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The Strange, Transformative Power Of Dyeing Your Hair

Flickr / Steven Leonti

It seems hair color has always been an indicator of status and worth.

I must confess: I have beautiful hair. At least that’s what people say, and I’m inclined to believe them — even though I’m not entirely sure what they mean when they tell me this. My hair is long and thick, it’s true.

Then again, I’m also always compulsively changing it.

I started saying that I dye my hair to “change my life” when I was around 18 years old, much too young to intentionally change my life at all, as it would inevitably change around me — with or without my help.

In this way, I am not unique.


The grass is greener than most grass or perhaps it’s the vivid green pitted against the softest pink, the palest, sweetest pink, one can imagine. The child with the dirty blonde hair, maybe three years old, we’ll call her Cassandra, looks dreamily to the right of where the flash must be. Wearing a soft pink t-shirt with brown horses on it, she holds cotton candy of the same pale pink color in front of her. The serving size is larger than her head. She has big blue eyes, and her full pink cheeks show a mouth that looks too timid to smile, but she’s pleased with the soft, sweet, pink candy in front of her and the beautiful green grass below.

Her mother and grandmother always call her their “blonde baby.” She’s never been blonde though. Not really. So their words always surprise her. From a young age, she knew she was supposed to be blonde. Somehow, it would make things better.

This is where she starts. This is her base color upon which everything else relies.

STRAWBERRY BLONDE // Copper Shimmer Color 0356

A neon yellow beer bottle — a lime hanging on the rim — shines in the back of an otherwise black background. There may be a TV on in the left corner, but one can’t be sure. The girl closest to the camera has the biggest smile — it stretches the width of the picture. Her perfect white teeth are shining, her light brown eyes barely open. The girl with the huge smile, let’s call her Chesney, has shiny, short black hair. The girl with the strawberry blonde hair — let’s call her A Little Bit Naive — leans over Chesney’s shoulder what appears to be mid-laugh. Her blue eyes are closed tighter, her smile a little smaller and a little more crooked. Her strawberry blonde long hair covers both their shoulders.

“I’ve never done this before,” A Little Bit Naive says.

“You probably won’t even feel it,” Chesney insists, as she passes the packed bowl and starts to light it for her.

“But how do I…”

“You’re overthinking it. Just breathe in, I’ll do the rest for you,” Chesney assures her.

Chesney is right — A Little Bit Naive doesn’t really feel anything the first time she smokes, but she doesn’t want to be rude so she sits in Chesney’s Land Cruiser and laughs and pretends to feel what she thinks she should.

An often quoted (but largely unverifiable) study done by the hair care brand Tresemmé offers up fascinating facts about women who dye their hair, asserting that almost 25% of women who dye their hair “wish they had never started.” While this may not be the most scientific study ever conducted, it nonetheless offers insightful information into the pathology of why dyeing hair and feeling beautiful are so deeply intertwined. These regretful statistics aren’t that surprising, I suppose, considering the effects that long-term hair dye has on hair; indeed, 75% of women believe that hair dye has damaged their hair, leaving it weaker, thinner, and wrought with split ends.

Let’s be clear: Dyeing your hair is not good for it or you and yet, here we are. We continue to dye our hair for various reasons: to cover up grays, to change our life (guilty), or to simply maintain our self-image. It might be argued that it’s not unlike other self-harm, like smoking cigarettes or tanning, but in a much more aesthetically pleasing, socially acceptable way. A study by Texture Media reports that the average woman spends over $250–350 per year on her hair care and color. Meanwhile, statistics company Statista reports that in 2016, the global hair care market was worth $83.1 billion. Let me repeat: $83.1 billion.

It seems the ways that hair dye damages our hair are largely ignored or understudied, or so our spending habits would suggest. Many of the 5,000 chemicals in permanent hair dye have been proven to be carcinogenic to animals, but we continue to blithely slather it on our hair, and thus, into our skin.

