One brunette’s blonde ambition

How an impromptu hair transformation became more than scalp-deep

(Left to right) Campbell, Willsie and McIlwain showing off their 'dos.
About two weeks ago, I went from being a brunette of a mundane hair tone, to a blonde of the Paris Hilton-variety — in appearance only, I assure you. 
My reasons for becoming a blonde are difficult to articulate, mainly because beyond a vague feeling of stagnation and boredom, there wasn’t any particular motivation for the drastic change. 
But all it took was one innocent mention of a desire to lighten my hair to an enthusiastic friend. Suddenly, I was perched on the edge of a bathtub, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, but knowing it was too late to back out. 
Five boxes of bleach, three bottles of toner and a burning scalp later, I was a blonde. Suddenly, I no longer recognized my reflection. Nor apparently, did anyone else. 
I’ve never before felt more conspicuous than for the first week after my transmutation. For weeks, I felt like Elle Woods in a Playboy bunny costume at a Harvard law school party full of sweater vests. 
I walked down the street expecting every person I passed to recoil at the brassy statement my head made.
From my mother’s hesitant praise to my sister’s outright inquiry as to I’d had a nervous breakdown, the reactions varied.
My housemates thought it was cool, several people asked me if I now have more fun, and my boyfriend diplomatically assured me that I would look beautiful no matter what. 
But no one summed up my own internal reaction to the change better than my manager. As I walked into work my first day as a blonde, hoping that I would go, if not unnoticed, at least not mocked, he dryly remarked “Well, doesn’t someone look like a completely different person?”
I do look like a completely different person. The only problem is that I don’t feel like a different person. In fact, when contemplating changing my appearance, I’d only considered whether it would go with my skin tone, not whether I had the personality to pull off blonde.
I’d never thought that my hair colour had any connection to my personality. And while I don’t think anyone would reasonably describe me as demure, I began to doubt whether I really am a blonde at heart. I realized why I felt so conspicuous. It was because I felt fake, like I was wearing a costume all the time that I couldn’t take off. 
I’ve never before experienced the feeling of being estranged from my own body, and it impressed on me with greater empathy the importance of never judging someone on the basis of their appearance or making them feel uncomfortable for something they can’t change. 
Meghan McIlwain, LifeSci ’16, also made a startling change to her appearance when she dyed her natural dark brown hair a brilliant shade of green. 
When I initially inquired what motivated her to dye her hair, she simply said, “It’s fourth year. I’m gonna have some fun.” On a more serious note, she added that she “just thought it was time.”McIlwain’s original inspiration came from watching a YouTube video that featured a model with beautiful, bright green hair.
After texting several hairdresser friends, she found one who was willing to perform the same magic on her. Her transformation from a brunette wasn’t without its bumps in the road. To get it green, she first had to dye it bright yellow, a process that was both expensive and emotional.
“I had a mental breakdown halfway through, when it was blonde,” she said. “Blonde does not suit me.” “My mom had to leave halfway through [the appointment]. She couldn’t handle me being blonde.” In the end, McIlwain is happy with her green hair not just because it is fun, but also because it says something about her personality. 
“I feel like I am an outgoing person, and now my appearance gives that impression.” McIlwain has an identical twin, but since dyeing her hair, she said she finally feels like her own person. “And it took all this time. I’m 21, it took all this time to feel like a different person.” She told me that many people reacted positively and approached her to compliment her on her hair. “People were like, its crazy, it looks so good, such a beautiful change for you.”  
A friend she had lost contact with even commented on her Facebook photo of her new hair. McIlwain explained that throughout the hours-long process of dyeing her hair, the friend had been in the back of her head, as she’d always dyed her hair different colours throughout her early years. 
Since McIlwain seemed confident in her decision to dye her hair a drastically different colour, I asked her if she felt the same sense of estrangement that I did upon not recognizing my own reflection. Nodding vigorously, McIlwain responded, “Yeah, I shed a lot, and seeing blue on the [hair]brush was so weird.”
Cailin Campbell, ArtSci ’17 — who recently dyed her hair aqua — struggled to articulate the strange feeling of not recognizing yourself.“You wake up in the morning and walk into your bathroom and look in the mirror and it’s just whoa, you are so taken aback. Like, oh my gosh, who is that? Oh wait, it’s me.” When I described my out-of-skin experience, she agreed. “I felt so different, so I thought people saw me as so different. “For some reason with this hair colour [I don’t feel] the same way, I don’t know why.”
Campbell said her aqua hair suits her personality because it’s her favourite colour, dolphins are her favourite animal and it makes her “feel like a mermaid.” 
When I asked about people’s reactions, she told me it had mostly been positive. However, one of her professor’s passing remarks about people dying their hair green left her feeling conspicuous. While the comment passed no judgment on green hair, Campbell said she felt self-conscious when everyone in her class looked at her.
Campbell shared my worry about being very conspicuous. “I was kind of expecting, like walking around, people to take a double-back and be like ‘Whoa she has green hair,’ but nobody really does, I like it better that way.”
Since dyeing my hair, I’ve noticed something interesting: the vocabulary we use often leads us to define ourselves by our hair colour.  I didn’t just have brown hair before, I was a brunette. I don’t just have blonde hair now, I am a blonde. 
And as my hair has settled into an indeterminate colour between strawberry and sunset, I’ve settled into my new yellow-haloed existence. 
In the end, I guess all it really came down to was recognizing myself when I looked in the mirror. And that really had nothing to do with being a blonde or a brunette. It had to do with discovering the person that I am, regardless of the person that everyone else sees.
I joked to my friend that I could be Marilyn Monroe for Halloween now, if only I could acquire a body suit. But regardless of the colour of my hair, I will always think of myself as more Katharine Hepburn than Marilyn Monroe. 

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