It wasn’t in my original plan, but after going dark red at the beginning of my journey, I discovered that the color my hair faded into felt right. I liked the warm tones in my hair, the brightness, and the contrast it made to the clothes I preferred to wear—blues, greens, purples, even black and white. I didn’t want to be Ariel red, but an Ann Shirley ginger felt right at home.
So, after my initial accidental foray into anime-orange, I decided to tone things down a little. By making my hair more red.
I went from this hair appointment to pick up some groceries, and had about eight compliments on it before I got home. Even the cashier lady told me “I hope you know how good that color looks on you.” (I did.)
One amusing side-effect of the copper hair color, however, was that it well and truly brought out the Irish part of my background. To such an extent that I felt like an American cosplaying an Irish stereotype: bright red hair, skin so pale it clearly hasn’t seen sunlight for days, green sweater, and a claddagh necklace for good measure, because if you’re going to be fake-Irish, you might as well go all the way.
I keep saying “copper,” but most people described it as “red” at first, and “orange” later. I don’t blame them, although the dye bottle says otherwise. It certainly was vibrant. I didn’t realize quite how much it stood out until I saw this year’s Thanksgiving photos. Gee that hair is hard to miss.
One other thing I loved about this was how well it held its color. At least part of that was due to the pigmented shampoo I used, though. Which: pigmented shampoo is funny! It’s like normal shampoo, but a bit runnier, and it deposits color pigment in your hair as you use it. Not much, but about as much as you need to replace what would otherwise be washed out with every shower. However, these shampoos are a little less nuanced in their color tones than the dyes themselves. This is what I used.
Honestly, I’m glad I kept this color for as long as I did. It gave me a lot of time to sink in to this shade and really feel at home in it. I loved this color. It felt right when I wore it. But it’s time to move on to the next stage of my journey, and what I originally planned as the last. I’m off to dye my hair purple. I can’t wait.
The plan was to go from blonde to copper. When I went in to talk to Elizabeth, she pulled out her swatch book and I, not wanting to do anything by halves, picked the brightest copper in her book. I came out looking very orange:
One of my friends summed it up well when he said “you look like an anime character.” Which isn’t bad, per say, just not what I was going for. Still, Elizabeth did say that the color might fade pretty fast, and I had gone intentionally bright to prepare for just such an eventuality.
Little did I know how fast that fade would happen.
The first time I took a shower, the water came out orange. I’m used to a little color the first couple times, but I’d never seen so much at once. With one shower, enough color came out to have significantly toned my hair down to the level I would usually expect after a full week. It dried well, but on my next shower even more dye came out—and this time in patches.
My root color, which was a little stronger to help mask the dividing line between the blonde and my natural hair, stayed strong. But I was starting to notice a distinct blonde patch growing on my right side, and it seemed likely to continue growing. A week in, and I started to consider moving my next hair appointment up by a couple weeks. I’d hoped to make it six, but I really didn’t want to spend most of October with an uneven color job.
Fortunately, after another shower or two the fade became more even. Now my hair didn’t look patchy, it just looked… well, blonde.
Not a full blonde, but a light, strawberry shade. And the funny thing was: I liked it! It was slightly warmer than the blonde I’d left behind, a sort of cozy color that worked well with the spattering of cool fall days we had before Indian summer hit.
I also really enjoyed the length of my new cut. In the past, I’ve tended to grow my hair very long, and then chop it short all at once. Then I start missing the long hair, and the growing-out process begins again. I usually pass through this middle-length with slightly unkept hair, because I’m avoiding the salon. But it turns out this shoulder-length cut is just about the perfect length: long enough for a ponytail, but not long enough to be super heavy.
Anyway, Elizabeth had given me a heads-up about what to expect from this coloring. Apparently, brighter hair dyes fade faster because the pigment molecules are larger, and don’t absorb as deeply into the strands of hair… or something like that. Dye also doesn’t stick as well to bleached hair or damaged hair. She suggested that this round might fade quickly, but that my next round of color would hold better.