Flickr / ~ UltraVioleta

A self-help book for women published in the 1600s, titled Delights for Ladies, offered a handy recipe for women to transform their black hair into brown hair using a few simple ingredients, including Oyle of Vitrioll. The advice cautions to “avoid touching the skin,” which is wise since Oyle of Vitrioll is sulfuric acid. You may recognize sulfuric acid as the common ingredient in battery acid, drain cleaner, or other highly corrosive materials — basically every skull and cross-bones warning label your mother told you to stay away from.

I’m not suggesting that the world at large isn’t dangerous and brimming with things that hurt us, but I am arguing that this one particular habit — done in the search of acceptance of ourselves or others — continues to produce evidence of harm. And this is largely ignored.

BLACK // Leather Black Color 0563

A small girl with chestnut brown hair sits smiling on the lap of another — raven-haired — smiling girl. The balcony they’re on appears to be two or three stories high, with car lights and streetlights shining in the background.

The one with chestnut brown hair, let’s call her Vanessa, squints her eyes tight. One hand softly cups the raven-haired girl’s face; the other clutches a red solo cup. The girl with the black hair — let’s call her Mystified — has her arms tightly wrapped around Vanessa’s waist, her smile wide, wide wide; her eyes stretch open as if she’s surprised. A stray hand belonging, let’s say, to Chace, darts high above the girls’ heads in a fist, as if performing a cheerleaders’ move.

“You stupid fat bitch I don’t fucking want you.”

“I’m sorry, Chace, I had to tell her. Vanessa, you deserve better…”

“Get out of here you stupid cunt, you only wish I wanted you.”

Vanessa stands there with her mouth open, looking from Mystified to Chace. Finally Chace starts coming down the stairs swinging his fist at Mystified, and Vanessa steps in. Mystified has tears in her eyes as she grabs her purse and quickly leaves the apartment. On the way home, Mystified sobs and wonders if maybe all the times Chace had said he loved her instead of Vanessa, and all the times she had rejected his come-ons, she had misheard or misunderstood her best friend’s boyfriend.

When she gets home, she steps into a hot shower and watches as the water runs from clear to black: a mixture of her mascara and newly dyed black hair.

One study published in the Indian Dermatological Online Journal found that more than 42% of those who dyed their hair experienced “adverse reactions,” ranging from “sensitivity” or dermatitis to bronchospasms, but continued to dye their hair anyway.

In 2001, researchers at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California published a study suggesting that those who are frequently around hair dye were twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who abstain. There have also been various links to rheumatoid arthritis and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, not to mention the harmful effects on a fetus during pregnancy. Many of these studies have not yet been conclusive, but there are troubling, observable correlations. We dye anyway.

Beauty is more valued than our comfort. Or health. This is not revelatory of course. We’ve always been looking for ways to change. To be beautiful.

In the past, a pigment was added to the hair to dye it. Using henna, indigo, saffron, even gold dust, civilizations as far back as the Paleolithic era found it desirable to have an unnatural color on their head. The ancient Romans lightened their hair with pigeon dung, while the Venetians chose to use horse urine. In the Roman Empire, prostitutes were required to have yellow hair in order to alert others of their profession. As civilization has evolved, the relatively small percentage of natural blonde hair has continued to make it rare and thus, favored. It seems hair color has always been an indicator of status and worth.

BROWN // French Roast Color 0934

Three girls pose together in what appears to be a foggy, maybe smoky, room with red neon lights and many, many people in the background. The girl on the far left with the olive skin and dark hair squeezes her eyes closed and sticks her tongue out. The girl in the middle peeks between the two girls; her eyes are wide-open and flanked by a beautiful smile. Her long blonde hair rests on the shoulder of the girl to her right. The girl with the brown hair winks with one eye and leaves her mouth agape. A tiny airplane bottle of liquor peeks its head from between the brunette’s low-cut shirt, just grazing her sterling silver necklace. The girl with the dark hair, we’ll call her Shelton, has a perfect manicure that gives a peace sign to the camera, joined by a photo bombing hand that echoes it. The girl with the brown hair — the one winking, who we’ll call Happy — leans into the other two girls, perhaps steadying herself.

