Seeing Red

This story appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein

Long, blonde hair with bangs was never as popular as when Miley Cyrus appeared on television screens as Hannah Montana back in 2006. Over four seasons, tween-age girls everywhere were longing for a life as the character that propelled Cyrus to fame, hair included. But a year after the series' finale she traded those long, golden locks for a peroxide pixie reminiscent of an edgy, punk rock singer circa 1974 rather than a 2000-something teenage pop princess. The fresh cut seemed to be a physical declaration of a new Miley — one that represented a departure from her Disney-era TV persona and an entry into a burgeoning adulthood. The 20-year-old Cyrus was, admittedly, in a much different place in life than she was at 14 with newfound celebrity. And while critics were quick to express their disdain for the new ’do, Cyrus’ own position on her hair seemed to go beyond mere physical approval. “Never felt more me in my whole life,” Cyrus tweeted post-chop.

Call me conservative, but I’ve never altered my hair more than a few inches or a couple of shades on the color spectrum.Granted, my hair is excessively curly, with limited styling options (no one wants to see a curly-haired girl with bangs or with a crop that ends up looking much too similar to the cut of a 12-year-old-boy at his Bar Mitzvah). But at the ripe age of 28, I’m getting uncomfortably close to 30. And I’m craving a change.

At the height of what I’ve deemed my “growing up” period — not that I intend to ever stop growing psychologically — I have come to feel as though my sense of self has become increasingly conflicted. On the one hand, I have (finally) answered many of the questions that have long loomed over my head, and any 20-something’s head for that matter, like what I want to do when I grow up. But I’m still unsure of who I want to be. And at the same time, I feel like I’m both nowhere near, and nowhere near ready, to be that (as yet undefined) person. It’s a strange feeling to tread the line between adolescent and adult at 28.

You can tell me that I still have time, that age is just a number, that 40 is the new 30, that at least I look young, and that in this age of economic insecurity 20-somethings across the nation are delaying adulthood. But it won’t change the fact that 30 seems to hold a place as some sort of milestone in life — a mid-way marker of accomplishment — and in some ways, I’m already behind my peers. The average marrying age for women in the Unites States is 26.9, and the average age for having babies? Even younger, at 25 (though women’s magazines and the wealth of celebrities with child well into their 40s would have you believe otherwise).

Ultimately, I don’t feel like an almost-30-year-old adult. And I don’t want to be one. So I’m rebelling against growing up. And while my friends are getting engaged and married and even creating new life, I’m dying my hair red. Not auburn red. Or strawberry-blonde red. But red, red. Shock value red.

Anyone who has ever heard someone utter the words “It’s just hair,” after a disastrous cut or a bad dye job knows the inexplicable importance these strands hold within the female psyche. There is a relationship here. And we probably spend more hours grooming it, and more money on stylists to cut it and products to care for it, than we do on most other things in our lives. Hair provides a sense of self, of security, and when changed, it can even provide a physical, tangible means of expressing the change in who we are on the inside.

It isn’t a new concept, of course. Hair has long been a symbol of transformation; just think of the 1920s. In a decade defined by rebellion — when bootleggers were smuggling alcohol and jazz “threatened” old cultural values — ladies represented newfound freedoms with new hairdos. Females said goodbye to their long Victorian locks and welcomed shorter hairstyles — along with political equality (the right to vote) and a new gender role (working women). It was a liberating reaction to a reserved era that projected the free-spirited attitude of a new generation.

My own hair journey began in the stylish Dyer & Posta Salon at the hands of co-owner Stephen Posta. Armed with inspiration photos featuring Florence Welch, Karen Elson and my girl crush of late, American fashion model Natalie Westling (who, ironically, gained notoriety this year after dying her hair red and appearing in a Marc Jacobs ad alongside Miley Cyrus), I was ready to embark on a self-defined, self-image escapade. And hoped that my hair would soon project on the outside what I felt on the inside. Why suffer the pains of explicating my pseudo-adult status in life when my hair can do it for me?

