I'm a barbie girl, in a barbie world
When I was 10 there was a boy I liked a lot. He had messy ginger hair and a toothy grin and was best friends with everyone in the class. He was goofy and good at sports and when he smiled at me he made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But I wasn’t really his friend. Joining school later than everyone else in Grade 2 of Elementary School, I never quite fit in with the main ‘popular group’ with the cool girls wearing their brightly coloured headbands and going to Black Eyed Peas concerts. I wasn’t uncool per say. I was just on the periphery. They treated me kindly but I wasn’t being invited to sleepovers - if you know what I mean.
Instead, since leaving Toronto where I spent most of my early childhood, I’d left all of my close friends behind. Including the children of family friends, as my parents slowly started to rebuild a social network on the West Coast. Now the object of my fascination, the solution to all my apparent social problems - let’s call him Jack - had one major obstacle between us becoming soulmates. Her name was Anna* and she was the Queen of the popular girls. She was an early bloomer when it came to puberty and all the girls looked on in envy at her B cup bra worthy boobs. Not only that, Anna had two older siblings which made her effortlessly cool as she introduced her eager eyed friends to ‘teenage’ life.
I hated Anna. I wish I could say that it was because she bullied me or that she was mean to people. But that would be a lie. I hated Anna because Jack was in love with her and she had everything I so desperately wanted. In fact, she was nothing but nice to me and continues to be when I run into her at house parties. Her and Jack were childhood friends. Parents had been best buds since before they were born and they might as well have shared a cot. I was obsessed with boys and this one boy in particular. The way she was so playful with him made my stomach churn with jealousy.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m letting you in on my anti-feminist secret of the competitive sisterhood I’ve harboured from a young age. But this story is not about what you think it might be about - it’s about hair. You see, Anna was the first girl in our class who got highlights. She lightened her naturally mousy brown hair with bleach and she set the trend. Finally, I had an avenue to focus my attention. Something tangible that I could do, so that I could be seen as cool - especially by Jack. Hair colour was the source of my anguish.
To my pre-pubescent mind there was no coincidence between my fall from the social ladder and the darkening of my locks. As a child I had a mop of platinum blonde hair, cut into a bob with a block fringe just like the Barbie dolls I grew up worshipping. Celebrating my natural blue eyes, I fit the perception of beauty sold to me. Everyone knew on tv, in doll form, the Spice Girls - blue eyes and blonde hair was enviable. At the very least, brown haired people were paired with gorgeous olive skin and striking eyes and more curves - none of which I remotely fit into. So, as hormones started kicking in and my pride and joy faded into dirty blonde and then ashy blonde and then plain old brunette. For the first time I became uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t fit into the molds of beauty I believed in.
Seeing Anna get her hair highlighted, the lightbulb went off in my brain and I realised that I could artificially create the normality I craved. I begged my mom for months to let me get my hair dyed. Promising her and myself that all my problems would be fixed in the hairdressers chair. Around this time, I found my mom’s make-up bag for the first time, including fake tan and sparkles and mousse for my hair. The slippery slope towards artificial beauty was too hard to resist and it was fun - to a point. Sitting in the glitzy hairdressers I felt transformed into a woman, I wasn’t an awkward 10 year old struggling to fit in, I was as glamorous as Baby Spice or Sailor Moon.
Beauty comes at a price I learnt early on. As the smiling purple-haired hairdresser spooned the wreaking ammonium bleach into the tin-foil packages on top of my head, my scalp began to itch. Forced to sit underneath the heat with nothing but a dated Cosmopolitan in my hands, doubts started to creep in that I’d traded in one form of discomfort for another. But the praise I received as she finally rinsed and blow-dried and curled. I forgot about my body crying out to stop hurting it with chemicals. Everything was reinforced. People at school complimented me. The interest in my appearance was paying off for the boys, as I got some attention.
I stopped being interested in being one of the boys. I didn’t want to play rugby or baseball or soccer anymore. All of those things made me sweaty and gross - that’s not beautiful. And beautiful is what I was getting all my validation from. 10 years went by and I continued to streak my hair every 4-6 weeks. I would get twitchy and refuse to look in mirrors as my disgusting dark coloured roots would inevitably peak through. Everyone at my high school thought my hair was naturally blonde - I never corrected them. I continued to receive approval from guys. My hair colour, my eye colour and my accent worked perfectly into my doll-like persona.
The danger of loving a version of yourself you know isn’t real is that you don’t trust anyone who loves you. By carefully creating the beautiful version of myself I wanted to project. Literally erasing the evidence of my natural tendencies, physically as well as in my behaviour. I became a blank canvas for society, for guys and for anyone who wanted to objectify me as the dumb blonde. It was safe. Even if I received criticism it could never penetrate the deeper rejected part of me that was running a hamster wheel of apparent perfection.
I stopped dying my hair at the age of 19. A combination of cost (FYI I was spending at least $100 per appointment towards the end) and increased awareness about the health implications meant that I couldn’t justify my obsessive schedule any longer. It took me a further year to cut off the remnants of blonde at the tips of my hair. It’s only been in the last couple of months that I’ve shifted from hating my hair to accepting my hair towards actually perceiving it as beautiful. Now, if you don’t understand this specific example you might think a whole post about my hair colour is trivial. But this was never about my hair.
Choosing to modify my appearance was and always will be an attempt to control people’s perceptions of me. And, more importantly, to change my perception of myself. By modifying the external in ways that I could, I was orchestrating the impression I wanted others to have - mainly guys. Changing something (anything) will never make you happier. It will just post-pone the inevitable bs of unpicking all the crap you’ve inflicted on yourself over the years. Or maybe you’ll keep taking the easy option of maintaining the façade forever. Honestly, respect if you have the energy to. It just got to the stage where I was exhausted of curating a version of myself that would be palatable for the most amount of people.
Who knows maybe I’ll dye my hair again in the future. No judgment either way. I just hope next time it will be for the right reasons - whatever they are.
All my love, Sam