The lineup for the Beale Street Music Festival offers three different musicians playing at the same time on three different stages on the Mississippi River bank for three days straight. After the first night out, the girls had taken the second day to eat BBQ nachos and rest up for the third day’s main event — Snoop Dogg and Three Six Mafia — the only concerts that all three had agreed to see.

“It’s pouring rain,” Happy says.

“Let’s not go,” Shelton responds.

“We have to go,” Lauren snaps back, “Snoop Dogg.”

“Well we need rain boots because it’s going to be muddy,” Shelton demands.

After going to two different stores with no luck, Happy called a Bass Pro Shop 30 miles away. They were in luck. They only had one style so the three very different girls match out of necessity.

The concerts are great, probably, but as the girls stomp around in the mud, the more the brown mud splashes about their boots, the less they listen to the music. The mud and the rain could’ve been a nuisance, but it isn’t. Not to them. After a few minutes they realize there was no reason to try to listen to the music, no reason to try to stay clean, no reason for their brand-new boots not to be covered in mud. Eventually Happy starts tossing mud, first at Lauren and then at a pissed-off Shelton, until they start laughing and tossing it at each other like kids, and stomp through puddles. The rain keeps pouring down.

Rebecca Guerard wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic called “Hair Dye: A History.” She, too, is interested in the ways that this ritual has shaped beauty and cultural standards, but even more so, the chemistry behind it. She, too, ponders: “Why do so many people still color their hair? Why would someone go through the rigmarole and tolerate the expense, the itching, and the smell? Whatever drives our desire to change the color of our hair, one thing is certain: People have deep emotional ties to what covers their scalps.”

She travels to a conference for hairdressers from around the country learning as much as she can about the truly magnificent process that goes into hair color chemistry. Even our hair, a living breathing, chemistry project, is comprised of 50% carbon, 21% oxygen, 17% nitrogen, 6% hydrogen, and 5% sulphur.

The natural color of our hair is determined (like our skin tone and eye color) by two types of melanin — eumelanin, and pheomelanin. Eumelanin is responsible for darker hair (like the amount of melanin in our skin tones) and the most prominent melanin in our hair; darker hair colors are, therefore, far more common.

People have deep emotional ties to what covers their scalps. Click To Tweet

Pheomelanin accounts for red hair, and the various shades of color depend on the genetic balance of these two types of melanin. Blonde hair is the result of relatively little or no melanin. This is, like skin color and most features, determined by genetics.

Flickr / anna carol

When we attempt to change genetics and construct a preferable shade to color our hair, the chemistry continues to get more intricate. It’s the reactions of the chemicals that make a perfect shade. If you’re hoping to achieve a brown hair color, you achieve this by applying two chemicals — neither of which are brown. They simply turn brown when they react to each other; it’s the reaction that makes the color, not the pigments that are applied.

Not unlike in elementary art class — where we learned that the rainbow was actually made of just three colors combined with one another — the hair color process works with three compounds usually grouped in red, blue, or green. The key is how these three colors interact with each other.

The length of the reaction — the 30 minutes or an hour or what have you — that you sit with the chemicals on your hair, determines the color that you walk away with.

BLONDE // Pure Diamond Color 0134

The blonde girl in the photo, we’ll call her Sexy, leans in toward the camera drinking out of a martini glass. The tall martini glass is filled with brown liquid and topped with foam, like a perfectly prepared latte. In front of her long, golden blonde hair, a glass of water sits to her right. Vodka bottles appear like children lined up by height on a shelf behind her, above a computer, giving the appearance of a bar. At the end of the bar sits a dirty, empty wine glass. Sexy’s expression can’t be seen under the foam hiding half her face. It can only be seen through her light blue eyes turned red by flash, which shine and smile directly past the empty wine glasses into the camera.

