I spent my teenage years with long, straight, blonde hair.
It was the late 00s and the GHD reigned supreme, so I considered myself lucky.
But when I was 18, I decided to cut off 12 inches of hair to leave me with a close-cropped bob. It was a snap decision and one that I was happy with. I loved my new short hair. I realised that I had been using my long hair to hide behind, I was more exposed now and that made me more confident.
Thus began my lifelong infatuation with doing things to my hair.
After three months I moved to a pixie crop, then to a mohawk. I realised that the shorter it got, the better I felt. Doing something daring immediately made me feel braver.
I dyed the mohawk half black and half white, before dyeing it pink. Then it became a mixture of green, blue, yellow and red, and I painted legs onto my skull and poked ping pong balls into the front so that it looked like a lizard was sitting on my head.
This particular style was voted for by the travel office I was working in at the time. I was 23 and the whole office was raising money for the Karen Hilltribes Trust, a charity that works to improve the lives of a small community of people in Northern Thailand.
The ‘chameleon on the head’ look was deemed the most embarrassing from the selection of example hairstyles that I had put together from Google Image searches, narrowly beating the ‘strawberry head’ – keeping only a tuft of hair on the top of my head, dyeing that green and colouring all the rest of it red. In the end, I raised £1,500.
My various unusual looks have been the catalyst for hundreds of life-affirming interactions with strangers who would never otherwise have approached me.
Once, when project managing an arts festival in Newcastle, an older lady came up to me in a church we were using as a venue. She was neatly dressed and was perhaps in her late seventies.
‘Do you know?’ She began, ‘I just have to tell you how wonderful your hair is.’
She continued in hushed tones – we were in church after all.
‘How brave of you, well done you. It is so good to see people with real hairstyles nowadays.’
I remember this conversation so clearly because it surprised me so much. When I saw her approaching me, I was bracing myself for some kind of telling off.
I often dress fairly androgynously and am obviously, visibly queer with my hair being an important part of this. Some people don’t like this.
People have shouted at me in the street: ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ and laughed pointedly with their friends. Women in bathrooms have asked me what I am doing in there, and once a man on a train said loudly to the woman he was travelling with, ‘Look, it’s wearing lipstick.’
These types of comments range from making me feel pity, to sadness, to anger, to feeling frightened for my safety depending on where I am and who I am with.
My hair choices make me stand out and some people use this as an opportunity to bully and intimidate – a crowd of five men once tried to push me onto the train tracks in Leeds station.
But I’ve found that most people use this as a chance to share kindness and make a connection.
I have been queuing for coffee when baristas have struck up a conversation with me about my hair. During my pink knuckle duster phase – where the mohawk was curled and pinned into four distinct hoops on top of my head (a favourite of mine and seemingly a crowd-pleaser) – one guy said: ‘Cool! You look just like Tank Girl!’ and gave me a free coffee purely for looking like a sci-fi anti-hero.
Happily, I have now lost count of the amount of times passers-by in the street will meet my eye and give me a thumbs up, or an ‘Amazing hair!’ comment.
Having colourful hair seems to be like riding a motorbike or driving a VW Van, in that whenever we see other people in the tribe we enjoy an immediate sense of belonging and always share a nod or a wave.
One of the things I hear all the time from friendly strangers, especially women, is: ‘I would love to do that too – if only I were brave enough.’
For anyone reading this who has even momentarily flirted with the idea of doing something a ‘bit wacky’ with their hair, please accept this as your sign from the universe to do so. You are invited into the tribe.
Thinking that you need to be brave before you dye or cut your hair is the wrong way around. This is not the direction of causality – you dye your hair, then you feel brave for having done it.
I have much less anxiety now about whether or not it looks ‘good’, compared to my fraught and self-conscious long-haired teenage years.
Remember the film V for Vendetta when they shave off all of Natalie Portman’s hair? Well, after having shaved all of my own off too, I can attest that it does free you from some of the concerns that women are trained to have about if they are pretty enough and likeable enough. It has been eight years now since that first cut and colour, and I can’t imagine ever going back.
Having strange hair or (for a while) no hair at all has become a sort of trademark of mine. In the world of personal branding, this has been invaluable.
I am a PhD researcher and am sometimes referred to as ‘the academic with The Hair’. It’s how people remember me and makes me stand out at conferences and lecture theatres.
It seems to me that most people are looking for ways to make genuine connections to other human beings.
Most of us are fundamentally friendly and kind. Having a lizard sitting on your head, or even something tamer like my current fluorescent yellow manga look, invites people to say hello to you. It immediately gives us something to talk about and exchange some effusive words about.
I invite you to consider for yourself how you might benefit from the life-affirming power of colourful hair.
I’m not sure what I will go for next. I haven’t had purple hair yet and I have fancied shaving some jazzy shapes and lines into it for a while.
Maybe I could shave it all off again and paint my head a different colour every day. With glitter. I look forward to finding out!
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