Hairs the Deal with Self Expression


By Lola Leuterio

It was lunch, and I was sitting at the picnic benches eating a PB&J with my two best friends, Lily and Ava. Ava pulled two friendship bracelets from her trip to Mexico out of her lunch box: one bright pink, orange, and yellow, and the other black, brown, and dark green. I wanted the one with the brighter colors, but Ava handed it to Lily. “You get the dark one, because you know, you’re more of a dark person, and Lily is more of a bright person,” Ava explained to me. I think she could tell that her comment upset me even more. She quickly added, “It’s because of the hair!” Lily had short blond hair, and mine was long and brown.

    From personal experience, I know people cast judgements on others based on hair color, style, and length. Although these judgements are usually subconscious, they can prompt actions with lasting effects on the person being judged.

Methods of self expression vary vastly. We go vegan, we move to the big city, we cover ourselves in tattoos, we quit our jobs, we find new jobs, we dance, we paint, we sing. But possibly the most classic method of self expression is also the simplest: the use of hair. It always seems to be insisting it’s importance to our identities. To what extent does hair affect how others see us, and how we see ourselves?

I do think it was because of my hair that Ava considered me to have a darker presence  than Lily. But that didn’t stop her, and many others in elementary school and beyond, from thinking it anyways. “Blonds have more fun” is a trope that seems to have a subliminal affect how we are judged.

With all the stereotypes in place around blonds, brunettes, and gingers, it’s no wonder that people experiment with different hair colors. “Being able to have my hair reflect my favorite colors is really important to me. I feel like because school and work leaves me, and tons of other kids, with almost no time to do anything creative,” sophomore Molly Damico said. “So being able to constantly have a piece of art on my head that I put creativity into makes me feel like I’m not completely cut off from creating stuff,”

With creativity and self expression, inevitably comes judgement. Junior Jesse Newman had green and blue hair during his sophomore year, and said that because of this people would stare at him on his bus ride to school. “Everyday I got on the bus, everyday people would stare at me,” Newman said. “I used to wear a hat on the bus ‘cause I felt weird.”

And this same sentiment of freedom despite scrutiny has been around for generations.  “When I was really young in high school, and my hair was [dyed black or bleached white], people would think poorly of me and judge me,” parent Ben Putterman said. “…It was definitely [a form of] expression, a way to say ‘I don’t need to be like you.’”

You can dye your hair any color you like, and change from a brunette to a blond to a redhead. You can cut it short or keep it long. But there are a few things about hair that we are born with and stuck with, whether we like it or not. This is when race enters the conversation. You can’t talk hair without talking race.

Shannon Murfree, an executive at Tesla, recalled her experience dealing with black stereotypes and black hair. “My mom [straightened my hair] when I was in middle school. So I just kept doing it because I thought I was supposed to look like that. I believe that when I first went natural, people made assumptions about me, maybe I was this militant soul sister or pot head. Little do they know I’m a corporate girl,” Murfree said.

Hair can be constraining, it can be frustrating, and it can be liberating. But I think the more common case is that hair can be a safety blanket, a comfort zone that we don’t ever want to step out of. I have never cut my hair short, never dyed it, and seldom wear a ponytail. I hold my hair, a tangible object that can always grow back, too close to my identity. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. How would it feel to have completely different hair for a day?

My concluding experiment started with my entering a wig store. After trying on a purple bob, black curls, and blond afro, I settled on long grey hair. I made the purchase, put a headband on over it so you couldn’t see how fake it looked, and spent the day in the city.

At first, I felt like I was getting way too many stares. It was uncomfortable. But after a while I started enjoying the stares. I felt unique. It was fun to show off my apparent courage and creativity for making such a bold hair move (one I would never actually make). The day was different as a grey-haired girl than it would have been as my usual brown-haired girl. This difference was likely all in my head. I don’t think people actually care that much, but still – I became a new version of myself, and that shift alone affected my entire day.