Sexy agrees to have a drink with him. Although she barely knows him, they work together, so she assumes it is harmless enough. They settle into the corner booth of the patio underneath a dogwood tree.

“So how long have you been married,” she asks.

“What?” he acts confused as she points to his ring.

“Oh yeah, we’re not really married anymore, it’s complicated,” he says simply.

She watches as he slips off the silver wedding band and puts it in his pocket.

She drinks her vodka tonic. He scoots closer to her.

He smiles at her and she laughs and darts her eyes away, not knowing what to do with the look he gives her. She isn’t used to anyone looking at her this way. She runs her fingers through her newly dyed blonde hair, pulling it to one side then the other until he grabs her hand and pulls her into his lap and she turns to face him. His stubble grazes her face as he starts kissing her. Sexy starts kissing him back just as forcefully, reaching for his softly shaven head. Her free hand feels him get hard beneath her. In the dark corner no one can see as he parts her legs under the table. Under her simple blue cotton dress he begins to play with her clit. She bites his lip harder to let him know that she likes it. She opens her eyes to see him staring at her while he keeps moving his fingers around, knowing exactly how to please her. She feels him getting harder as she gets wetter until her concentration is broken when the thin blue strap of her dress slips off her shoulder. As she reaches to pull it back up, he grabs her hand to pull it back down.

In 2001, Hillary Clinton gave the commencement speech at Yale. She spoke about the importance of hair. “Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.’’ I would like to insert a sarcasm font here, as I like to imagine she did, but she’s not wrong, and that’s why for centuries women have searched for the right color to send the right message to the world.

She runs her fingers through her newly dyed blonde hair. She isn’t used to anyone looking at her this way. Click To Tweet

The reason blonde hair (at least in the U.S.) is vastly preferred by men and women can in part be traced back to the fact that darker hair is much more prevalent. Psychology Today reports that 90% of the population has darker hair, while only 2% have naturally blonde locks. Basically we all want something different, something that sets us apart, to catch a mate’s eye. And that something has historically been blonde hair. The scarcer the color appears, the more it is preferred. There is also an innate youthfulness in the hair color, and a seeming sexuality that follows.

A strange, confusing sociological dichotomy appears, the further you dig into these preferences, however.

Anecdotal study after study shows that men approach blonde women more often, and women feel more confident and beautiful with blonde hair. But men and women alike reportedly find brunettes to be the preferred friend or mate; they’re often considered more intelligent. And yet, more interesting still: If you want to be a successful woman, you should have blonde hair.

Flickr/ Brian Tomlinson

Professor Jennifer Berdahyl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business researched this correlation after attending a conference for women at the Harvard Business School, and noticed that most of the speakers were blonde. Her research found that 35% of female Senators in the United States are blonde, as are 48% of female CEOs of S&P companies.

Her study found that the same words being said by women with blonde hair versus dark hair had a vastly different reaction from male counterparts. The darker haired women were seen as more authoritative and negatively regarded. Perhaps it’s not that surprising, because after all, it is a Man’s World, and the innate sexuality and youth of blonde hair is a clear favorite among the male sex.

This obsession with blonde hair also taps into racial bias. You can’t talk about hair without acknowledging its undeniable power in determining how one is perceived, overlooked, or Othered. Many pieces have been written about the socio-political underpinnings of black beauty being negated—even criminalized—by a racist, Caucasian-centric aesthetic.

Flickr / Jason Hargrove

Research from the infamous “Good Hair Study” exposed the implicit bias surrounding black hair. Conducted by the Perception Institute, the study found that in asking 4,000 participants to take an online test—which involved “rapidly-changing photos of black women with smooth and natural hair, and rotating word associations with both”—white women held the greatest bias. They rated natural hair as “less beautiful,” “less sexy/attractive,” and “less professional than smooth hair.”

