Written by Mattie Kahn, illustration by Charlotte Fassler
I first seriously considered highlights some weeks before my eighteenth birthday. I spent the next two years deciding to get them. It seems only right to acknowledge that there was nothing empirically wrong with my pre-intervention hair. It was then (as it always had been) a fairly lustrous brown. For the most part, it did its job admirably—if unremarkably. Of course, like any self-respecting teenager, I deemed it the bane of my existence.
Despite this declared disdain, however, I had always vowed never to take the semi-permanent plunge. There was something about “going blonde” that felt so obvious, so uninteresting. I was Team Veronica. Team Posh. Team Lindsay Lohan circa eight years ago. (To be fair: I was also Team Aniston, but, really, that was a moral issue.) Did I dare betray a lifelong allegiance? And furthermore, after years of privately judging the women whose lives revolved around three-hour, every-six-week appointments, could I so cavalierly pledge to do the same? I didn’t know! I wasn’t sure!
This show of indecision is hardly out of character for me. I agonize over menus, too. Also in Costco checkout lanes, Netflix queues, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s home appliances department. I have been known to suffer real mental anguish during annual back-to-school-shopping expeditions. (Seriously: binders or notebooks?) Once, I cried because I couldn’t decide whether to serve ice cream or cupcakes at my eighth birthday party.
The Great Highlights Debate, however, quickly surpassed all previous vacillations. In the seven hundred plus days I spent weighing the relative merits and deficits of blonder hair, I called upon the collective wisdom of my: friends, mom, dad, siblings, aunt, hairstylist, high school Spanish teacher, and several Sephora employees. I was so fixated on the issue that my brother actually banned its discussion from the dinner table. “But what about lowlights?” I implored.
“How do you feel about ombre?!” He did not have an opinion.
My fascination with the process can be traced back to the first grade. Ms. Kingston, my English teacher, had vibrant green eyes and a seemingly endless array of twinsets. In retrospect, her shiny, honey-colored streaks were less than subtle, but seven-year-old boys and girls alike agreed: she was so pretty! Ten years later, I thought of her fondly as I evaluated and then re-evaluated the golden tresses of such style icons as Jessica Alba, Emma Watson, and demi-goddess Gisele Bundchen.
Finally, after many months of equivocations, a more decisive (and veteran hair- highlighting) friend at last intervened.
“This is getting ridiculous,” she said after I introduced the subject for what may have been the thousandth time. “You need to stop talking about it and make up your mind.”
“But I don’t know!” I protested. “Will they look good on me? Are they too much of a commitment? Should it just be a summer thing? Can I keep it casual? Will I like them? Will I love them? What if I hate them? Can I get rid of them? What if it ruins everything? What if I don’t recognize myself? What if no one else does either?”
“This isn’t a joke!” I said, in the face of her rising laughter. “This is serious!”
“No, I know. It’s just…” She paused. “Are you asking me whether you should get highlights or date him?”
I had spent the past two years scrutinizing my hair color at least as much, if not more, than my relationship status. The revelation got me thinking. Was I so wrong for putting matters of hair ahead of those of heart? Or, maybe: isn’t the bond between a girl and her hair also its own funny kind of romance? More even than a flirty text message from some semi-significant other, a good hair day is transformative. Greasy roots, on the other hand? Confidence shattering.
Yes, I know “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” but it’s no accident that women—from Jackie Kennedy to Disney’s Mulan—have chosen to define and redefine themselves at crucial historical moments by changing their hair. Hell, Rihanna does it every ten days.
Spoiler alert: one week later, I made an appointment to see my favorite hair stylist, Mai.
She, for one, applauded my decision.
“Oh, have a little fun!” she said, as she meticulously painted select strands and tucked them between layers of Saran wrap. “It’ll still be your hair under there.”
Some hours later, I finally laid eyes on the finished product. Given that I waited two years to make my metaphorical move, I suppose it wouldn’t be fair to call it love at first sight. Still, I admit that I may have described it that way when I relayed the experience to my mother.
Last week, I had lunch with a boy who once mattered almost as much as my newly flaxen locks. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. True to form, it took me about half that time to decide to accept one of his repeated invitations to get together.
“You changed your hair,” he said, when we greeted each other on a street corner.
“Yeah,” I said, patting it absentmindedly. “I finally did.”
“Any regrets?” He asked.
I thought about my hair and us and about how somehow, for this one, vain instant, the two had everything to do with each other.
“No,” I said. “None.”
It’s been almost twelve months since my first visit to Mai and and four since I last saw her. So far, I show no sign of becoming one of those women who spends every fifth Wednesday in a salon chair. It turns out that—like the best love affairs—the one between my hair and me only gets better with age. Still, in a few weeks, I’ll have to trek down to see her in Chelsea once more. We’re due for a “refresher.” But call it couple’s therapy. I certainly do.