A Brave New Hair Color: Why My Hair Is a Feminist Statement

Image Karen Walsh

“Is that…permanent?”
“I love it!”
“I wish I could do that!’
“You’re so brave!’

My hair. That is what, to some women, makes me brave. Hair. Think about that for just a minute. Bravery should be about taking a risk or about sacrifice. Soldiers are brave. Fire fighters are brave. Protesters are brave. These are people who act on behalf of others. That is bravery.

Yet, almost daily, women tell me my hair makes me brave.

I spent 38 years looking at myself in a mirror, wrinkling my nose at what I saw. I hated my curls for the first 29 years of my life. Growing up in the 1990s, during the grunge phase, the magazines all showed unwashed-looking straight hair. Girls tossed their hair and the individual hairs would flare out behind them in slow motion. I straightened my hair every day or looked at myself disgusted in the mirror. No matter how much product or what product I used to keep my hair flat, the little wisps of frizz would start to rise from my head like smoke twenty minutes after finishing. I would stare disgruntled at myself, again.

In high school, there was this store called The Doll Shop (I think; it was twenty years ago). It was the local small business equivalent of Hot Topic during its Goth-not-Geek days. It had all these awesome colors to put in your hair. Jars of Manic Panic. I wanted to try them so badly. I only went to the store a few times, but I was always drawn to those colors. I was always reminded that they weren’t appropriate for someone who wanted to be respectable. When one of the boys in my high school class dyed his hair green, the kids mocked him behind his back. So, I stared at my mousy brown hair, disgruntled.

I had one stylist tell me I looked like a poodle. I had others constantly straighten my hair. I had poof on one side and flattening on the other. Someone once told me my head had the shape of a bell. I pulled up the front sides, letting the back hang, always feeling that the curls in front made my face look chubby. I tried short styles but all they did was poof more like a big, swirly bowling ball.

In my mid-twenties, I was tired of looking at myself in the mirror. I dyed my hair a natural shade of auburn. I loved the way it complemented my skin tone. With my pale skin, I never should have been a brunette. Stupid genetics made an error. I always dreamed of something more dramatic. My mind would flash back to those bright, beautiful colors lining the shelf in The Doll Shop.

But a respectable girl doesn’t do something like that.

When I turned 30, I suddenly gave up straightening my hair. I just accepted the ringlets. I learned how to control them. I couldn’t match that magazine style of tossable, carefree hair. At 31, I got pregnant. As much as I love my son, I may never actually forgive him for changing my hair into some kind of weird wavy-not-actually-ringlet-curly. I had finally accepted the thing about myself that I’d always hated, and now, I had to re-accept it because it wasn’t the ringlets. Now, it was some weird sort of partly something wavy random something. I stared into that mirror, that reflection that never looked like the me I felt inside, and saw a face that was disgruntled.

At 35, my last corporate client terminated my contract. For the first time, no one except me cared how I looked. I celebrated my birthday by finding the brightest Ronald McDonald red I could find and coloring my hair an unnatural color. I smiled into the mirror, pleased at the reflection to an extent, but the curls were still disgruntling.

I tried short hair cuts. I cut the back low, but the front sides were always the same length. Starting as longer-than-average bangs, the hair framing my face was always some length that started below the eyes and got longer until it almost hit the chin. This layering stayed the same no matter what I did to the back because everyone told me that I needed them. There was nothing else to do. They needed to stay that way.

Because that was what a respectable girl my age does.

As stylists came and went, I added shades of pink to the red. We always kept it red because that was sort of respectable. It might be an unnatural shade of red but that still fell within the boundaries of respectability.

Until the day when I was 38 and wanted more color. I wanted to be the vivid version of myself that I imagined. I wanted to look in the mirror and see the me that I felt inside.

Unlike other stylists, my partner in crime had brilliant, colorful ideas to help transform me. So we added pink and purple. We blended out the red. We added some blue. I started to feel like the me I had always wanted to be. The me that I imagined all those years ago when I looked at the wall of hair dye and dreamed of something more.

Image: Nina McFerrin
Image: Nina McFerrin

I heard comments. I heard people roll their eyes. Yes, you can hear eyes rolling. We visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia this summer. At one point, one of the living history employees stopped me to tell me how much she loved the colors in my hair. She told me how much respect she had for my bravery and how a family the day prior had been making comments about my hair and my son’s hair (which at the time matched mine by accident). She overheard them talking about how my blue and purple and pink hair was inappropriate. She thanked me. She told me that she loved hearing narrow-minded people like that because then she could point out that pink hair was quite the French fashion in the Colonial South. She told me that my hair was brave.

Brave. Because I just wanted purple and blue hair.

Image Nina McFerrin
Image Nina McFerrin

Yet, I looked in the mirror and saw those same layers around my face. The layers of the girl I hated being at 16. The layers that poofed in weird places and framed my face in a way that made me feel like my face betrayed my sense of body positivity by making me look puffy.

So, slowly, we started to give me undercuts to calm the poofy. Slowly, I started to see the me I imagined in my head.

I liked what I saw so much that I started taking selfies. I was happy with how I looked. My outside started to reflect my inner me.

People would stop me to tell me that my hair color was so wonderful.

And brave.