Initially desiring a semi-permanent dye job, when Posta tells me I won’t achieve the color I want unless I go permanent, I say “what the hell?” without hesitation and we dive in, headfirst. As Posta and his assistant begin to apply the color, I ask if other women often come in looking for a change in their hair to mimic a change in their lives. “All the time,” they respond simultaneously. “It’s either the salon or the car lot,” Posta remarks, referring to the male stereotype of preferring to combat any life crisis with a sports car, rather than a makeover. Maybe it’s a confidence thing then, more than an identity one. And if the salon/car postulate holds true, then we can assume that many women value looks, while men value money. And within each lies our confidence — one that exists, of course, amidst a comparative analysis of where we rank for those values when compared to our contemporaries.

There’s actually a psychological doctrine that defines this: the social comparison theory. First proposed by American psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, social comparison theory posits that it is a basic human drive to want to evaluate our abilities, and we often do so by comparing ourselves to others — whether that be within the domain of beauty, wealth, intelligence or success. We then use these assessments to define ourselves, and to determine our own worth based on how we measure up to our peers. (There’s a reason why, for women, there’s absolutely nothing better than the prom queen showing up at the 10-year high school reunion 75 pounds heavier.) So it would make sense that anyone engaged in social comparison who finds themself to be worse off than others would experience a shortage of self-assurance. And they would be questioning their station in life, and seeking a way to enhance it.

But confidence was never a quality that thwarted me. I’ve always been well aware of my virtues and where they lie on the peer-to-peer spectrum. Until now, I realize, as a flood of questions enter my mind: Why are all of my friends finding their life mates and I have yet to? Would I feel more successful among others my age had I forgone my yearnings for a creative career and gone to law school as planned? Would I face less financial pressure?

After a mere three hours, two rounds of dying, and countless times nervously pleading not to let my hair turn out burgundy, I emerged a bona fide redhead. It took some adjustment, but by the time I was in the car riding home from the salon I was in love. The color was beautiful — a vibrant, multifaceted red with tangerine highlights that appears natural, yet clearly not biologically given, somehow at once. Plus, I think the hue suits my complexion.

Friends are quick to ask how I like the new hair, but there’s a different question I am trying to answer: how do I feel?

Far from the “life-changing” romanticism my editor assumed, it turns out. She had imagined the attention-calling color might somehow make up for my otherwise reserved persona and typically understated apparel: crewneck sweaters, skinny jeans; preferably black. As if I might suddenly assume the “fiery” spirit often attributed to natural-born redheads. I’d like to think I’ve simply settled into an occupation of observation. A plus, for one who writes for a living. Though I’d be remiss to say that I never fall victim to a hot temper, or mischief, or the occasional bold fashion choice.

Truth be told, I don’t feel much different. My hair, you see, was always a source of attention. I’ve rarely gone a day in my life without receiving at least one compliment on my hair. In the South, where blonde, straight hair runs rampant, it’s unusual to see a girl with free-flowing curls. And that hasn’t changed. But now I question if they’re commenting on the curls or the color — or both.

I even often forget I have red hair until I walk past my own image reflected in a mirror or the scarlet strands fall in my face. I am pleasantly surprised, though, when reminded of the new, vibrant color.

But those questions of confidence are still left unanswered.

Dying my hair red was meant to be a declaration of preserving my youth. But the experience has felt very grown up. I didn’t just run out to the local CVS and buy a box of red dye on a whim. I researched redheads, analyzed color options and made an appointment to have the color done by a trained expert. I made a calculated decision, I assessed the details of the desire, I acted on it and am now owning it.

And despite neon red strands now flanking my face, I know that the outside isn’t really going to define who I truly am on the inside. I’ve still got to figure that out for myself.

Isn’t that what adults always tell their kids, that it’s what’s on the inside that really matters? Maybe my red hair is representing exactly who I am on the inside then: a late 20-something trying not to age, while inescapably growing up, all at the same time.