Becoming me through my hair
I sit here in the hair salon with my laptop, coffee, water and phone. It’s my bimonthly colour and cut day. Time out of the week to self care from the outside in. Yet for me it works on the inside out too. The salon I go to is small, personal and uses products that are supposedly nicer for my hair (i.e. plant based dye, no ammonia, etc). Then I get the bonus of a passionate salon owner/stylist (she has wanted to do people’s hair since she was 17) not trying to recreate the next winning hairstyle but helping me express me. I think hairdressers are part therapists much like the old bartender. You have a lot of time to chat about and solve the world's problems.
I see me in the mirror. I look tired. I am tired. On the mend after not being well. Sitting here without the headache I had for three days is such a relief. It must be the relaxation, the surrender, the allowing that I give myself to be here.
Yet I am writing at my laptop. Why? Because this is fun for me. I prefer writing over skim reading the variety of gossip magazines beckoning my attention just behind the laptop. The sensationalist, paparazzi fuelled stories can wait for another day, if ever.
My head is covered in foils as I anticipate the magical transformational power of the applied paste making me blonde again. It is nice to lighten my hair. It uplifts me, my spirits and perhaps others when they see me. Probably not but I like it. I am an original blonde. When I thought I needed to justify such trips to the salon I claimed this fact. I used to feel I needed to give myself permission to change my appearance. Does that really matter in the bigger scheme of things? Not really. In here it does.
Having been blonde my whole life I remember the years when my hair started to lose this original colour. As a child I had the bright yellow hair indicative of my Scandinavian heritage. Then as I matured more it turned more into a 'dirty blonde'. So not 100% from that part of the world. Yes the official colour given to me by one of the many hairdressers in my life was 'dirty blonde'. My hair though has perhaps been a symbol or expression of the different stages of my life.
I want to look like her
As a young girl it was all about looking like a famous person. My earliest memory of hair identity was in the mid 70’s. I was only 10 or 11. Farrah Fawcett was the icon of beauty along with Olivia Newton John. So I begged my mom to let me cut my long hair. I tried to be like Farah only my curly hair did not work with flowing wispy waves. Then I tried 'the Olivia'. I may have had the blonde but the roll across the top of my forehead just looked like an empty candy wrapper. Of course at the time I thought I looked just like them. In hindsight I can see the beginning of my obsession with the external part of me. I became fixated on fitting in, looking the way others expected me to.
Others wanted me to look the way they wanted
Fitting in with hair was as challenging as what to wear. One moment in 4th grade shifted me at my very foundation. From my adult perspective it seems not so bad, but back then just another mark against me. I was in the Girl Scouts. I loved being part of the scouts. Especially living where we did in the mountains. We got to do outdoor activities including hikes, a jamboree, even staying in a cabin in the snow (though cooking frozen pizza on an open campfire outside [yes we did] I don't think warranted a badge). This was in the 70’s so there were lots of opportunities to ‘earn badges’ making craft etc.
On days we had troop meetings I would proudly wear to school my leaf green pants, white blouse and long vest adorned with my collection of badges (remember 70’s!). I had only been at this new school for a little while. When one day the office manager asked me to be a runner for one of the periods. So off I went naively to collect the pile of school memos fresh off the mimeograph to be delivered to each classroom. I loved the freedom of missing class. I also felt a lift in my step being a person with a school responsibility. Hey I was only 10.
Inside me was no match for others
Then boom. All confidence evaporated in one fell swoop, that's how vulnerable I was at that time in my life. I walked into one classroom of older kids. Instantly all eyes were on me as the teacher stopped mid sentence to take my delivery. On show I was the object of 25 pairs of eyes, their collective judgement and easy distraction. In this moment my replicated movie star hairstyle would not save me. The first person set them off “Hey look it’s a green martian. I wonder if she just came from her planet.” Then another wisecrack and another before the teacher could rein them in. Even now I can still recall the mortifying pre teen embarrassment as if a scene in a Disney movie about the shy girl getting back at the mean kids. Only I had no recourse. I never liked attention and especially in such a negative way.
