There’s something alchemic about dyeing my hair. Sitting in the bathroom in a ratty old shirt and ill-fitting plastic gloves mixing chemicals, massaging in the pungent mix and then covering it. Waiting. And then, like magic, you sluice the dye from your head with sharply cold water. The colour streams off: red, blue, purple, gold. The first moment you flip your head and peer into the mirror is terrifying and wonderful. What will you see? Who will stare back?
Each time I’ve dyed my hair has been a transformation. At the beginning of my second year of university, filled with equal parts hope and terror about what was to come, I sat in our grotty student kitchen and my friend worked the gold-blonde dye into my head. I washed it clean and dried it into a fluffy Monroe-esque halo.
“It’s so pale!” I kept saying. “It’s so bright! I love it!” We went to the pub that night and I wore bright lipstick (borrowed) and a beaming smile (mine).
As the friendships faded and soured and my mind darkened, I stopped dyeing it. Taking care of myself slipped further and further down a to do list that already seemed too long. I did my roots before my interview for the job that got me out of university, and again before I went down to Stevenage to start it. Somehow, though, in a job that valued me for my sharp mind and quick hands, among people who loved me for my kind heart and open arms, I didn’t feel that dyeing my hair was a priority. I got a very expensive (and deeply disappointing) haircut, expanded my nail polish collection from ‘impressive’ to ‘extensive’, made eight sock monkeys in two months and watched the entirety of the London Olympics from my sickbed as my roots grew out.
September found me back in Leicester, waiting to get ill. My therapist and I talked about the dread that followed me around, and I sat in lectures with that fear as my study companion. On a cold October day, I texted my boyfriend: ‘opinions on redheads?’ and bought the dye. Red dye starts out a rich violet. I smothered my head in the mix, trying to avoid flicking it all over my bathroom, and waited for it to develop. The water, when I rinsed my hair, was the colour of blood. The next day, I walked to my therapy appointment with in flaming crown of red. “Ginger!” yelled someone driving past. I smiled beatifically as I flipped them off. Damn right.
In that long, freezing, dark winter my red hair was like a beacon. It reminded me that I had autonomy: that I had choice. My therapist remarked how light I seemed as I walked into the room, the day after I dyed it. My boyfriend walked right past me the first time I went to meet him at the station. I was transformed. I met friends in Bristol in March, and they told me how great it looked.
“How are you?” they asked.
“I feel like I’m half way to a breakdown!” I joked, my mind as sharp and brittle as the frost-hard grass. The next day, I walked across the park in a soft flurry of snow and moonshine. The hospital’s empty corridors echoed. I couldn’t speak to the nurse at the reception desk: she gave me a piece of paper and I wrote ‘I think I need to see a psychiatrist, I don’t feel safe’ on it.
My hair faded as I left university until it was a soft golden amber. I was safe again. I trusted my mind to take care of me as I slowly put myself back together. I walked a familiar knife-edge pathway until it widened out to a comfortable road with soft slopes on either side instead of sharp cliffs. I moved to Cambridge and dyed my hair blonde again so I could look for jobs.
Last night I re-dyed my hair. Six weeks ago my mother and I laughed in the kitchen as she bleached it, and a few days later I accidentally turned it the colour of cotton candy. It took a few attempts for it to reach the soft lavender shade I covet so. Last night’s mix was a little dark, and the underside of my hair didn’t get enough. I am crowned in purple, grey, gold, blue. I will mix more dye tomorrow: a dab of fuchsia, a swirl of cobalt blue and a hefty dose of pale cream conditioner to dilute it. I am back in university, where I can experiment again. I can dye my hair ludicrous colours while I decide what I want to do with my life and who I want to be.
I am not Marilyn Monroe, with her wide eyes and bright lips and blonde halo. I am not flame-red, burning fast and hoping to get out before I am ashes. My hair is coloured differently each day, in each light. The pigments fade in the light and slip from my hair in water. I smother my head in colour every few washes and wait with bated breath to see how it will look this time. I am transformed, daily.