I decided to move my salon appointment back up after all. By the time I went in, most people were back to telling me how well I was rocking my blonde hair. Yes, there was still a slight blush tone in some areas, but even “strawberry blonde” was a stretch.
Elizabeth recommended a pigmented conditioner which I plan to use for the next couple months to help my hair maintain its copper coloring. In the meantime, the unexpected detour has been fun, and I enjoyed learning more about hair chemistry along the way. There’s way more that goes into hair coloring than I ever expected. So, to salon colorists everywhere (and mine in particular): Respect.
I’ve never felt like blonde suited my personality. Which still feels like an odd observation, even though at this point I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how cultural stereotypes around hair colors have influenced my feelings about dying my hair. And let’s be honest, blonde has a lot of cultural baggage.
Blondes are dumb, shallow, basic—the chosen hair color of wannabe Hollywood bombshells and high school cheerleaders. It’s the hair color of every white, all-American, girl-next-door. Swiftian, you might say. Or Ivankian. It is the Aryan Ideal, the hair color most laden with racist undertones, the thing I most anxiously don’t want to be identified with.
No, I did not want to be blonde. Which is why, at the end of the day, I decided I needed to give it a try.
Because if there’s anything you can take away from that torrent of negative stereotypes I’ve just unleashed it’s that they’re nasty. Like, really vicious. And, for the most part, fairly groundless.
Yes, obviously, people who choose to dye their hair blonde (like I was about to do) might want to conform to a certain stereotype. Maybe we think of blondes as shallow because shallow people dye their hair blonde for shallow reasons? But I also know some truly excellent, intelligent, compassionate people who also happen to be blonde—naturally and otherwise. But I still felt weird about it.
All that said, my trepidation proved mostly groundless. No one made any dumb blonde jokes. In fact, I got more compliments on my blonde hair than on almost any previous color. One of my friends who initially thought blonde hair wouldn’t suit me came round by the end and thought it looked great. Which is nice.
And yet, it never felt entirely normal to me. More than any other color, being blonde felt like wearing a wig. I got used to it, learned how to dress with it, even enjoyed busting out my red lipstick a bit more. But it always felt like wearing someone else’s skin. It lacked the “rightness” I felt with other colors.
More people have been asking me how much longer I plan to keep dyeing my hair. It’s been almost a year now, and initially I only had two more colors planned after blonde. But… I’m having a lot of fun! My hair’s held up well to the battery of chemical processes it’s undergone since last October, the result of working with a colorist who knows what she’s doing and an investment in good shampoo and conditioner. So I can see meandering through a few more colors and just continuing to have fun with it.
Anyway, philosophical ramblings aside, can I take a moment to say: excellent shampoo and conditioner really does make a difference? I accidentally left my current product at my brother’s house in Illinois back in June, and it took over a month to get it back. In the interim, I used my old shampoo and conditioner from before I started this whole process. Holy cow: the difference is actually incredible. I mean, my fancy hair products cost a whole lot more, but last way longer. Although part of that can probably be attributed to how I don’t wash my hair as often as I used to, because it’s dryer than it used to be. Back in the day, my hair got so oily that I had to wash it every other day to keep it clean. Now, my hair only needs washing twice a week. Given that it takes a good twelve hours to air dry, this is a huge life improvement.
A side note to my side note: I hate hair dryers. I have a lot of hair in terms of volume, the the strands themselves are super fine. This means my hair absorbs water like a sponge. I learned years ago that it would take me far too long to blow dry my hair every time I showered, so I gave up. It turns out that blow drying also damages your hair, making it more brittle and prone to breakage. These days, if I need my hair to dry faster I take a walk outdoors. I’ll probably have to buy a blow dryer before winter, because leaving the house with wet hair in the midst of a Michigan cold snap has left me with a head of icicles in the past. But I plan to use it as little as possible.
