Inside out


The other day, a good friend shared another woman’s tweet that read: “I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but if you’re going through a rough time right now… leave your hair alone.”

Sage advice.

This is the story of how I ignored it.


When I was 29, I dyed my naturally blonde hair for the first time. I was in grad school, stressed far beyond the call of duty, slipping into debt by the tens of thousands as the semesters rolled by, and in a fairly unstable relationship… so this was obviously the right time to make a decision that couldn’t easily be undone.

Equally obviously, I dyed that shit black. For all you colorists out there, we’re talking level 9 to level 1. Boom. Done. From Buffy to Morticia in about an hour at the salon.

(Shout out to the colorist for trying to stop me. You had my best interest at heart. And don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.)

It was the beginning of a wild search to take control of something — anything — in my life. I needed, whether I realized it or not, for my outsides to match my insides.

But I hated having black hair. Without makeup, my light eyebrows and eyelashes looked nonexistent against the cascade of sable hair, and when my blonde roots grew out, they gave the impression that I was balding. My roots needed a touch-up every six weeks, and because I was too scared to do it myself, I went to an insanely expensive salon and spent money I didn’t have.

I was ashamed of how vain I felt about all of it.

For years my mother and other people close to me had dissuaded me from dying my hair because people would kill to have naturally blonde hair like mine, they said. I would ruin my hair, they said. I would regret it, they said.

So I’d be damned if I was going to admit regret to anyone, least of all myself.

But it was hard to see myself in the mirror sometimes, and for someone like me (i.e., neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it), it was a constant reminder of how out of control my life was… or at least how it felt.

After several months of black hair I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to move back toward something I didn’t have to deal with every other month, so my stylist and I started the long journey back to blonde, a path paved with many shades of orange, no matter how much toner we used to cool the color. My stylist, a saint of hair color, went slowly so as not to fry my hair. And he always talked to me about the process, so I learned a bit about how to “lift” — a good colorist, he claims, never says they’ll “bleach” your hair.

I stayed fairly true in my course back to blonde, but I (read: my stylist) sprinkled in some streaks of blue and purple along the way. During hours in my stylist’s chair, we talked about basic color theory for hair, about the molecular size of primary pigments and how that determines how long a particular shade stays in the hair: The larger the molecule, the quicker the fade. Hair color is created by a blend of the primary colors, blue, red and yellow. Blue molecules are the largest, sitting closest to the edge, or cuticle, of the hair, making them the easiest to remove during a lift. Red molecules sit deeper in the hair shaft, and deepest are the yellow molecules, the hardest to fully remove. Because red and yellow are last to go, this is why black hair moves through shades of orange and yellow before finally making it to the sought-after platinum blonde.

I learned that to “cool” down those warmer reds and yellows you use an opposite color on the wheel. Toners are typically blue or purple, which are opposite of red and yellow, respectively.

I learned that developer (peroxide) is used to activate bleach, and it comes in four solutions: 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-volume. The percentage of peroxide present in each developer is determined by dividing the volume of the developer by 3.3. So a 30-volume developer has a 9.09 percent hydrogen peroxide solution.

One day — and you knew this part was coming — I found myself at home oddly daydreaming about bleaching… erm, uh, lifting my own hair. I’d watched it a dozen times… I could do this. I mean, I had no illusions that I’d do it as well as my stylist, but I figured this was a little like horseshoes and hand grenades, right? Close enough does the trick? (To my stylist: I’m still sorry!)

So I did it. And it wasn’t a disaster. But it was terrifying, the bleach getting warm against my scalp, my hair fading into a Howdy Doody shade of orange, the smell, the waiting, the way my hair felt when I rinsed it in the shower…

Yeah, it was pretty scary.

I did a lot of stuff wrong: I didn’t leave my roots for last to avoid the “hot spots” that can emerge when the heat from your scalp processes the bleach at the roots faster than the bleach that is on the lower part of the hair; I probably could have used a 20-volume developer instead of a 30 because it does less damage; I should have put some coconut oil in my hair the night before and prepped my workstation better… but I did get a decent toner that canceled out all of the scary orange, and in the end, nobody really noticed that I’d done much of anything to my hair. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but for the purposes of this story, we’ll say it’s good.

Over the next few years I explored more color with my hair, sometimes with the help of my stylist, but over the last year completely on my own. It’s helped me work through some feelings about my personal appearance, strangely enough, because I’ve forced myself to embrace how I look with red, purple or silver hair. I don’t always love it at first, but I usually grow to love it, especially when I’ve done it myself. I take pride when someone compliments my hair because it’s a form of art, honestly, and I kind-of-sort-of-almost feel like an artist when I do it. I spend hours researching methods and color brands and toners, then I hole up in my bathroom for a few hours with some music and a glass of wine and set about seeing how I can express how I feel through my hair.

Six years later, I’ve embraced my need to make my outsides match my insides.

But seriously, if you’re going through a rough time right now, at least call a friend before you color your hair.