How My Ever-Changing Hair Color Helped Me Cope With My Roller-Coaster Life

    The power behind Manic Panic

    by · August 10, 2018

    Illustrated by Lindsay Hattrick

    We already know how cathartic it can feel to chop off all your hair when shit goes sour. But what about changing your hair color—constantly?

    That's what I've been doing for a good four-plus years, anyway, and it's only recently that I realized how much of a coping mechanism it was. Starting from the age of 23, I bleached my—as I ever so lovingly called it—“boring, mousey brown head” to a cool white-blonde, and from there, jumped from one unconventional color to the next. Whenever it was time to re-bleach my roots, I dyed it a new shade, striving to be louder and brighter each time. Eventually, this constant changing of my physical appearance became a part of my identity.

    From an outside perspective, it looked like I was having a blast—I was so fun and so carefree. I was adventurous, and a chameleon. In reality, though, I felt like my life was in turmoil. I had hit my mid-20s; I was on my own. I felt lost and fucking terrified—and my mental health was suffering. And, for me, that out of control feeling manifested in increasingly vibrant hues on my head.

    Sure, for many, if not most, people, dyeing hair a candy-colored hue is a simple aesthetic decision. But for others—like me—it had much more meaning, and was motivated by my roiling feelings. Tara Wells, motivational psychologist and Barnard professor, explains:

    Hair may seem like a superfluous aspect of appearance, but studies show that our hair plays a central role in our identity, how we regard ourselves, as well as how we imagine we look to others. Having control over this aspect of our appearance and liking how our hair looks is integral to our overall self-confidence and self-esteem. A change in hair color may seem superficial, but it can signify a massive transformation happening within. Changing one’s hair color can be a way of changing the game by giving you more confidence and the boost in self-esteem that comes from self-expression. A major change in appearance like hair color can signify starting a new chapter in life. For instance, after a breakup or changing jobs, it can send a message to the world that we are turning over a new leaf, starting a chapter, reinventing ourselves—yet again.

    Essentially, every six weeks, I was covering my roots and turning over a new leaf. And then another new leaf. And another. Over and over again. With every color change, I got a surge of confidence and self-esteem—a quick, but temporary, fix for the fact that I was consistently slipping in and out of states of crippling anxiety and debilitating depression. If only in my own head, I became a new person with each new shade, and I was then able to face the world. The fact that this all began during the foundationally formative years in my career, and, well, adulthood and life in general, is no coincidence. On top of trying to find some way to express myself and find my place in the world, I was rebelling against the idea that, now, I was supposed to be some sort of “grown up,” or, at least, look and act like one.

    Of course, as soon as one color would lose its shiny newness and begin to fade, reality would hit, and I once again felt like I hadn’t had a clue what was going on in my life, where I was headed, or where I belonged. And that meant it was time to head back to the bathroom sink.

    And so this pattern went on for years. Eventually, I moved on from having my head bleached in a friend’s kitchen or staining my own hair—and bathroom—blue, to going to an actual salon with an incredible colorist (seriously, David Adams at FourteenJay is a genius). I graduated from icy pastels to vibrant neons, making sure to cover the full spectrum along the way. And despite whatever inner shit I was dealing with, at least my hair always looked really good.

    Recently, though, things have begun to settle down—both in terms of my hair color and my life in general. As my place in the world has grown more secure and clearly defined, the need to constantly change my appearance started to feel unnecessary. I realized that it was time to, literally, go back to my roots.

    Now, at age 28, I’m back at my boring, mousey brown (okay, fine, I’ve deepened the color a bit and amped it up a bit with some blunt baby bangs), and I’ve never felt more like myself—and happy to be myself.

    Looking back, my hair has become a bit of a physical timeline for me. I can see an old photo and immediately remember where I was at that point in my life—not a bad thing, even if some of the memories are complicated. There is the “can barely get out of bed lavender” of late-2015, and there is the “totally stoked on life turquoise” of early 2016. Navy blue brings me back to a sweet first summer with a very dear-to-me ex, while periwinkle reminds me of the time I finally built up the courage to quit a job I hated. My color journey reads like a colorful spectrum of experience, even if some of the shades are metaphorically, if not literally, pretty dark.

    What's clear, though, is that with each new color came a new air of confidence, a new personality trait, a new alter ego, and a new way to simply deal—even if only temporary, like a rainbow in the sky, or in my hair. 

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    Last updated: 2018-08-10T16:49:16.000Z
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