Oh, and while I’m going through shampoos and conditioners: one of the fun things with blonde hair was needing to regularly tone it with my purple shampoo. Blonde hair gets brassy after a little while, so my hair person (hi, Elizabeth!) advised me to balance it out every other shower or so with a special, purple-pigmented shampoo. It was funny to watch my hair fluctuate between a more orangey shade of yellow and near-white. People kept asking me if I’d gotten my hair re-colored. In fact, my last time round, I actually went too far and ended up with a faintly bluish lock.
OK, hair tangent over. To conclude, I can see coming back to blonde some day. I may try taking it even lighter, going all the way to that silver hue that’s so popular these days. But for now I’m happy to leave it behind. Next stop: copper.
It’s hard to overstate how much I loved pink hair.
In all honesty, though, I did not expect this. Pink hair would be my first “unnatural” color, in that it was going to fall outside the gamut of hues I could conceivably have been born with. Even though I felt fairly certain that my previous hair colors were obviously not my natural color, this was bound to be a step beyond. But, if only in honor of my younger self, I felt I had to give it a go.
For context, little-me loved the color pink. I know many little girls are obsessed, but I’ve been told I took it to extremes. “Pink” was synonymous with “good” in my child vocabulary, such that at family dinner blessings I used to thank the Lord for “having a pink day.” D’aw, so cute.
But eventually, I grew out of pink. It’s still a color I like, just not one I wear very often. And when my hair journey was first conceived, it didn’t make the list.
And then I started doing my “research” (which here means obsessing over other people’s hair colors), and quickly stumbled across images of people online with absolutely stunning pink hairstyles. I learned that what I wanted was more of a rose or peach color, something dusky and delicate, but still dark at the roots like a balayage. Elizabeth assured me I’d have to start with something pretty strong, because really vibrant dyes fade faster than the ones I’d been using thus far. So I basically just trusted Elizabeth to pick colors that would work, and then let her go to work on another marathon session of bleaching and painting my hair.
I should say that this is also the point where my hair experiment got expensive. Like, really expensive. Turns out, it takes a lot of time and product to bleach your hair and then paint stuff back in, not to mention treating it along the way to make sure it doesn’t become impossibly fried in the process. I’m glad I’ve reached this point several months in, because by now I feel like I understand and appreciate the cost. If I’d been quoted this number six moths previously when I first started I probably would have been more than a little incredulous. I also appreciate that Elizabeth breaks this news to me before we’ve started so that I still have a chance to change my mind. I decide to go for it, but also to wait longer for my next appointment so that I don’t destroy my budget. I’m glad to know that my root color (the same I used with my previous balayage) will last for two months, even though I’m pretty sure the pink ends won’t.
Anyway, Elizabeth finishes up and turns me around. I’ve learned by now that my reaction will always be somewhat giddy. As much as I didn’t anticipate how expensive this whole process would be when I started, I also didn’t realize how fun it would be. And now here we are, with a pink color I never thought I would choose, and I’m over the moon. When I get home, my niece Charlotte (3), who’s usually shy and won’t let me hold her, pats me on the head tells me “I like your hair.” Thanks, Char. I do, too.
At one point, a couple days after dying my hair, I went out to one of my favorite local pubs to grab a pint and do some reading. I sat down at a bench not far from a girl with rainbow colored hair, and thought, Oh, her hair is very fun. And then I realized that I, too, have very fun hair!
That was a turning point. My heart leapt. I might have smiled awkwardly at her. The thing is, when I see people on the street I assume that however I see them that day is however they must be all the time. But in reality, most of us take turns looking good: some days we’re wander out of the house in a semi-unkempt state, and we see the put-together folk wandering about and we wish that we, too, could look be perpetually sharp like that. And then there are other days where we’ve taken our grooming an extra step, and people probably look at us and think we always look that way.
Well, in this instance, it was me looking at a girl with colorful hair thinking she must have always had her hair that color. And then suddenly realizing that now people look at me and probably think that I’ve always been the kind of person to sport pink hair, when in truth, only six months ago I’d never dyed my hair at all. Well, look at me now. Look at me now!
