“Is that natural?”
When something in your appearance is askew (to them), people have no qualms about stopping you in the street, waving a finger and asking you to decode your own being.
Frankly, when it comes to my hair, I kinda dig it.
“Well, you see,” I inform them, “the front part is natural, actually, but I dye the back part, but funny story there…”
At which point I see their eyes glaze over and realize they’re sorry they asked.
I’ve always been a fan of my own hair — since Mom clipped a lock of it and put it in an envelope.
I’ve been lucky to have hair that is fine but thick, straight and malleable, with a very slight, slip of a curve. When I look or feel crappy, my hair has the ability to be flamboyant and seductive, charming and witty. Swooping like a fancy cape around my face, my hair can easily disguise any bad day.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to futz with it.
As a kid, my mom nixed new hairstyles, because I couldn’t stop sporting new dos. To be fair, they were pretty crazy: a high side ponytail jettisoning out like a spigot; two elastic affixed tracks, a la Jo from The Facts of Life, a head full of mini braids in 8th grade that I’d sleep in overnight to make my hair frizzy and wild. “Are you going to “frizz your hair” was a regular 8th grade discussion. (Still, to this day, it’s acceptable to talk about one’s hair for a ridiculous amount of time.)
So on that fateful day in a Philadelphia bathroom, when I spied that first springy strand of white, I yanked it out with great force. What is THAT? I was only 28. Yes, my mom went gray early and I wasn’t to be spared. Thus began the long, viral spread across my head, attacking me with slow and steady determination. The texture was completely different than my soft chestnut-y locks. But I had faith; faith that my hair wouldn’t steer me wrong, but that we were entering a new phase of experimentation — hair dye.
I dyed brown, red and burgundy (that was an accident). I tried henna, lowlights and highlights, and was on a first name basis with my stylists over the years (Julius to Joyce to Heart to Marie to Nikki). If I were to estimate the money I’ve spent on hair color since I was 28 — whether doing it myself or professionally — I’d probably have a nice downpayment on a home.
One day, in 2005 or so, I decided to try something new, thanks to my beloved friend and hairstylist Heart. Heart used to cut and color hair in the basement of her red and black painted apartment in Chelsea — and she was a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett (if Cate had black hair and a punk rock shag). Heart is known as a hairstylist for music industry folks and rock and rollers like Iggy Pop and Trent Reznor, so she knew how to go extreme. With my layered-bob, I was probably one of her more conservative clients. But this time, just out of a crappy relationship, in my mid 30s, I wanted something bold and unique.
“What about add a blonde stripe in the front?” she suggested. “We could even try purple!”
Hold on, sister. Let’s start with blonde. So she kept the back brown and bleached out the front. What resulted was a sleek but stark juxtaposition — dark and light, then and now. I could tip my hat to age without going all the way.
Almost instantly it gave me some sort of superficial cred: distinguished and punky — Susan Sontag meets Cruella De Ville (as said ex-boyfriend called me upon seeing it. Success!).
Importantly (here’s where you start checking Facebook and I remain fascinated), I learned that I could extend the shelf life of my color by having the white stripe — my gray would grow in and it wasn’t as noticeable with the light color in front. Eventually Heart would only bleach it maybe once a year and the rest of the time she just didn’t color that section. Over time we stopped bleaching it entirely and what was left was just white.
Bizarre — as if I’d fashioned my own follicle destiny.
It became a signature look — and more importantly, memorable. A trainer at the gym I go to knows me only as “Rogue” the character from X Men. So be it. When I accidentally left a book at a Brooklyn restaurant, I happened to walk back in two weeks later and the waitress instantly recognized me. “You were here a few weeks ago, you left this,” she hands me my book. “I remember your stripe.” My hair enters a room before I do.
This “invisible woman” phenomenon in your 40s is no joke. You begin to blend into the wrinkled masses as your dewy blush fades out, signaling to passersby that you’ve moved into another stage. Perhaps, this “skunk stripe” was an antidote.
In 2007-2008 I dyed it back to just plain brown — for a job. I ended up losing that job and once I left, I instantly brought back the stripe. Ok I didn’t lose the job because of my hair — but it signaled a time when I tried to fit into a world that didn’t want me.
I’ve become a little superstitious about letting it go.
So go ahead, ask away — and yep, it’s natural.