Laura Diaz de Arce
My hair is simultaneously the fakest thing about me and the most honest. Throughout this series, I’ve been eager to point out how I subscribe to the notion that the body can be reconstructed, that it is artificial and to undermine that artificiality with a veneer of naturalness is in many ways insulting. This all stems from a personal belief that the true self is not the uncultivated self, but that the “true” self is the curated self.
Ok. Fair. That’s really confusing. Let’s put a pin in that and start at the very beginning.
My hair has been a talking point for myself and my family members since I was born. I was born with black hair that stood straight up. As my mother likes to tell people, along with that, my ruddy appearance and cloudy eyes, I was a very ugly baby. Apparently, she would walk me in the stroller and people would approach and coo over how cute I was.
My mother’s response? “You don’t have to lie to me, I know she’s ugly.”
(It’s OK, you can laugh. I still do.)
My black baby hair was a curse to my mother. She would gel it, mousse it, whatever she could do to try and have it not stick up. Finally, at three months, as is Latino tradition, my parents shaved my head. What grew back in place was not the up-popping black hair, but wispy platinum blonde. My skin and eyes cleared, maybe I’m a changeling.
My hair was one of the finer things that separated me from the rest of my family until my younger brother came along. My light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair were the items that made strangers repeatedly ask if I am adopted. My mother loved these features, she had a Barbie doll for a child. That is until my hair began to change with puberty. Going from platinum blonde, to dirty blonde, to losing whatever blonde remnants I had into a straight brunette.
At twelve, my mother convinced me to get highlights, to bring back my dirty blonde hair. In that salon, I was the youngest by miles as vejitas had their grey dyed away and senoras did blow outs. My scalp burned under the plastic wrap, bleach was leeching out the newer brown tones in order to leave me with an imitation of my former blonde.
That’s how it started, with a highlights regimen. Then, as reapplying would make any brunette portions of dirty blonde disappear, I would have to have all over dyes re-done. First, a dark ash blonde all over to create a brown base, then a bleach blonde dye for highlights. We learned to do these at home, my mother imitating the color on her head as well.
By the time I was in college, I had run the gamut of colors.
Mostly natural. Full blondes, reds, black (once and never again I looked horrible), but not brunette. There was an accidental episode of dark grey that at the time… did not look good.
A lot of this done at home. And I’m sure there may be a hairdresser reading this, ready to accost any decisions we made to home dye between spaced out stints at the salon. But you know what? I was, and am, poor.
My experience in dyeing hair led me to have dyed my friend’s hair for them, and there are a string of boxed bleach dyes in my wake. Blonde was also my mode of choice, generally. Blonde was so tied to my identity, that it was the hair color I married in.
In graduate school, I started to experiment with new colors, more eager to express myself in more vibrant ways. Pinks and Purples seemed to best be colors to express me, wild and loud, unforgiving. I played with other colors too, combinations that made my hair look like an ice cream bar or an anime character. To date, favorite colors are lavender, grey, purple and pink.
Playful colors are wonderful, allowing me to change my identity in the scope of a bottle and an hour.
I love the mystical quality of the colors, of the inhumanness of it.
Let me take great, fat paintbrushes of color to my hair and make by face a cartoon drawing. I love the vibrancy of the colors and how they stand out of nature.
There’s more than one occasion that I have been referred to or called or compared to “Tonks,” the Harry Potter character who can shape shift on a whim. What a lovely power, to shift and shape your identity on a whim. And I recreate this, with my hair colors, my odd cuts and combinations. Life is too short for one hair color.
When I was 28 I made the decision to go natural in order to see what my hair color was like for the first time since I was about 12. It was darker than I remembered, a dark ash blonde that looked like chestnut in most lighting. As far as colors go, it was fine, but it wasn’t me. I lasted about two years when I had had it. Going grey, then lavender and now between fuchsia and pink.