The sad news is that, just as I’d been told, the pink faded. After only a couple weeks I felt myself already missing the bright vibrant color I’d started with. I had meant to take pictures along with way, but for most of this time period I was absorbed by painting my new home, which didn’t leave me many days to get cleaned up enough for pictures.
I also noticed a distinct difference in the texture of my hair—something I again expected because of the damage bleach does. Up to this point, my hair had been surprisingly resilient. Now, it felt rougher particularly after a shower. I had some hair serum lying around that’s supposed to make your hair feel smoother, but I’d never needed it with my natural hair because it was slippery enough. Well, it’s finally found its purpose. I guess the other side affect of the new texture is that my hair stays in place a little better. If I had more time, I’d probably use this to try some new hairstyles.
Even though I didn’t get pictures of it as it faded out, I did have the foresight to snap a foto the day I got it done, while still at its most vibrant and with Elizabeth’s curls intact. I almost wish I could stay with pink a bit longer, but I have a couple more colors lined up for the summer before I reach my grand finale, and I’m to excited about what’s coming up to linger. I go blonde tomorrow, for the first time since I was five. In the meantime, here you go, folks: pink hair, don’t care.
And although there are a lot of things I’d like to start writing about, I have to start with my hair because I am seriously behind the game on that one. I’ve gone through two different colors since I last wrote about my hair journey, and I’m going in on Saturday for my next stage. And since I am absolutely dedicated to chronicling this adventure to the end, I have to get my thoughts out before I fall further behind.
Back in September, when I first started talking to Elizabeth about my plans for dying my hair, she told me I should try a “balayage.” I had never heard of this word before, but I pulled out my cell phone and looked it up. Essentially, it’s a super fancy way of highlighting your hair from one color at your roots to another at your tips. It takes a lot of blending, but the result is more natural looking and super cool. We talked about a few options for where I could do a balayage, and the original plan was to do it as I transitioned from chocolate to a lighter color. Elizabeth thought chocolate with red ends would be cool, but in my mind I didn’t like the thought of going from red to chocolate back to red again, So when the day came, I asked for her to do a warm caramel color.
Because I wanted this hairstyle to last for two months while I was in Spain, we chose a root color which we thought might blend in with my natural roots as they grew back. (Balayages in general are a more forgiving hair color, because they tend to fade well over time.) I sort of fell in love with the ash brown we chose, and I sort of wish we’d used it when I did my all-over brown. Maybe someday. Elizabeth also left some of the dark brownish-red I already had in my hair in place as the blending point from dark to light. This ensured I would keep some warm tones and that everything would blend more naturally.
What followed was truly epic. Elizabeth busted out her foils, and spent the next… two hours? carefully painting my hair, piece by piece. I have a lot of hair. It’s thinned a little since starting this whole process, but still—it’s a thing every single stylist I’ve ever visited has commented on, usually when they’re about halfway through blowing it out. And I have to emphasize: Elizabeth was painting tiny pieces at a time.
She started with the root color, painting in the dark brown a certain distance down the strand. Then she used the bleach to start lightening the ends, leaving a certain portion in the middle untouched. And I think she might have used some more dye to help blend the dark and the light together so that the gradation would be smooth. In a few places she let the dark root color go all the way to the ends, and in others she let the highlight go almost all the way to the roots. It took forever, but in my excitement I didn’t feel bothered by that. When she finished painting everything in, she left me for a bit so that the dye and bleach could do its thing, and then used a caramel glaze when she washed everything out to give it that rich, warm color.
I don’t know if I’ve gotten more used to having dyed hair, or if this color just worked for me. But something about this color felt right to me in a way that nothing previously had done. As much as I loved my earlier colors, they took a little getting used to. Every time I saw myself in the mirror I had a bit of a pause. It’s also true that the caramel color was closer to my natural hair color than anything previously, so maybe that was a factor. In any case, I felt happy and excited by this style the entire time I had it. I got a bit used to twirling the ends around my finger when I was distracted to see all the different colors. And, as Elizabeth though it would, this color held strong for a full two months. My roots definitely showed by the end, but only noticeably in strong lighting.
