Thirty-plus years ago, I had white-blonde hair and glasses. Today I have platinum-blonde hair and glasses. The similarities are unsettling, yet I have been many people in between. Hair color isn’t a big deal. These days, few of us – even women in our 40s – attempt to pretend that grey-free is “natural.” Hair is just another element of style; something we change at our whim or to make a point.
When I posted a “poll” on Facebook yesterday, the question seemed frivolous, perhaps a touch narcissistic, but innocuous: Finally getting my hair done; should I stay red or go back to blonde?
I began coloring my hair between the births of my two oldest children. Pregnancy (or age) had darkened it to a weird non-color. My hair was no longer blonde, but it wasn’t brown, red, or grey either. It was just there. I had always accepted that someday the blonde would give way to brunette. Both of my parents, tow-heads as children, developed dark brown hair as adults. I was willing to accept brunette as my fate, but not mousy. With an infant already draining (I felt) the remnants of my identity, watching my hair fade into oblivion as well was unacceptable. So, in a desperate leap for self-confidence, I started coloring my hair – a deep, rich, dramatic auburn.
I’ve been a redhead for the better part of a decade. Because I have three children and a weird inhibition when it comes to making appointments, the shade has varied from mahogany to strawberry with some stops at brass. But, red it has been. Thanks to the complexion passed along by my Scottish ancestors, more people buy me as a redhead than they did as a (natural) blonde. And I embraced my ginger identity. A friend once told me, “You dye your hair to match your personality.” But, what I never told anyone was that I was afraid I was dyeing my personality to match my hair. Somewhere along the line, I began to link all of my “new” confidence, creativity, and fire to my hair. Redhead was a costume, a role I was playing, and if I went back to blonde, it would mean a return to the shy, mousy, (in my mind) undesirable wimp that I had been.
Most of us do this to some degree. We like to think ourselves above stereotypes and labels, but the labels still lurk under the surface, even if they’re only visible to our subconscious. There are obvious examples, of course. Take a six-foot-plus, heavily muscled man. Now give him tattoos, piercings, shave his head, and dress him in leather. What happens when you meet him on the street in the evening? Ok, now take the same guy, cover the ink with an ironed button-down tucked into a pressed pair of slacks. Let his hair grow to business length. Take away the piercings, except maybe one small hoop that just says ‘I’m individual enough to be hip.’ How do you react now?
As soon as I left the beauty salon as a redhead, I noticed that people treated me differently. Most of my life, those around me, even those dearly loved, treated me with an amused tolerance and protectiveness, bordering on patronization. As a blonde, my idiosyncrasies weren’t quirky, they were ditzy. I don’t blame anyone here; I’m absent minded to the point of literally being capable of putting my phone away in the fridge, and my thought patterns have rarely met a straight line they could walk. Yet, folks who met me after I began dyeing my hair seemed to see a whole different person. “Don’t mess with her,” I heard. Casual friends and acquaintances would say admiring things about how confident I am, how I “always seem to have it together.” And I embraced the new image.
Then, one response to my Facebook poll yesterday took me by surprise and made me wonder – how much do others label us, and how much do we embrace the first hint of a label and make it our own? Like it or not, stereotypes are safe. They give us an identity, and consequently, a script. You don’t have to risk being real if you can hide behind a role. But here’s the thing that I hadn’t realized. We aren’t always good actors, and people may interpret our roles very differently than we do. The remark that threw me was a casually sweet comment from a grade school classmate I haven’t seen in over 20 years. “I will always remember you as the cute intelligent blonde…” Thankfully, I was alone in my car when I read that, because what I did next shocked the hell out of me and would have been impossible to explain to anyone else. I burst into tears.
My sister and I are six years apart. I had already entered my gangly phase by the time she was a rosy-cheeked toddler. She has a peaches-and-cream complexion with olive undertones. I burn between my freckles and call it a tan. She has long, thick hair that falls in ringlets down her back. My hair was once referred to by an ex-boyfriend as “fluff.” (For the record, he was an otherwise nice guy, and that wasn’t why we broke up.) As my sister and I have aged, I still consider her the more beautiful of the two of us, but the differences have grown less dramatic. However, one trip to the grocery store set our labels in stone as far as I was concerned. A woman stopped my mother and beamed down at my four-year-old sister. “What an adorable little girl you have,” she said. Then she looked at me with my pale, poker-straight hair, anemic-looking skin and coke-bottle glasses. “And you must be the smart one.”
Well, there it was. I was the smart one. I had the report cards overflowing with A’s to prove it. I sucked at sports and embraced my ineptitude. Why practice? I wasn’t athletic; I was the smart one. As I entered junior high and high school, I watched other girls date and go to dances. It seemed inevitable and appropriate that no guy would ask me out. After all, I was the smart one. And yes, I got great grades that enabled me to follow exactly the academic path I had set for myself, but never once did it occur to me to challenge that label. It never once occurred to me that I might get better at sports if I actually did something other than read at recess. It never occurred to me that for the boys to notice me, it would probably have helped if I’d talked to them. It never occurred to me that to have fun in life, sometimes you have to take chances. After all, I was the smart one, the shy one, the good girl, not the risk-taker. I was the slightly ditzy, klutzy nerd who needed others to look after her because she was too quiet, too shy, not strong enough, and couldn’t get her nose out of a book long enough to take care of herself.
Anyone else see the problems with that paragraph? Interestingly, I didn’t – until yesterday. In spite of all of the work I’ve done on reaching beyond my comfort zone, embracing my self-confidence, my strength, and accepting myself, I’ve forgotten to do one thing. I’ve forgotten that the girl that I was is still here, still inside me, and in rejecting and labeling her, I’m eliminating a part of myself. You see, I am the blonde and the redhead, the shy one and the assertive one, the smart one and the sexy one, the geek and the athlete, the ditz and the capable woman. I’m all of those things and a lot more that can’t be labeled.
A friend reminded me yesterday that even a rejection of labels is a way of labeling oneself. He’s right.
I can’t help wondering if perhaps the trick is not to toss out the people that we have been, discarding them like shed snake skins, but to bring them along with us as we grow, to nurture them, forgive them, and love them.