A 1993 study examined the long-standing purveyor of beauty, Playboy magazine, assessing its Playmates of the Year between 1954 and 2007. This study illustrated an increase in the percentage of blonde playmates through the magazine’s duration; the fewest blondes were found in the mid 1960s (about 35%) while the year 2000 found the highest (around 66%).

These numbers reflect what society defines as sexy. As the authors explain in their abstract, “The study’s findings have numerous implications for social issues and research regarding the psychology of physical appearance.”

Similarly, it’s not unrelated that in the 21st century, 75% of women feel sexier and more glamorous when they go blonde. Being blonde sits at the cross-hairs of intersecting socio-cultural phenomenons, including femininity, finding a mate, the ability to procreate, and the appearance of youth, fertility, and desirability. It stems from a desire to be something or someone that we may or may not be — something we believe to be rare, more beautiful, and worth suffering for.

I’ve dyed my hair so many different colors I could fill these pages twice over. Red, purple, black, brown, dark cherry red, blonde, blonder, brown, strawberry blonde, red red — you name it, I’ve tried it. I should say, colored, not dyed, because you dye wool. You color hair.

Whenever there is a big change in my life, something goes right or wrong, I hit the bottle. I want to see this chemistry make me perfectly shaded — even when I don’t know what that means. If I don’t like what I see — if things are going horribly — perhaps a different look is all I need. If things are going perfectly, then I should probably look even better. Hair color offers one more way to categorize people, to categorize ourselves.

In truth, I am all of these people at once, no matter my hair color. But sometimes I like to think that it affects my life in ways I can’t otherwise control. Or rather, my hair allows me to better control my life with a choice of chemical reactions.

Flickr / Apolo Salomão Sales

Psychologist Viren Swami, who teaches at the University of Westminster, suggests a compelling explanation for my need to dye: “Because hair is so malleable, it can give women a feeling of control over their bodies that they don’t otherwise have.” When I dye my hair, I feel I am taking control over the way I am perceived.

And yet I also know the person that I am remains the same no matter the color.

My mother says that she has to color her hair to hide the grays or I won’t recognize her. Is this true or does she mean she hopes no one will recognize her because gray hair is not how she sees herself? Is it in pursuit of beauty that we feel the necessity to color our hair or in the effort to hide our true selves? Or is it both? Is that what we’re fighting with hair dye—the fear of being seen for what we really are?

Sometimes gray hair means we are aging. Sometimes we are aging.

Being blonde sits at the cross-hairs of intersecting socio-cultural phenomenons. Click To Tweet

Dyeing my hair does change my life. It changes my public self and my private self, and I’m not alone — 69% of women reported a vast increase in attractiveness and overall good feelings immediately after dyeing their hair.

After dyeing my hair recently, a friend complimented me on it the first time he saw it, and I said, “oh thanks. I really don’t like it.” “Why?” he asked. “Does it make you insecure?” I laughed and said, “Yeah…I just haven’t gotten used to it yet.”

And then I pondered his immediate response about my insecurity and realized this might have been the single most relevant answer anyone could offer for why we don’t like our base color or our gray color or our new color.

Insecurity. Dyeing our hair is a way to make us publicly feel, maybe even look, more beautiful, more acceptable. For whatever reason, we prefer to cover our insides with a more desirable facade. Our public selves must be much prettier than our insides. The private self — the self underneath the color — must be covered. It feels like therapy for your public self; your insides don’t necessarily feel better for any other reason than you feel like your outsides look better.

Maybe that’s what hair color offers us in a sense, too: an opportunity to be better than what we feel. If you’re blonde, it’s a way to be blonder. If you’re getting older and going gray, it’s a way to be younger. If you’re just bored, it’s a way to excite yourself with something transient. A way to be you, but better. A way to be you, but sexier. A way to be you, but more likeable. A way to be you, but more successful. A way to be you, but more approachable. A way to be you, but happier. A way to not be you.