When I was eleven, my hair was the color of warm honey. Or maybe honey butter. Flaxen, golden. Even auricomous, not as well-known a term for blonde, but I’d read it in some obscure romantic novel and thought it sounded cool. I know my lovely blondness to be true because there are photographs. But I must have suffered some awful shock over that summer, because by the first day of junior high school my hair color had turned to mud. Dirty blond. Dishwater blonde. The only decent description I could come up with was ash blonde, but even that sounded like it had barely survived a fire. Along with other exciting body changes that included menstruation, acne and the coke-bottle glasses required for my suddenly awful eyesight, seventh grade was a bad trip without the acid.
So when the next summer rolled around-with the aid of one of my wilder friends- I became a Summer Blonde, a subtle blonding-in-a- bottle that worked its magic gradually. This served two purposes- it helped make people think my hair was naturally “sun-kissed” and the change escaped my mother’s eagle eye. My friend and I spent long summer days at the beach, encouraging our tans with iodine, baby oil and tinfoil reflectors, even though my skin allowed only two options- white and burnt to a crisp. At least I had my “beach” hair. But as surely as summer becomes fall, my summer blonde turned to brassy whore. At least that was my mother’s take on it. A few days before school started, she dragged me off to her hairdresser to get it dyed back to my natural color. After the inevitable curlers and a stint under the bonnet of the beauty parlor hair dryer (a long row of women torturing their hair for beauty’s sake), she unrolled the curlers, combed out my curls and spun the chair around so I could see my old yet improved self.
I was devastated. There was my dishwater-blonde hair, magnified by tight screwy curls. I looked like a sepia-toned Little Orphan Annie. With a peeling sunburn. My mother, however, was delighted.
“There!” she crowed. “Much more fitting for a young lady.” I wondered what I’d done to make her hate me so. I sat, stony-faced. She invoked the support of the hairdresser.
“Tell her how nice she looks! How appropriate for her age. How would you describe her hair color? Isn’t it lovely?!”
The poor woman had the decency to look uncomfortable. She waggled her head indistinctly and managed a negative nod. “Um…” she struggled for words. “Kind of blond. Ish. Ashy. Ish. Dirty. Blonde.“ There. It was out in the open. “Dirty blonde. But maybe it will lighten naturally!” She clearly didn’t believe that.
My mother glared at her and hustled me out the door. I don’t think she left a tip. “Hmph. What does she know about hair color, anyway?”
Right. After all, she was only a…hairdresser. It was only her job.
After that disaster and with a strong need to survive eighth grade, I became sneakier. I turned for help to my wild-child friend, whose bedroom was a cornucopia of beauty products. She was one of two children and the only girl. She was also a dancer, like her mother, so she had access to all kinds of stage makeup, which we decided looked as good at school as in did under stage lights. She also had her very own dressing table, with a lighted mirror. I had to settle for sharing the bathroom mirror with my four sisters.
She scrutinized my hair. “Maybe you could get a wig!” she offered, hopefully. She already owned two. I had watched her pin her own hair up and tug on the cap of plasticky hair. I shook my head. I already hated hats and, although I didn’t tell her, everyone knew that when she wore one of her wigs it was either because her roots were growing in or she hadn’t washed her hair. At our age, with the typical maturity of our male counterparts, it was inevitable that someday one of them would yank off the wig. (As it turned out, that didn’t happen until junior year in high school, but the point is, it did happen.)
We decided on streaks. We’d buy a box of extra light blonde hair color and, with her experience and skills, she would paint my hair with lemony streaks so subtle that it would seem as if the hairdresser’s prediction had come true and it had lightened naturally. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing, that thing about timing? It actually is important. Leave it on too long because you got distracted listening to the latest Beatles album and discussing who was cheating on who in our class and whether being tripped by a boy was a flirtatious move or a vindictive one, and it goes from lemony to bleached bones. Pure, blinding, white. I looked like a skunk crossed with a pre-teen. I caught our reflections in the lighted mirror. A bug-eyed pre-teen with acne, tortoise-shell glasses, a thick layer of stage makeup and muddy hair streaked with lightning bolts. And her equally bug-eyed friend. We screamed.
She was already up thinking up Plan B. I We did what seemed to us the most logical thing to do. I put on a hat and we convinced her mother to take us to the mall, where we bought a box of ash blonde hair color and hurried back to her house to fix my hair.
By dyeing it again.
You know what’s worse than dirty blonde hair? Than skunk-streaked hair? Green hair. Yeah, something about mixing hair colors and ash and blonde and, ultimately, it didn’t matter. We were as good as dead.
I could only hope my mother wouldn’t notice that I was going to be wearing my friend’s wig for several weeks. Because I was pretty sure that if she did, I’d be the only green-haired girl in the eighth grade.