I left the room trembling, cried in the hallway. I don’t know how I finished my deliveries. All I do remember is I went home that day and declared to my mother that I would never be a Girl Scout again. That was it. So I let a bunch of 12 year olds dictate a life choice. I let a group of kids in the 1970’s set me in a whole different direction. It is amazing firstly that I acted so strongly. It is equally sad that I had no one to stand up for me or right the wrong. I was too embarrassed and wanted to hide under a rock.
So these formative years were all about fitting in. My clothing even back then was about trying to fit in. All the time.
Fitting in helped me hide
I look back at that time in my life and wonder why. I was hiding. I was hiding the real me for the fear that if anyone found out I would not be liked. It was easier to put effort into fitting in so as to draw less attention. Part of this was due to real difficult personal challenges happening in my life, at home and in my family (a story for another day). I also was in a community where people had very strong religious beliefs that were not the same as my family. I felt like I did not belong anywhere - at home nor in my community. So rather than developing confidence and acceptance of this difference I put all my energy into hiding in plain sight. I simply wanted acceptance and even love from others. Not isolation. Not pain.
Whether hair or clothes these formative years of my life were about the inauthentic me. I reflect now and wonder if anyone at all saw the real me back then. I don’t think so. I developed so many ways to project the persona that fit. I learned to adapt and be under the radar.
I share so much of this old story because it is what I call a foundation story. Experiences with so limited life context can seem far greater and important at the time than later. The absence of guidance and life skills to cope with confrontation meant avoidance became even more important. Formative behavioural adaptation I call it.
Middle was muddle
Middle school was about taming the wildness within for despite the hiding shy girl I was also very angry. The hair was the metaphor once again. Puberty hit and so did the frizz. Nothing worked. My hair before product was a cross between hippie and stoner. I think I scared the school photographer when he took my photo. Of course this look is forever captured in nostalgia and family photo albums. I will let them be entertainment value. The discovery of hair gel and straightener was like finding gold and a sense of control - at least on the outside. Inside me my life at that time was a constant sense of unravelling and confusion. The personal issues from primary school escalated to a place where I had to hide me even more. I was literally kicked out of groups who had no idea the turmoil within. They simply judged and executed. Still in the Disney movie without the happy ending yet.
Navigating a new way
High school was about journeying from a girl unsure where she fit to being comfortable in my own skin. My hair travelled the journey with me. Much like the ugly duckling I shifted from out of control long hair to a soft short mop of blonde curls. The hair transformation mirrored my own. In the early days I vacillated between the pursuit of fitting in, being part of the 'right' crowd. Later I would connect with and make friends with people that 'got me'.
I also discovered my passions, creativity and self expression. Yes I hated high school for all it's peer pressure, comparison, etc. I also loved it for the opportunity it gave me to find my own way. Photography and the yearbook were my lifesavers. I enjoyed the shared interest of these pursuits. I also was able to be part of a school but not have to be in a way that was not me.
In the last two years of high school I found for the first time in my life a community, a group to which I belonged, a refuse from home life. I also stepped up naturally into leadership and guided our creation process into a new direction. This time felt normal even empowering. I had a glimpse and a taste of the real me coming into my own. Even now I can look at old photos from that time and feel the happiness, connectedness and joy. I also accepted and saw others for who they were. No longer hiding or trying to fit in. It was a window into what was possible and how I could create it.
Oh how I wished that I could hold onto that feeling, stay in the little bubble a bit longer.
Life keeps happening
Change came a calling. Big time. Like so many others my age it was time to matriculate in life. My chosen path was university. Shifting from 600 people at school in a town I knew to a university of 30,000 people in a different town I felt almost like a number, not a person. The external references keeping alive my new found confidence were gone. Everything was new. Everything was exciting, scary, fun, hard at the same time. A part of me loved the opportunity to shed the shackles of my past, escape the expectations and pressure of my family. I wanted to be my own person.
I chose many ways to explore which will be for my further reflection and writing later.