I was in a hurry the day I took pictures, so I struggled a bit trying to get a good pic that really captured the balayage in all its glory. So here are three. One of the things I learned about this style is that curling brings out more of the variations in tone. I’ve included pictures of both so that you get the idea.
Ever since I was little, I’ve admired people with deep chocolate-black hair. To me, it always seemed the most striking, romantic, thoughtful hair color. As if being brunette made you automatically pensive, if not intelligent (like Belle! Or Hermione!). So I was super excited about this stage, mostly to see if being dark-haired would make me feel as wise and mysterious as I’d always imagined.
Not that any of that makes sense, because, shocker: dark hair did not make me wise and mysterious. I am neither of these things, particularly. Common-sensical and interesting, probably—or at least those are the words I would prefer to use. The point here is: for probably no good reason at all beyond cultural stereotypes, I project certain personality traits onto people based primarily on their hair color, and then subconsciously expect myself to conform my behavior to match those stereotypes. Unless there actually is a good reason for these stereotypes, because once people start self-selecting their hair color to match a stereotype they make the stereotype true? As in: blondes are stereotyped as being ditzy and shallow because a lot of not-blonde people have dyed their hair blonde for ditzy and shallow reasons? (Dear natural blondes: Have we all ruined blonde hair for you?) And similarly, many other people have dyed their hair dark colors because they believe having dark hair makes you mysterious and they want to be perceived as being more mysterious? Am I over-thinking this yet?
Whatever—back to the hair journey! Elizabeth and I decided on a chocolate brown with red undertones, and she used a red glaze when she rinsed the dye out to give it a warmer effect. My biggest anxiety was that it would feel too dull after all the red, so this sounded like a good idea to me. Elizabeth also wanted to curl my hair, which I let her do because I love it when people curl my hair and also I would probably let Elizabeth do whatever she wanted because she is magic. So she took her time, and I had to wait patiently for her to finish, all the while trying to get sneak peeks in the mirror because it’s really hard to look even if you also want to be surprised. Anyway, Elizabeth finished up and spun me around, and I got my first glimpse of my childhood dream.
My first reaction was: HOLY COW I LOOK LIKE MY MOM FROM THE 70’s.
My mom in the 70’s.
Me, looking like my mom in the 70’s.
I’ve been told my whole life that this is the case, and I guess the above is proof. I meant to do a reconstruction of the picture of my mom (on the left, in case you couldn’t tell), and there was even snow on the ground which would have made it perfect. But I never got around to finding a camel-colored coat, so I’ve probably lost my chance.
For some reason, I also felt like I belonged in a WW II movie for as long as the curls lasted. I’m not sure why, because that hairstyle didn’t exactly scream 1940. Maybe it had something to do with the contrast of all that dark hair against my pale skin: I felt like a black-and-white photograph every time I looked in the mirror.
Which is, I think, what ultimately dimmed my enthusiasm for dark brown. Or maybe it was how the color faded back to a reddish hue after a couple weeks. Maybe one day I’ll try again and go for a more true-brown, but for now, I’m not sure dark hair suits me after all. I feel too washed out, too stark, too contrasty. Or maybe I’m just not wise enough to pull it off.
Either way, here’s my official chocolate brown hair pic. Looking pensive, obviously.
I dyed my hair for the first time at the beginning of October, and it was so much fun.
As in, way more fun than I expected, and I expected to enjoy it.
It started off with Elizabeth, my stylist, pulling out a big book of hair swatches for me to pick from. I had to rely on her guidance quite a bit, because I had no idea how the dye would look once she’d actually applied it. I wanted to go for a natural-looking auburn color—something dark and bold but still believable as a natural hair color. At the same time, I worried that in attempting to pick something natural I wouldn’t go red enough. Like, I wanted to have red hair, just not red red hair. It’s a fine line.
Elizabeth’s big tip was that lighter = brighter. And since I didn’t want to go for fire-engine red, we decided to do a mixture of two dyes: one a reddish brown, and the other a reddish copper.