I finally realized, for me, it was the weird, uncontrollable not-curly-but-not-straight side of my hair that I hated the most. I watched myself gel it down, push it back, try to make it nonexistent. It was like I wanted to take all those parts of me that I hated and make them non-existent by taming my hair.

Then I realized that I could just cut that all off. I could do a side-shave style and be the me I wanted to be. I’d always worried that my anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies would keep me from being comfortable with an asymmetrical style. However, daily I was using gel to create an asymmetrical hair style. Why not just make it a formal relationship? Why not just be wedded to the idea?

And so, in preparation for NYCC this year, I did it. I side-shaved. My stylist painted a design intended to evoke Spider-Gwen into the shave.

I looked at myself. I smiled. And it was good.

The compliments come on an almost-daily basis. I feel weird accepting them because my hair belongs to my stylist. She’s the creative force behind it. I just sit in a chair and smile.

But it’s the “you’re so brave” comments that always get me. I don’t see myself as brave. I see myself as lucky, which is usually my response to the comments.

“Thank you so much! You know, I turned 35, didn’t have a corporate job anymore, and no one but my husband cares about how I look. And he pretty much likes anything, or at least says he does. The eighteen-year-olds I teach don’t really care and they’re going to hate me anyway because they don’t want to take my class. So, I might as well be happy.”

I deflect. I don’t see myself as brave. I see myself as lucky. I’m lucky that I have the freedom to be the me I saw in my imagination. I’m lucky that I have a husband who loves me for the person I am, not the person others think I should be. I’m lucky I have a job where I am judged more by my skill than by fitting into some socially suited, and suitable, look.

I suppose there’s a case to be made that it’s brave to live the life you imagined.

Maybe, though, it’s really just brave to ignore the societal norms of beauty. There are limits on hair that is socially acceptable in “corporate.” Black women are trapped in the straight hair social norm. White women are trapped in the hair color norm.

All women in the workforce are trapped into certain hair length norms or certain hair style norms. A bobbed style is acceptable. A long style is acceptable. Tamed curls are acceptable. Natural shades of color are acceptable. Brown, red, blonde, black. Enhanced but nothing outside the range of genetic possibility. The upper-middle class white women with whom I associate wear their hair these colors. They go to salons. They pay the same money I do (which is, admittedly, a lot) for their hair. Many of them love it and that is as it should be.

Image Nina McFerrin
Image Nina McFerrin

What about the women who tell me I’m brave? What about the women who thank me? What about the women who “wish they could”?

Those women deserve more. They deserve to wear pink and purple and green and blue and whatever hair color they want. They deserve to wear a side-shave or a total shave or a long style or whatever length and cut they want. They deserve to look in the mirror and see the self they’ve dreamed of being.

If being happy to look in the mirror is brave, then I am brave. If living my life as my most authentic self is brave, then I am brave.

My bravery should be seen in my sense of self, in my commitment to honesty, in my work ethic, in my parenting, or in my relationships.

My hair, however, is the external representation of those things. I choose to have pink, purple, blue, and teal hair because I have a strong sense of self and am committed to being honest with myself. I choose my hairstyle because I am confident that my work ethic will ultimately matter more than how I look when it comes to my work product. I choose my hairstyle because I want my son to know that I am willing to be true to myself even when others try to put me down for it. I choose my hair style because my relationships are based on who I am and not how I look.

My hair is not who I am, but it represents being true to who I am and how I view myself. If it is brave to flout societal norms in order to be myself, then so be it. I will wear my side-shaved, blue, purple, pink, and teal hair as a protest against the societal norms of female beauty.

That is, until I don’t like the me in the mirror and want something different because I have changed. Because real bravery? Real bravery is being true to yourself despite what others tell you.

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5 thoughts on “A Brave New Hair Color: Why My Hair Is a Feminist Statement

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog! I also like how you rejected being brave for coloring your hair. I’m an African American woman and I’ve been on all sides of the “what’s appropriate hair” debate. I’ve struggled with the same feelings for years with coloring my hair. When in turned 29 I finally decided to add some purple highlights to my hair. I loved it and also received many compliments. When I turned 31 I did a full head of purple. I was so nervous about what the response would be at work. I managed to get away with it. I’ve made it sort of a tradition to go purple around my birthday now. It makes me feel good about myself. I wish in the work place someone who chooses to wear an unnatural hair color wasn’t judged so harshly. Like you said, you’re judjed by your worth ethic and not your hair color. Bravo!

    1. Thank you! I can tell by your tone that you rock that purple. 🙂 I’m always fascinated that it’s predominantly women of color who like my hair and Caucasian women who disdain it. I think it’s sad that hair is this important to fitting in.

  2. I wear bold colorful makeup to work and my days off and hear the same comments from customers and coworkers, it makes me sad every time , sad that we instill so much meaning in to one narrow version of appropriate, sad that women go to so much effort to their appearance meeting others ideal rather than their own, sad that not even after complimenting me will they believe me that it’s not a secret society to choose your appearance to please yourself

  3. When people use “brave” to describe your style, they are really saying how hideous they think it is. They aren’t comparing you to a cancer patient or a solider, they just are trying to not look like jerks, but still give you a backhanded comment. I’ve been called brave before, regarding my style. I could care less what people think of me, as you should do the same. But just to clarify, when people call you “brave” regarding your style, it means they think it’s hideous. It sucks, but that’s what people do. Learn to ignore all those haters!

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