or my lack thereof, what I couldn’t say with my words. By physically ridding myself of all that I deemed feminine, I believed I was becoming more authentic. As the strands of the former me fell to my lap in messy piles, I marveled at their silky texture and mahogany hue and the way the tendrils changed color in the light. Once my hair was no longer attached to me, I finally saw and appreciated its beauty. When things were part of my body, I had a tendency to loath them, shame them, carve the letters F-A-T into them, pray for the God I didn’t believe in to somehow make them smoother and smaller and more symmetrical. Before that moment — the literal moment of separation — I was only capable of seeing my hair as bland, mousy, and lifeless. But there, on the floor, in that two bedroom apartment off of Melrose where I fooled around with grimy skateboarders who showed up after hours and kept their socks on during sex, my freed locks were rich and glorious. No longer tainted by the bias of my self-consciousness, my hair was Herbal Essence commercial worthy — something you’d find at a high-end wig store frequented by real housewives of Beverly Hills and Shahs of Sunset and basketball mistresses.

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Shaving my head was a conversation with the world, which is how I’ve since justified most of my aesthetic choices. By excusing them as acts of subversion rather than vanity, I convinced myself that I was less preoccupied with appearance than the aforementioned Frederic Fekkai patrons — those loathsome ladies with Botox, boob and blonde jobs (Ed Note: I’m definitely currently sitting at Frederic Fekkai with bleach in my hair as I edit this). And that worked just fine, until I grew up, made my own money, went platinum, and joined the bleach club. In doing so, I found that my self-confidence skyrocketed (as did my ability to seek out improvised reflective surfaces like car windows and storefronts in which to compulsively admire my updated appearance). I was hooked. Hooked on the very same vacuous ritual I’d protested. Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun (In this analogy my blinding white hair was the sun; I realize it’s not a well-executed analogy if you have to explain it). The very site of emerging roots triggered me — drove me to re-up on the white stuff — to seek out that good scalp burn even though I should have been saving my money for rent.

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I used to judge people. A lot. Sometimes I still do. But I’m working on it. I judged people who sought out superficial solutions to fix internal problems relating to a lack of self-confidence. I viewed these people as vapid; as harmful role models for young women; as part of the problem. I judged people for how much money they spent getting their hair done, and for having those acrylic, anti-masturbation manicures and tarantula eyelash extensions. I judged people for wearing a full face of contouring makeup on a Sunday and indulging in weekly facials and expensive massages. I judged women for getting Botox before age 30, and investing in expensive, non-invasive laser surgeries to singe a few inches off of their already trim waists. I judged everyone, except for myself. I rationalized that since my modifications were “alternative” or “less mainstream,” they were therefore less narcissistic and more honorable.

As a questioning college student, shaving my head had life-altering implications that ran deeper than just stylistic appeal. But that was eight years ago. A lot has changed since then. Today I’m a happily engaged creative professional in her late twenties who makes money writing about fashion, feminism, and sex for progressive brands and publications. Dyeing my hair pink is less an expression of personal politics and more about making a fashion statement.

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So where do we draw the line with altering our natural appearances? Are there such things as “too much” or “the right kind” of self-improvement, and is it really my place to make that distinction? Absolutely not. Just as my pixie pink hair makes me feel fun and quirky and creative and a little like My Little Pony, a triple D rack, Zumba abs, feathered eyebrows and sweeping ombre layers exist to help Jennifer, the co-worker I never spoke to until my toxic hair dye caused non-toxic self-reflection, feel like the optimized version of herself. How we present ourselves externally is a conversation with the world. We all have unique points to make and our own messages to convey and particular boxes we check off when we online date and different understandings of work appropriate footwear. And if I’m being honest, maintaining this pink east side coif costs about just as much as going to a fancy west side salon. I blame gentrification

Jane Helpern

About Jane Helpern

Writer & Over-sharer. @janeohelp jane@cultistzine.com