by Laryssa Wirstiuk
The cruelest word was “orange,” which my best friend in Kindergarten had used to describe my hair. The time was story hour, and our teacher was reading aloud one of many stories about young girls with “golden” locks: “Rapunzel,” “Goldilocks,” whatever.
“Do any of you know someone with ‘golden’ hair?” The teacher finally asked.
I raised my hand.
“My hair is kind of golden,” I said.
My so-called friend challenged my statement, while the other kids just stared. Alright, I guess my hair wasn’t golden. In my defense, however, my hair also wasn’t the color that everyone else called it: “red.” Not the color of firetrucks or blood or Valentine’s Day. I definitely didn’t resemble the mascot from the fast-food chain named after its founder’s daughter.
Maybe my best friend was right about “orange” being the most appropriate adjective. But it’s the color of October, the last month of the year before the weather in New Jersey goes to shit. Broken orange pumpkins destroyed by vandals signified anger over summer’s undeniable death. Orange tries to be natural, but it’s not. The closest thing to orange that I can stand is Orangina, the sparkling citrus beverage, but even that is more “yellow.” Language is so futile.
Growing up, my hair apparently ignited passionate, unsolicited responses from other people. As a result, I had to bear the burden of that energy for years to come. Nearly 30 years after one incident, my grandmother still recounts the story every chance she gets.
“When you were a baby, I was pushing you in your stroller, and a stranger mumbled to himself when he saw you, ‘Stupid people. Who dyes a baby’s hair?’”
I inspired denial. I was unbelievable.
Even worse, I could never hide. In elementary school, I might as well have sported a scarlet letter on my head, “scarlet” being more specific than “red,” but still not at all accurate. In classes and at summer camps, especially with substitute teachers or absent-minded adults who couldn’t be bothered to learn anyone’s names, I would get, “Hey you, yes, you with the red hair.” I’d always be the one causing trouble. I was too easy to identify.
My hair was like religion or politics; everyone had an opinion about it. Unlike religion or politics, though, my hair as a subject was never off limits. Of course, I couldn’t get a haircut without someone at the salon cooing.
“Is that your natural hair color? Promise me you won’t ever touch it.”
During moments like those, the thought of being stuck with my hair for the rest of my life was almost too much to bear. I would sweat under the weight of the smock gathering scraps of hair and imagined perverse scenarios about what the salon staff might do with the scraps once I left.
Throughout high school and college, when my friends started dyeing their hair to experiment with new looks, I felt afraid to do anything to mine. All my life, I had been reminded of how precious my hair is, how women would “kill to have that color.” I was afraid they might kill me too if I failed to see what a horrible mistake I was making just by standing within 20 feet of peroxide.
But then – a gradual miracle. My hair lightened with age. I could finally start calling myself something more accurate, more specific: “strawberry blond.” And I started to realize that my hair would change whether I liked it or not. Thus, I let a stylist talk me into blond summer highlights.
I became slightly less of a target for the fetishists, the ones who had always wanted to date a redhead. “Does the carpet really match the curtains?” I could jog outside without young boys yelling out of school bus windows, “ginger,” the descriptor that probably makes the least sense.
As I grew older and naturally less concerned with what people think about me, I began to flash my hair as a warning: I’m different than most people. At the same time, I’m not quite sure what came first: the hair or the fierce individualism. Sometimes, I wonder if my hair has shaped me more than I care to admit. Even so, I could never quite shake the fact that my hair is a first impression. How stupid to be defined by something that’s dead, that can fall out, that can be cut or shaved in an instant.
Who would I be without my hair? Should I snip a lock and worship it at the altar of myself?
I needed to find other ways to take myself less seriously. A few weeks before graduating college, I went to a tattoo parlor and asked for a palm-sized flame on my right shoulder blade. I felt I could identify with the flame, especially with its colors: a twirl of red, orange, and gold. But does anyone really define a flame by its color? Sure, a chemistry teacher might write a quiz question about the “blue” and “green” flames, which had been demonstrated in class. But the flames we’re most familiar with, the ones that burn in our homes and in the wild – they’re less color and more light.
The longer I lived with this tattoo and the more people asked me about it, I realized that a person who’s comfortable with tattooing her body has acknowledged her own mortality, the temporary and mutable nature of our bodies.
“You’re really okay with having that on your back…forever?”
But what is forever? Why are we so attached to things that decompose beyond our control?
I had made a leap and decided I wanted blond ombre highlights that would lighten my ends and fade halfway to my crown. When I walked out of the salon, it was winter, one of the coldest winters of my life, and I felt simultaneously like a frozen snow queen and a Southern California beach babe. With my winter hat pulled down over my ears, so no one could see my natural hair color, I was completely and totally blond.
A few weeks later, when the blond started to fade, I was ready to make the next giant leap for selfkind: pink. I scheduled an appointment at my favorite salon after seeing one of the stylists give her client highlights the color of Blue Raspberry Lemonade Kool-Aid. If she could make cobalt blue – a color often associated with toxicity – look attractive, then she could help shuttle me into enlightenment. During the three weeks before my appointment, all I could talk about to anyone who would listen was how I would be getting pink. Pink. I wanted to see the looks on their faces, to dare anyone to talk me out of it. Some tried.
When all was said and done, I took a photo and posted it to all my social media accounts with the caption, “Pink hair, don’t care”. At that moment, I felt I could conquer anything. Afterward, to celebrate, I took myself out for margaritas at a bar where no one would know my name. I was entering the world for the first time, and this time my red hair wouldn’t precede me.
To my dismay, the pastel pink, the color of freshly-spun cotton candy, lasted only two weeks. Once the color had disappeared completely, I was sad, maybe more sad than if the meanest girls in my elementary school had stuck glob upon glob of gum in my “red” hair, leaving me with no option but to cut it all off. I hadn’t been particularly attached to the pink, but I felt my time with it had been stolen. I was determined to recapture it.
On a random Monday off from work, I went to the beauty supply store and bought the following: Punky Colour semi-permanent hair dye in “Flamingo Pink,” a highlight brush, and hair clips. At home, I set up my bathroom to mimic a salon, placing a large glass trivet over the sink to serve as a work table. I cut Reynold’s aluminum foil into strips and prepared the materials: pink in a plastic bowl, my hair in sections, and the brush pointed at my head like a gun. That afternoon, in my bathroom, alone, I killed the codependence between my identity and my appearance.
“Pink” is unmistakable. No one would need to guess about whether or not I had been born with it. I might be easy to recognize and remember, but now I can say I’ve chosen that distinction, like a born-again Christian choosing to embrace religion rather than being baptized at birth. And, really, what’s the big deal anyway? The hair was already dead.
Laryssa Wirstiuk lives in Jersey City, NJ with her dachshund Charlotte. She teaches creative writing and writing for digital media at Rutgers University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming inCrab Fat, Gargoyle Magazine, Word Riot, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. http://www.laryssawirstiuk.com