Elizabeth went off to begin her mad scientist hair-dye chemistry (or maybe she envisions herself more as a creative genius painter), and I waited in my chair, sentimentally gazing at my natural hair in the mirror, wondering when I would next see it again. When Elizabeth returned, I expected to have one final, big moment to say goodbye. But I guess she’s less mushy about these things than I am, because she just slapped the dye straight on without warning. Which was totally cool, actually. In retrospect I appreciated that she just got on with it.
A couple hours followed in which Elizabeth coated all of my hair with an alarmingly orange-colored cream (the dye), then left me to sit and read while it soaked in, and then washed and dried and styled it, mostly with my back to the mirror. The entire time, even as she applied the wet dye to my roots, she told me how much she loved the color, and how much she thought I was going to love it, and I still have no idea how she knew that even before the dye had started to work, but she seemed pretty confident.
Forget mad scientist or genius painter. Maybe she’s really a wizard.
Anyway, when Elizabeth finally turned me around, I made that jaw-dropping face which she later told me is the reason she loves her job. All my life I’d subconsciously identified myself with brunette characters: Belle, or Hermione Granger, or Elizabeth Bennet. Suddenly I had become Anne Shirley or Ginny Weasley.
(Which, when you think about it is a little weird. Why identify yourself with some fictional characters more than others based on their hair color, especially when you’re reading a book and often times never see them visually represented at all? Yet, I’m pretty sure most of us do this.)
I think I walked out and could not stop smiling for several hours. Every time I saw myself: big grin. It helped that I’d picked such a dimensional red that it seemed like a different color in every light.
Literally could not stop smiling.
Then in my car.
Selfies in the parking lot.
That said, after the initial excitement I felt very nervous about my hair for the first week or so. I kept being surprised by my own reflection in the mirror. I felt self-conscious in front of other people, and couldn’t wait to wash my hair to get some of the staining off my scalp. Also, every time I wore green I felt like the poster child for Irish tourism, which wasn’t a bad thing it itself, but it did feel a little cheesy.
After a week or so the color toned down, and either I liked it better that way, or else I just finally got used to it. I’d originally planned to do red for only a month, but by the time my next appointment came round I’d decided one month wasn’t enough.
Also, it was still Fall, so the color felt in-season. This was another thing I learned about dying your hair: people pick seasonal hair colors. I mean, this was (at least in part) the reason I’d chosen red, so I’m not sure why it surprised me. But nonetheless, I had several people complement my hair by telling me I’d made a good choice for the season.
A lot of folk told me they liked the red, but I was more surprised by strangers or people I’d just met commenting on how they liked my choice. As in: they knew it wasn’t natural, even after it had softened and could conceivably have been so.
I had mixed feelings about this. As I mentioned in my first post, I’ve always felt (somewhat irrationally) that dying your hair was cheating in some way, as if you’re somehow faking not your hair color, but some aspect of your personality. That in itself says a lot of weird things about how we attach personality stereotypes to hair color, which again is somewhat irrational. But given the fact that those stereotypes do exist, and that we somehow expect them to map to hair color in some way, then wouldn’t choosing a hair color which you felt better suited your personality be a truer form of self expression than otherwise?
Probably I am reading too much into this, but probably I will continue to do so as this series continues. Consider yourself forewarned.
Anyway, I liked making a personal statement of my hair color, and it felt cool to connect with people about that, if only a little. Also, it surprised me how much I noticed other people’s dyed hair. Now I understand a little better why past hair stylists kept expressing amazement over how my hair had never been dyed.
In conclusion, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed red hair, particularly after it mellowed a little and became more coppery and less auburn. My stylist keeps telling me that red and blonde are the most addictive colors, and that for many of her clients, once they get a taste they keep going back to whichever of those two shades they tried first. I don’t know if that will happen to me. I always expected to go back to my natural hair once I’d tried everything else. And while I know a really vibrant copper is in my future this summer, I could see myself eventually gravitating toward a rich chestnut with a hint of red undertones.