Seven years ago I settled into the hydraulic chair at Shampoo, my regular salon in Kensington Market, turned to my hairstylist, Laura, and said, “Can you make me look like Grace Kelly?”
“Hmm,” she said while running her fingers through my dark, woolly hair. “We can do better than Grace Kelly.”
It was my birthday, and I wanted to mark the occasion—as I had in other years—by doing something I’d never done before. That year, I decided my challenge would be to go blond. The session lasted about two hours, and, true to her word, when Laura finished her work, my hair was the color of a meringue confection. She had also cut away six inches of split ends, which meant that now my hair just touched my collar. I left the shop and was walking toward Spadina Avenue when I caught a reflection of myself in a window. It startled me. Who was this blond apparition wearing my coat? She stared back at me with worried eyes beneath her golden-hued, sophisticated hair. Why did she look so worried?
My decision to experience the platinum lifestyle stemmed partly from my childhood fascination with blond girls. Every best friend I’ve had has been fair-haired: from blonde to ginger; from au naturel to bleached and highlighted. Not most of them—all of them. Like Shirley to Laverne, or Marcie to Peppermint Patty, I had always been the sensible brunette friend. After achieving some early career successes—I had a first novel, and, finally, a job without a name tag—I felt that it was time to upend my brunette universe, and so, for four strange months that’s what I did.
I met my first blond BFF in first grade, when our teacher allowed us to choose the person we wanted to sit beside. I pointed to a new girl, one I hadn’t seen in kindergarten the year before. I remember her golden bangs, blue eyes, snowy skin, pert nose and slightly crooked smile. Julie was different from me in every way, but that’s what drew me to her—and to all the other blondes I have befriended over the years.
It was the early ’80s, and my hairstyle—if you can call it a style—was a charmless shag similar to Joanie’s in Happy Days. During storytime at school, the other girls would quietly braid one another’s hair. Everyone wanted to sit near Julie, but I wasn’t included in this bonding ritual because my hair was too short. Even if I had been invited, I wouldn’t have known how to braid.
Watching them effortlessly work with one another’s hair only reminded me of the struggles I endured with my own. Most mornings my mother would fight a comb through my mop, often resorting to wetting it with spit to tame it. Even today, my hair reminds me of a shag carpet. The only shape it ever holds is that of my hand prints as I attempt to press it down. My entire family is hair challenged, but, unlike me, they don’t agonize about it. In the ’80s, my father had a Caucasian ’fro and my mother kept hers short. They were liberal thinkers who wouldn’t let me play with Barbie dolls because they feared it would influence my understanding of beauty. In spite of my parents’ admirable intentions, I knew, even at a young age, that I judged others based on their appearance and others judged me.
And there was plenty to judge. By the mid-’80s, my shag had mutated into a feathered mullet that resembled Ralph Macchio’s lid in The Karate Kid. In 1991, like many of my classmates, I tried (unsuccessfully) to replicate Julia Roberts’ wavy curls in Pretty Woman. Two years later, I donned combat boots and shaved my head. By 1995, my hair was long again, parted in the center and sectioned into two knotty braids of grunge defeat and resignation.
Over those years I had taught myself that my hair was a problem and, more recently, fought intermittent wars against it with lye straighteners and varying dark shades of dye (black cherry, blue-black, henna red, purple). Yet I never once considered going blond. That may explain why my golden apparition looked so startled and unprepared for what lay ahead.
My first outing as a neo-blonde was unsettling. I met a long-time friend for a drink. She did a silent double take and then said simply, “You look so different.” That turned out to be an understatement. For the next few weeks, when I showed up at events, people I’ve known for years would ignore me—until they realized who I was. “I didn’t recognize you” and “I didn’t know you were here” took the place of “Hello” and “How are you?” I had conversations with other acquaintances who stared at me, looking rather confused. I could see them thinking “How do I know her?”
One month into my blond period, I was walking down the street holding hands with my husband when we passed a colleague; she turned around and began to follow us. Later she confided that she was trying to get a better look at the woman my husband was with. “I thought he was cheating on you!” she said. Another peer remarked to my husband that because of my blondness, it must feel like being with a different woman.
“No,” my husband deadpanned. “It’s just hair.”
Everyone seemed curious about his reaction. The first time he saw my coif, he greeted it with enthusiasm. As an artist, he has a better understanding than I do of aesthetics and style; he notices any changes in appearance. The blond hair was new, and fun, but it was simply the costume or persona I was wearing in that moment. To him, it didn’t change me in the slightest. To strangers, however, I became a flaxen-haired curiosity.
The sexual attention I frequently received was so unwanted, unwarranted and utterly unexpected that I found myself ill equipped at warding it off. I had no idea that my blond friends had been living like this for years; I assumed that they had honed their deflecting skills. A male writer I’ve known for a long time made a sexual remark to me so aggressive that I have never forgotten or forgiven it. A homeless man cornered me on a busy street and kissed my hair—not my face but specifically my hair.
About three months into my blond experiment, I boarded the streetcar and realized that my petite head was the brightest thing within eyesight. Although I was modestly dressed, several men literally turned their necks as I passed, as they might in a cartoon or an exaggerated silent film. If it weren’t so unnerving, it would have been comical. Maybe for some women these types of occurrences are typical. For me, they were not. I was learning that blondes had their own histories and burdens. Some men have convinced themselves that they have tacit permission to lurk around, leer at and covet anyone with blond hair.
It was during this time that a photographer came to my apartment to take my picture for a magazine article. He snapped endless shots with the intensity of David Hemmings in Blow-Up. When I saw the images online, they were of me, but not me. In one, I remember, I’m descending a fire escape, a suitcase in one hand, the other on the rail; my head is turned away, and my hair is floating and translucent. I loved being blond, because I did feel prettier, lighter and more set apart from others, but it was like existing outside of myself—in a narrative that everyone except me seemed to know. I had bleached away my history.
Four months into my transformation, I looked at a different kind of history—my bank statement—and grimaced. My experiment was over. I was broke—flat broke. Being blond is an expensive state. At $200 a session, I was dipping into my savings just to make ends meet. Plus, I felt tired. Being blond was just as much work as letting my hair be its natural, exasperating self.
We use our appearance to learn about ourselves—and I learned that I had traded someone else’s hair angst for my own. Ready to return to my old hair, I went back to Shampoo. As Laura put the dark back, she said: “Your hair is hungry for it. You can just feel it soaking up the color.”