On Love, Highlights

Mattie Kahn investigates a different blazon of couple’s therapy.


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.

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  • I believe this is a dilemma/enigma that plagues all women at least once or twice! I have vowed not to dye my hair until I see white strands sprout from my head (which with my stress levels, should be soon!). However, I see my friends and cousins sporting glossy blonde locks, volcanic reds, and oh-so-subtle purple dye jobs. That’s when the jealousy bubbles over, but is wuickly trumped by me chickening out when I enter the salon doors. Its such a relief that I’m not the only one who gets a panic attack at deciding things like this!

  • Domonique

    You’ve just described me on a daily basis! How boringly true it may be, it is the truth and you just wrote it to a T.

  • gp

    This closely resembles my decision to buy a thong.

    panty lines = my youth

    ((awesome article. you’re cool))

    • Leandra Medine


    • Pam

      Same here! Thong? What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t recognize myself while wearing one? I’d rather have VPL than the feeling of a constant wedgie.

      • Georgia Leitch

        So you try those no VPL pants that just make you look like you’re wearing a nappy…

        oh the joys of being 15

        • the (un?)social butterfly ;)

          Precisely what I thought–oh, those kids are young…

  • lol love it.

  • I had a similar internal debate, but instead of highlights, I just thought “screw it!” and went purple. Needless to say, not my cutest look. Now I just throw on some colorbug shadow whenever I want a change!

  • Pics please! Do your roots drive you crazy when the highlights grow out? It certainly did for me and I ended up just dying everything back to my natural color…

  • Loved reading this, but I can’t relate since I never do anything different with my hair.


  • Mattie girl I’m right there with you be it my hair color or a menu. Now i just tell Jason to order for me and I have not colored my hair in years. I as a black American woman I freak out a bit about just how much damage the coloring will do to my hair. Now I did not use to be this way. I would color my hair lighter brown hair something dark such as black or less harsh as a darker brown. My hair does not really hold color so it always washed out after a few washes, and this is permanent hair color. As of today I seriously want ombre hair, especially since people aren’t wearing it anymore but that fear of damage keeps me from doing it. I keep telling myself maybe next summer, maybe next season but it never happens.


  • Kendra

    I’m still dealing with this dilemma. I’ve been thinking about dying my hair for years now, and every time I decide to do it, someone says something that shatters my decision-making skills and I have to start all over.

    Here I am, 21 years old and never dyed her hair. I’ve had the same hair style for 8 years now. Clearly I suffer from indecisiveness.

    • Michelle

      As someone who has been nearly every color..even blue,green,and purple..leave your hair alone if you have a good color! Less work and less damage 🙂

  • brunetteletters

    Great writing! Truth is, not until you finally do it, is that you will get over your dilemma…so I say, do it!!

    Just to get it out of your system!

    Brunette Letters Blog

  • Oddly enough a description of my hair pretty much describes me in a relationship: wistful, indecisive, useless and, obviously, blonde.
    Oh hair, why must you symbolize my adolescence so?

  • Great post! I love the illustration !!!




  • Aubrey Green

    I have the same issue. I hadn’t touched my hair in over 5 years, partly because I hated the idea of having to say, “its not natural” – that really bothered me. My hair was a light mousy brown, not cute (in my opinion). Also, I have very curly hair, but blow dry it, etc, so it basically does look like VS Models, therefore I always felt I was limited to my cut because of that. I decided, you only live once, so fuck it. I got bangs and did a little bit of lighter color at the ends. I love it, as does everyone else, “you look like a russian super model” – doesn’t really get better than that.

  • disqus_E2xDpm2QMT

    i have a similar decision making process in just about everything. in group shopping trips i tend to lag behind in misc isles. sigh, a girl cant help it!




  • chicks and their hair. it’s like marry, fuck, or kill am i right?


  • What’s funny is that while I am terrified of the idea of getting highlights (not sure if they would suit me), I always tell myself that I would love to get them in a color like hot pink or turquoise. Maybe that’s why I am scared of them.
    VISIT US … http://www.thesobremesa.com

  • Another amazing essay by Mattie Kahn! Your essays are always so smooth. It’s sort of like you have the perfect recipe for a macaroon (the consistency, lightness, etc). And then you just execute every time. That analogy made no sense, sorry. But really, you’ve described a predicament that binds us all. I can’t express how many times and to how many folks I’ve sent pictures to or discussed potential hairstyles with.

  • I’ve dyed my hair so many times now, I’m not really sure what color it actually is.

    (I’m joking…it’s poop brown with probably some grey hair we shall not speak of)

    Springtime is a time I think a lot of us go through this back and forth about hair color. Highlights are great for the summer…but man, that shit ain’t cheap! 🙂

  • Anna

    nice story and illustration!
    blog o modzie
    moda i styl

  • The House of Fasti

    Please like my fashion page on facebook…The house of fasti

  • Shereena

    I don’t find this interesting or well-written. It’s sort of like reading the diary of a self-obsessed 13 year old who doesn’t have anything interesting to say.

    • Gloria

      Agreed. I feel like Leandra and her writers just embellish stories with whatever new, big words they’ve discovered that week in an attempt to sound more intellectual than they are, but the essence of each story on here tends to be fairly vapid.

      • Lauren

        Incredibly vapid!

      • Leandra Medine

        We happily accept story suggestions. Let us know what you’d prefer to read

      • Rach

        It’s not the essence that’s the problem, it’s the way the writer explores the subject. A story about highlights could be interesting and funny and entertaining and totally in-keeping with the spirit of this site – or it could be pseudointellectual Carrie Bradshaw nonsense. It’s all about the delivery.

        • Leann


    • lia12345

      then… don’t read it?

      • Herla

        That is exactly my point! Criticism should be “constructive”… No? :/ but anyway… I guess it’s a free country!