For now I can recall how again my hair was a statement. My statement to start was to cut it off even more. One day I stumbled upon a hairdresser offering cheap $5 haircuts if I was willing to be a model for the trainee stylist. Sure. What did I want? To let go of the old me and try something new. This stylist didn’t want to know my inner angst. She just wanted to know the hairstyle. So I said do whatever she wanted. Cut it all off. I want to be short but not bald and no mohawks. She looked at me with a mixture of maniacal glee and compassionate concern and grabbed the clippers and shaver. 'Are you sure you want to cut off so much hair?' I surrendered, 'Yes, go ahead'.
An hour later I stepped out of the salon a new me. Instead of soft curls on the back of my head there was a buzz cut. I put my hand to my head and felt the leftover remnants of the razor cut along the nape of my neck. My hair was so short I couldn’t hold it in my hand. On top were little curls springing into action. My dad later nicknamed me “Q-tip head” (cotton swab head for those reading in other countries). He said I looked like a boy. In fact both my parents repeatedly reminded me how. It did not matter to me. It mattered to them. That says it all.
A glimpse at other stages
I would like to finish this post before the hair dye sets. I will write more about these periods of my life another time. For now I share the essence of some times through the filter of 'hair'.
Working for a living. As a working career woman earning money enabled me to pay for change. I could afford colour. I got so fixated on ‘claiming my inner blonde’ and this identity that my hair almost glowed it was so bright. That’s a lot of bleach. And a lot of money. Career promotions justified a more business like look. Oh the fun of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Yes just check out any movie from this period and you will know what I am talking about. Not sure which was pouffier my hair or the shoulder pads in my bright red power suit. Again it was about fitting in with the times, the style.
To curl or not to curl. I had years when I owned the curls and others when I hid them. I remember going to the same hairdresser that used to do Shirley Temple’s hair (my mom always made sure we knew this). Yet I was there not to own my curly locks but to apply layers of chemical straightener with a big wooden tongue depressor. While others were getting perms I was trying my hardest to do the opposite. All I got was straight frizz. This was long before the modern advanced keratin treatments of today.
Marriage. Getting married was about everything especially the hair. I look back now and really wonder why. The irony is that in an attempt to have a special day hairstyle I looked the least like me than any day of my life. Worse is I made my two sisters go through the same transformation. The night of our wedding I needed painkillers from room service for the hair headache and foreplay was my new husband removing 100 bobby pins (he counted)!
New mom. Parenthood + work brought practicality - i.e. if I needed a blowdryer after a shower forget it. I remember having hair down to my middle back. Then just before being a mom for the first time I went to the hairdresser. I took step one, cutting most off and ending up as a bit of a mushroom top head. Then new mommy went back and demanded the rest be gone. Ok I left some, no razor or buzz cut, but it was about self preservation at this stage not even self care.
Kids. Parenthood also brought vicariously living through my children. My son had long hair in primary school. My daughter had streaks of green and blue. If I was not happy with my journey of expression I certainly wasn’t going to get in the way of my children. Over the years I have watched as each grapples with personal choice versus the chosen system of their school or work. Whether it’s colour or a man bun it is their life. I simply have an opinion, which does not matter to them. Hair is about control, expression and saying something. In these formative years it seems to be about whose.
Gray hair. Back to my hair. That long feared socially stigmatic colour gray started to sneak in but I was not ready. I was supposed to be blonde (ok dirty blonde). My gray hair wasn’t coming in the way all the woman of the day were owning. I looked at these amazing strong woman (more famous people) making statements about being real and owning the gray. I loved the whole idea. Only my hair just didn’t look like the movie stars. Here I was back to 4th grade again. At least by this stage I was able to laugh more than cry. I really did not care. I actually had no hang up about ageing colour or the old stigmas that were now evaporating. To me it was a sign/symbol of wisdom coming in.
Red hair. There was the stage of desperately seeking change in my life so I forced (yes I was gently counselled otherwise) my hairdresser to die my hair red. The ensuing holiday family photos will always remind us that this is not a great choice. Never again. Not because it looked bad. Ok it looked bad. More because it wasn’t me. I was trying so hard to change me from the outside in again. It didn’t matter. I couched the whole thing as ‘oh I am on holidays for a month and thought it would be fun’. Not. Though it did get lots of laughs from my family. Luckily my thick skin was developing and my sensitivity alarm less present.
