I couldn’t stop staring.
My niece, Rachel, a junior art major at an ivy league university looked the same as always: short and petite, with an adorable, big-eyed Kewpie-doll face. But there was one glaring difference: A shock of dip dyed bright pink bubblegum hair now framed her sweet face.
“It’s called Ion Dye. That’s what I used to color my hair, ” she announced to the table. My five-year-old daughter stared at her, fascinated. “It’s so pretty, you look like a doll,” she said.
Oh crap, I thought. The way my little one idolized Rachel, I figured she’d be asking to dye her hair soon, too.
“Why did you do this?” I asked my niece, my voice laced with barely concealed frustration. My sister shook her head. “Don’t bother,” she said. “I tried to talk her out of it. Obviously, she didn’t listen.”
Rachel was leaving the next day to go to Rome for a semester abroad.
I threw worst case scenarios at her as if lobbing smoking grenades.
“Rachel, security is going to be all over you once you get to Italy. Do you think anyone will ever hire you the way you look? Or will a normal guy want to date you? Your professors will hate it. You look…weird,” I weakly finished. She was nonplussed.
“I think it looks good,” my niece volleyed back, no stranger to parental or adult disapproval.
My sister serenely watched us, wisely staying out of the fray.
“Did you ever hear about what happened when I went to London?” I began.
“When you cut off your hair…and dyed it red?” Rachel finished my sentence.
“I saw those pictures of you, aunt Estelle. I think you looked cool,” she said with all the insouciance of youth.
“I looked like a freak, and it screwed up my chances at my job,” I said behind gritted teeth.
Though it happened nearly 30 years ago, the pain of being the ultimate beauty "don’t" still stings.
* * *
In my first job after I graduated from college I was the assistant for an account executive in a conservative, business-to-business public relations firm. As I sat at my desk, answering the phones, typing up memos, and writing the occasional press release, I looked every bit the polished professional in my pants suit, dark, face-framing curls and subtle makeup. I’d recently moved to the city from the suburbs of Long Island in anticipation of a more urban lifestyle.
After six months, my boss promised me that I was in line for a promotion to the account executive, where I’d be dealing directly with the clients. I left on a vacation to London feeling unstoppable.
During that trip, an English friend convinced me to go to an edgy hair salon. There, under the guise of giving me a “fashionable” hairstyle, my long hair was trimmed within an inch all around and then dyed an orangey-red. I left the salon, resembling a vibrant baby eagle. Surprisingly, I liked my mod new style.
Having the weight of the hair off my neck was freeing not just physically, but psychologically.
I had always been a “good girl,” toeing the line, losing my virginity far later than my peers, accepting the role of the dutiful daughter and responsible worker, but never quite feeling that I belonged. A friend once said that "Estelle never takes a day off from showing up." With this cut, I felt as if I was finally getting a chance to show my wild side. Of course in London in the late eighties, everyone looked like me.
Not so, back in New York City. In a city of bows and bobs, I stuck out like a peacock among pigeons.
* * *
My co-workers responded to my new style with a mixture of awe and subtle disapproval (which I shrugged off as jealousy). I regaled them with stories of going to tea at Harrods with a bunch of strangers who became friends, and dancing at clubs to songs like "Relax, Don’t Do It" from Frankie Goes to Hollywood and “Shout” from Tears for Fears.
I was called into my boss’s office at the end of the day and he sternly said that the company had decided that because of the way I looked they couldn’t put me in front of clients, so I would not be promoted until my hair grew back. Instead of getting angry with him, I was angry with myself. Why did I do such a stupid thing? Who did I think I was? Madonna?
I walked out of the office in tears, certain that I’d ruined my career with one foolish move.
* * *
Since hair grew only half an inch per month, I figured it would take at least six months till my hair would pass inspection. When my colleagues got wind of my new uncertain fate, a few of the really competitive ones, who had resented my early rise to middle management, began to undermine me. They picked at real and imagined flaws and soon nothing I did was right, from how I answered the phone, to the way I typed up a memo, to my grammar in releases. Along with my hair, my prospects for advancement had also been cut off.
* * *
My niece nonchalantly ordered dessert, unperturbed by my tale of woe. “I really feel strongly about this. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you,” I told her.
“Aunt Estelle, I appreciate your concern. But you don’t need to worry about me, worry about yourself and your lack of an open mind,” she retorted with a smile. “I like it, my friends like it, and I’m going to be just fine.”
Of course, I realize, she wasn’t carrying the baggage I’d carried all those years ago of being trapped into being "a good girl."
Rachel was young, with few commitments, so why shouldn’t she reinvent herself? According to Meg Jay, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter-and how to make the most of them now, the brain doesn’t fully mature until your mid-20s, particularly the parts that plan for the future and manage emotions. Jay says that your experiences then become hardwired into your brain, and it is the best chance you have to change how you think and react. “What people do in their 20s wires who they’ll be as adults,” she writes.
So, in coloring and cutting my hair, did I really make the wrong choice? Or was that stride toward independence the opposite of weakness, and instead an early indicator of my creativity and ambition?
With the perspective of time, and a less emotional brain, I’ve realized that cutting and coloring my hair was my personal act of rebellion. Most importantly, it was a blessing in disguise.
Making that choice pushed me to leave a job in a field that didn’t suit my talents and abilities, to find a job working in magazines, which started me on a very productive and personally rewarding 20-plus year career in publishing.
* * *
We heard from Rachel shortly after she arrived in Rome. Changing her hair color didn’t put a single blip in her academic or social life and she said her favorite professor complimented her on her hair, telling her “it looked cool.” Perhaps being in a field like art allowed people to accept that aspect of her. I like to think that society has evolved so that women can feel free to make the choices with their hair and bodies that are right for them, without outside pressure.
I heard that New York Fashion week concluded this year with Gucci’s show, where the models strutted down the runway, wearing pale pink dip dyed hair. I can’t wait to tell my niece.
It’s 2015, and for young women, the spotlight’s never looked so good.