When I was 12, I finally convinced my mother to let me dye my hair for the first time. I got thick, blonde highlights in my dark brown hair that I kept for the next two years, until they turned a rusty orange. After that first time, I was hooked. I’ve spent the past nine years changing my hair color at least twice a year, trying out shades of blue and green and cutting my own bangs so they could be bleached and dyed orange like my favorite punk rock singer.
I’ve always used my hair for self-expression. You could usually tell my state of mind by the state of my hair. Before I took the SAT, I dyed it black. After my first big breakup with a boy who loved my long, dark curls, I cut it all off into a pixie cut that took three years to grow back out. I even dyed it blonde my freshman year of college, a decision that I now second-guess when I look at pictures of my short, dried out, mustard-colored hair. Even though I would need three sets of hands to count all the different colors my hair has been, I was always too hesitant to take the big leap and dye my entire head a vibrant color.
That is, up until this past summer, when I threw caution to the wind and made the decision to dye my hair purple. All of it.
I spent the beginning of my summer working at a camp for kids with life threatening illnesses, and the experience changed me inside and out. At home and at school, I was reserved. Large crowds of people made me anxious and I usually hid in the background, only speaking when I was spoken to. But at camp, my focus was on the kids and only the kids, and I did whatever I had to do to keep them happy and entertained. At our nightly dinner dance parties, I was often the one leading the group, getting even the shyest kids to join in on the fun. I ran the theatre program with another counselor and spent my days doing improv and wearing silly costumes with the campers, sometimes performing in skits along with them. People started referring to me as the funny, happy, energetic counselor—a label my friends from home almost couldn’t believe. As I got to know these kids who usually spent their summers in hospitals, I came to realize how much of my time I had wasted being afraid to be myself. When I left camp, I promised myself I wouldn’t let my old fears make me forget the world I came to know inside camp. I needed a reminder of the person I was and could be.
So, a few weeks later, I walked into my first class of my junior year with a bright, brilliant head of purple hair.
At first, the attention was scary. I usually sat in the back of the classroom and wore my hair up to lessen the effect. At my small, private college, I was one of maybe five people with an unnatural hair color. People stared. They touched my hair, sometimes with my permission, sometimes without. They asked me what dye I used, how long it took, and if my hair would recover from the damage I was probably doing to it. The constant stream of questions died down after a few weeks, but I still felt eyes on me when I walked into the library. I could almost hear people wondering how the girl with piercings, tattoos, and purple hair ended up in this aggressively conservative, southern town.
Then slowly, I realized that the staring wasn’t so much judging as it was curiosity, and sometimes even envy. My girlfriends obsessed over my vibrant locks and told me how they had always wanted to do something so bold, but didn’t because they “could never pull it off” or just weren’t “brave enough.” My professors remembered my name after just a few days of class and soon came to pair my bright hair with my bold opinions. At parties, people I had never met before would recognize me and strike up a conversation. The nervousness I felt about receiving such attention slowly faded away, and I came to love being known as the “girl with purple hair.” I made jokes about being an outlier and I gave style advice to girls I met in the bathroom. I wore my hair down.
Purple hair was good for my soul, but bad for my wallet, so I recently changed my hair back to its normal color; however, the experience has not left me. Dyeing my hair purple pushed me out of my comfort zone and into a place I had always been afraid to go. I taught myself to love attention, to seek it out, and to accept compliments from both other people and from myself.
Purple hair isn’t for everyone, but whether it’s hair, a nose ring, a tattoo, or even a change of clothes, letting yourself be bold on the outside can teach you to be more authentic and more confident. And if camp and hair dye have taught me anything, it’s that when you love yourself, other people will love you too.
Cover image courtesy of Rebecca Nipper.