Dyeing hair is a painful process. While I often use “play” colors, pigments in a conditioning solution that leach colors on top, I have to bleach. Hours of my time is spent with bleaching agents and developers on my very tender and sensitive scalp. They suck out the color, fading my thin and brittle hair in peroxides, burning and itching. To get the most vibrant colors to stand out in my head, I must first wipe the color out, natural or not, to get the best canvas.
To style my hair, I do even more damage. Using heated metal to straighten or curl it. My hair is thin, brittle, burnable. A few days straight with a hair curler will leave my ends a split, burnt mess. I probably should care about the damage I’m doing, but I find it hard to. My hair should be an extension of who I am, and naturally it just wasn’t.
Still, my hair is privileged in many spaces. My blonde hair, combined with my blue eyes and pale skin, gave me a certain status. It doesn’t just help me to pass, it gave me real privileges.
Not to mention that I have never had to deal with any sort of discrimination based on my hair, or my hair type, dyed or not. The majority of beauty products out there are made for my thin, stick straight hair. Rather, I have had a hair industry that caters to me, and coloring my hair has largely been an extension of that. This has not been the case with the people in my life or doubtless, any non-white person in the US.
My brother is going to kill me for telling this story, but here goes.
Because we’re Latino, we come from a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial background. Genetics don’t work like they do on Game of Thrones, it’s a crap shoot. So while I look like an Aryan Princess, my youngest brother decidedly does not. This includes his hair, which while not too different, is black, thick, curly hair.
In High School, he was hanging with a lot of white boys with longer, wispy hair and I think he wanted to see if he could emulate that look. We went to Walmart and bought the small, child-friendly boxes of relaxer. We went home and I helped my brother relax his hair.
He sat in our small bathroom, the chemicals of the relaxer burning into his scalp like bleach had mine so many times. I remember making fun of him for complaining, considering I’d been bleaching out my scalp since childhood. Then the stuff started smoking, and we promptly washed it out. Relaxer, even child relaxer, is much more potent than bleaching and dyeing.
His hair was straighter, though stiffer. He did kind of look more like his friends, but that was the last time to my memory he did that to his hair.
There are numerous Black writers who have talked about the issues with the hair industry and how Black people[i], in particular women, are often penalized or punished for their natural hair. This is obvious, even as an outsider. The Black women in my life and throughout my life have had to deal with so much more pressure than I ever did. They are expected to labor on their hair far more than I have ever even had to consider.
As wonderful as it is to be able to re-mold, reshape, recolor your hair and change it, this method of creativity is often overshadowed by the social implications.
We should have the choice to dye, retexture hair as we please, not be obligated to.
And while that choice to do so exists for me, it does not exist for everyone. This is evident when I see how people make rules on Black hair, especially trying to force women and men to hide their hair or burn out the texture in places like schools[ii] and offices[iii].
Still, I love my colors, my technicolor shaping and cuts. I love it when people come up to me and ask me about my hair. I especially love it when older and elderly women come up to me and ask me about it. Or when they say “I wish I could do that.” They say it with a hint of desperation, a sense of desire to remake themselves.
I always reply, “Do it. What’s stopping you?”
Because this isn’t me pretending. While I work to get my purple hair, my grey locks or lavender highlights, it isn’t a disguise, it’s an unveiling. My hair dyes show how I feel, who I am in a way that my “natural” color does not. This is me, feeling as myself, my inner self expressed outwardly in all my color-melting, hair-changing outer-self. That’s what I mean about the curated self being the true self. We are our most authentic when we have worked to show it.
It’s been pointed out to
me that one day I may lose my hair from all that I am doing to damage it. Well
then, I guess I will have to get a fabulous collection of wigs.
Laura Diaz de Arce is a South Florida writer still learning to make peace with her own body. She writes for Book Riot regularly. In 2018 she was published in Tragedy Queens by CLASHBooks. She also published a collection of short stories, Monstrosity. Send her llama gifs on twitter @QuetaAuthor.