        The way I see it, this blog is beautifully written by intelligent women, that’s why I keep coming back for more. If I didn’t agree/approve of/like the posts, I’d just move on to another blog…

      • Rach

        You have to read it to decide whether you like it or not…

  • Sgravalli Fashion Jewellery

    Yeah, now that you`re talking about it; I`ve heard these stories from many woman, girlfriends, that I really did not pay attention too much I guess, as I never coloured my hair, and really was never even thinking about it. I figured, I might do it once I turn gray, but if I do it, it will be something obviously fake, like screaming red! Yes, that`s the color I would do.
    Ha ha that`s so me – always extreme. But before I do that, I would wanna see first how my gray looks on me, for some woman it can be really sexy…but I think all that still comes from the “inside”. Anyway, 36 now, starting seeing some gray in my brown jungle, this decision may not be too far away… oh sh.t…

  • Gloria

    The move wasn’t actually metaphorical. And the ending is sort of trite.

  • Nathan Niche

    You do the best writing. I just posted my minimalist Céline resort 2013 look used for a styling shoot! Do tell me if I have successfully PROVOKED you 😉

    xx The Provoker

  • Ellinor
  • Herla

    Om-Mai… This is me right now! Exactly.

    After reading the MR a few weeks ago, I finally took that “leap of faith” and cut my own bangs, just took the scissors and chopped those 9 inches off. Yes, it felt amazing at the time. Did I love it right away? Uh-no, I knew I was doing something crazy but I don’t regret it… Little did I know, my boyfriend of 3 and 1/2 years was going to break up with me a week after, clearing out the way for a previously special friend. This week, upon one of our “hanging out dates” (more like just spending time together, talking, catching up), he asked me what was the deal with my hair, I looked definitely different than he’d seen me before and I kept parting my bangs and moving them to the side… I told him I cut it myself and am adjusting to it. My bangs and me have had a few nights of disconcordance like the aforementioned… but I am holding on to them, no matter how funny they look at times 🙂

  • Lauren at adorn la femme

    Love love love this post! Written at the very moment I’m experiencing a major grow out of my blonde heavy, and I mean heavy highlights which turned into a coincidental ombre (and delightfully inexpensive one 😉 ! ) As my dark Italian roots of 12 inches are now exposed, I feel like the awkward 13 year old I once was with very drab plain jane locks! Even as I think seriously about going back to my movie star blonde, I must admit that my dark uneventful hair is in the best luxurious condition it’s ever experienced! Oh my, the ying and yang of this maddening perennial decision!!!!!

    I love you, Leandra, because you always seem to be reading my mind!


    Lauren at adorn la femme

  • What if you’re both blonde and brunette, and wish to remain that way?

    The pros and cons of having a denim complexion:

  • Dandy

    Im way to impulsive with my hair sometimes! I randomly decided to cut it all of one year when I had bangs only to end up with a bowl cut… TRAGIC!


  • vicsmarket

    Be happy you had a choice, I’m French and I’m a brunette, I think my mother would write me off the will for doing highlights

    (had lots of fun reading your article, thanks !)


  • Liz-Best.com

    Totally debating a (somewhat dramatic) haircut right now and I’m glad other people have similar indecisiveness (not a word, or is it?) As a blonde who once went brunette, I can say I will not be changing my hair color any time soon as leaving my parents speechless once was probably enough

  • Kristin

    Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald = endless talking about hair for attention and when the change happens, nothing more to talk about

  • Kristin

    This reminds me ALOT of Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • JeeZus xrist.!! Seriously, I don’t know who Leandra has writing for her but fuck me! , … your doing a fucking BANG UP job … …. just keep writing!! All coy and smart and rude and all … I, for one, will be reading … (brunettes FTW. ) … … (random dude reader) .. ..

  • “I didn’t know! I wasn’t sure!” … I loved reading the whole message. Thank you for that.

  • Change is good! If you don’t like it, you can always change it back. My hair is naturally blonde, but it’s also been black, red, and strawberry blonde. I always go back to blonde, but it’s been fun trying different looks. Live life to the fullest!

  • tia_cherie

    Love this creative past and what a sweet picture, It reminds me of some similar decisions I made in the past.


  • Lol I remember having this internal debate when I wanted to go lighter.


  • Amazing! I have always dyed my hair, but went through a period of three years not dying it. I’ve experimented in the last year with bright reds, dark purples, blunt bobs and now a brown/red. There’s nothing like adding a little color and perhaps a sense of change and rebellion 😉

  • Wikidgirlpriest

    Now Ladies, it’s not as though highlights were a sin or anything, but take it from one slee-lightly waining hot Mother (as in real mother, real Reverend, and by some son’s friends’ accounts, a MILF, although I can’t say what that truly means) REGARDLESS, mine is the voice of reason and experience. It is with the utmost care and tolerance, that I encourage you all to do what EVER with your hair, but as one who has highlighted since, just before, her extramarital affair, I can say, unequivocolly, 3 things. First, beware, be-wary. You too may succumb to infidelity, or be another’s succumption…..2) it will take a whole hell of a lot of time and money…(think in terms of trips or handbags (the truly valued in your life), and 3) I believe I rate this of utmost importance, it’s going to fry your hair. Here is the ultimate irony….in your attempt toward heated beauty your hair will assuredly with time be and looked wrecked. There….the wisdom here, and from She who should be heartened, is to opt instead for something healthy, affordable, but most importantly, original…as in sin, or free choice, or just plain finding out who you are. Try iridescent beading, or glistening something…..or, as Eilabeth Taylor back in her hot film days (we’re alluding to The Sandpiper) let a wee bird perch just slightly left of center?

  • Danielle Nordahl

    This truly hits the nail on the head. Thanks for inspiring my own blog post!