Straight hair. Just for fun. That's all. Just for fun. I have no desire to make this happen or work. Once in awhile I just say to the hairdresser why not play a little more and out comes the straightening wand and blow dryer. For a few days I get to be a slightly different person. It is amusing, interesting and simply an experiment. So quickly I revert to default. It's just easier and simpler.
Au natural. Then there was the defiant rebellion against ‘all things not real or chemical’ - so no colour. In parallel with my exploration of all things esoteric I had this moment of exploration - to be authentic I must do nothing to me. No makeup, no hair colour, no nails painted. I was being real. Yes I could live like this. It was fine. In fact even now I will be less likely in makeup than others. Yet this opting out might work for others but for me felt flat, dull, and I was on the outside feeling like a real dirty ageing blonde.
Business photo shoots. Being a professional small business owner I know the importance of a head shot portrait. It's part of the brand. In the 15 years of being in business on my own I have had my fair share of photo shoots. Each time I had my hair and makeup done. Each evolution of expression matched me where I was at.
I realise as I write this that my latest photo shoot is about 3 years old. Do I still look like my photos? Yes and no. Yes you will recognise me. No I am ageing and changing. I feel like me and also feel newer. Maybe time for an update. Either way the photos still feel good to me so I will keep using them for now.
The real change
I am skipping the depth and detail of years of deep and significant change. So much more happened in my adult life through transformational personal growth and a commitment to learning. (Stories for another day.) The shift has been less external, more internal. I am always learning and growing so not perfect by any means. Definitely better. I am still by default a more introverted than extroverted person who does not seek attention or to stand out. So you won't see me with the mowhawk anytime soon.
For now I note one major difference - self acceptance. Not complacency nor surrender. More a realisation that at least in terms of one part of my life - my hair - it does not matter what I do. It is my hair. It is me. There are as people say ‘good hair days’ and ‘bad hair days’. Hey there are people with no hair, others in wigs. These sayings are just metaphors for life. In the end I realise that hair is simply and expression of who you are, want to be in this moment. I choose what I do. I choose how I do this.
I also see others through this lens. I don't judge other people's hair. I may like, not like, wonder, admire, gawk etc. Yet I also get that everyone else is on the same journey of personal expression in a world of so many cultural, societal and community expectations. The lady with the rainbow dye job is as interesting to me as the man with the bald head. I wonder about their journeys.
External expression then is a reflection of where a person is at and who they choose to be. Whether it is about staying out of the limelight, being noticed or fashionably on trend is up to each person. Hair is a part of this statement. So I notice. I notice not so much that they did something right or wrong. I notice that the effort to express self is working. It is part of the joy of life - being an individual in your own way.
Hair is also simply a physical attribute and by no means related to who you are on the inside. That is what is so interesting to me. Our expression can be a direct clue or a distracting way of keeping others guessing. What you see is not always what you get.
My choice today is to colour my hair. My stylist listens as I say I feel like a bit more blonde. How fun. To be able to just play this way. I want my hair short too. The least amount of work the better. Just let it be.
Much of this attitude is how I am in my life. I feel this same sense of freedom. The freedom is not a loud declaration of ‘Hey everyone this is me!”. No. Instead it is a quiet, confident statement that I can choose my expression. Much like I pick an outfit of clothes to wear. On good days I feel great, on a not so good day nothing in the closet is right. It is all perfect. The external is not the answer. The way I get to the external is what matters.
Now if I don’t like my hair or need a change it, I see it as a signal of something else. I need to pay attention to what is itching or clamouring for attention in my life. I need to ask my own self what matters and not chase someone else’s expectation or message of how I should be. And most importantly do this through seeking and enquiry with acceptance not judgement.
Easier said than done.
Today at least I can say I am happy with my choice. It feels like me on the outside is matching me on the inside. Well maybe I need to add a little blue or aqua to my hair next time.