Self/Reflection is a week of stories on the Cut about how we feel, versus how we look.
When I was a kid, my hair was a shade of carrot red so perfect that I frequently bring childhood photos of myself into hair salons as a color reference. By the end of my teens, my hair had lightened naturally; I still called myself a redhead, but other people often referred to me as blonde. I was always quietly, deeply offended when they did.
One night in college, a friend who dyed her hair regularly went out to get hair dye and I went with her. This errand was so normal as to be thoughtless for her, but when at the last minute I grabbed a box of the brightest red Duane Reade offered, it felt like I was getting away with something. We turned her bathroom into what looked like a murder scene and when, around 5 a.m., I washed my hair out and towel-dried it, I felt reborn. It was as though I had finally gotten my insides onto the outside.
Red hair is, as any stylist will tell you, among the highest-maintenance hair colors one can choose. It sits right on the line between natural and aggressively artificial, and it fades far more quickly than any shade of brown or blonde. Literally anything a woman can do with her appearance is fetishized in one way or another in our culture, but even by these standards having red hair carries a ridiculous number of assumptions. Redheads are, according to one source of popular myth or another: Slutty, good in bed, less tolerant to pain, more tolerant to pain, related to cats, related to peasants, bad-mannered, wild and crazy, Irish, short-tempered, and an endangered species likely to disappear within a few generations. (Redheaded men are subject to a whole different set of assumptions, although Prince Harry’s been doing some good PR work for them lately).
The free spirit character in movies is often a redhead; so is the slutty one. Jessica Rabbit is a redhead, and so is the Little Mermaid, and I have in the recent past brought pictures of both of these cartoon characters to salons to explain to a stranger what I wanted my hair to look like. These stereotypes are much of what drew me to this hair color: It was aesthetic choice that came with a built-in personality.
When I dyed my hair in college, I was trying to be less frightened of everything, and I believed having red hair would act as a shortcut. Dyeing my hair did, as it turned out, impart many of the stereotypical qualities associated with redheads. In the months immediately afterward, my personality, and people’s reactions to me, changed in the way I’d hoped. I made friends more easily; I went to parties and assumed people wanted to talk to me. I dressed more flamboyantly and became more comfortable drawing attention to myself. Changing my appearance acted as a permission, and got me through the door to much of what I now understand as my own identity.
That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve more or less kept my hair red ever since then. I can’t imagine myself looking any other way and, like many people who have dyed their hair for years on end, I can’t even really tell you what my natural color looks like. But the longer I’ve kept doing this, the more I’ve become aware of the cost.
And I do mean cost, literally. Dyeing my hair made me realize that how I looked was not a burden to which I was obligated, but something over which I had control. I could rewrite myself. It took longer to realize that the degree of control was limited. I could dye my hair, but the roots would return in four to six weeks, and when they did, it would cost money to fix them.
At some point in my mid-20s I had my hair dyed professionally for the first time, and never wanted to go back. There is a certain kind of feminine glamour that is about patience, neatness, restraint, organization, coloring in the lines. I have never been good at any of this. I am messy, disorganized, and impatient, and my attempts to change this have yielded limited results from outsize effort. If I had these skills and these personal qualities, I would probably be able to dye my hair at home, or be able to make my natural hair color work for me. But instead, I can buy my way out of the problem — as long as I have enough money.
Someone else can dye my hair and I can pay them to do upkeep on it. Someone else can fix my nails, teach me to do my makeup, tell me what to put on my skin, shape my eyebrows, remove my body hair, and any other infinite number of beauty tasks in which I have never managed to gain expertise. But that doesn’t matter; in the beauty industry, you can absolutely pay someone else to do your homework. (Is this a privilege? Absolutely. Is it a privilege even to worry about this? It is.)
Every time I pay at a hair salon, I feel guilty. I hold my breath and dissociate while making the payment and adding the tip, wishing I had never gone the first time and learned the difference it would make, wishing I was virtuous and resourceful enough to be satisfied with my natural hair color. But I keep going back because I want the addictive shock of feeling happy when I look in the mirror and because I can just barely — not comfortably and responsibly, but technically — afford it.
I carry around in the back of my mind an ever-expanding list of things I would do to my appearance if I suddenly had much more money than I have now: Botox, skin treatments, skin care and makeup and wardrobe upgrades, weekly manicures and pedicures, a personal trainer, fixing my teeth, endless other items that could be purchased for greater and greater sums. Viewed on this grand of a scale, it’s easy to see the folly in believing that with enough money, my physical appearance is perfectible. But the way I make the smaller choices available to me belies that calm and smug conclusion. Every few months, I pay to make myself look like myself again. For now, it’s a bargain I’m willing to make.