A change in hair color can be a striking signifier. It’s permanent, at least until the hair is bleached or dyed again, or is cut. It’s also highly visible, unlike tattoos or piercings, those other popular forms of post-adolescent body modification that can often be hidden. There is an appealing element to radically changing your own appearance this way, a thrill in the intentional departure from natural hair color. I bleached my hair myself during my first year of college as a means of shedding my adolescence for a stronger, bolder, more self-assured look.
I am one of many college students who has felt compelled to bleach their hair themselves. The bleached look is a fixture on Vassar’s campus, where students can be seen walking around in various stages of bleached blonde-ness, from pale yellow to a more muted amber. It does not involve highlights or salon coloring—the style is usually grown out, self-done, brassy and fried, creating a deliberately artificial effect. Ideally, the DIY element is obvious in its execution.
Bleaching your own hair is a difficult project, especially if the desired outcome is platinum hair that can be worn as it is or dyed vibrantly. Bleach opens the hair’s cuticle, breaking down the melanin and lightening the color. If the hair is dark, like mine, each bleach application will result in various shades of orange, then yellow, before the lightest shade can be achieved. When the color is lifted, colored dyes can be applied. The dyes will not show vibrantly on most natural hair colors as the hair must be nearly white in order to achieve the brightest shades.
To lift my dark brown hair to platinum, I had to bleach it three times. The first time I bleached my hair, I stood in a hot, cramped bathroom. Mixing the powder bleach and developer released a noxious fume, burning my eyes and fingers at contact. I started with a tint brush but my inexperienced fingers fumbled again and again; only a little bit of bleach was deposited at a time. I watched the coated strands lighten as I struggled to deposit the mixture in the rest of my hair. The process was less than elegant. It’s difficult to see behind the head without a strategically-placed mirror, not to mention the contortion required of the limbs in order to accurately place the bleach. Finally, I picked up the bleach in my hands, raking it through my hair with my fingers. The exactitude required combined with the precariousness of the outcome makes the whole project feel like a dangerous gamble: Leave the bleach on too briefly and the hair will not have lightened sufficiently, too long and the hair might literally dissolve.
As bleach can be applied and develop in under an hour, hair color can produce a near-immediate change in appearance. Dardan Ukaj ’20 described his first experience of hair bleaching as transformative. “Every time I looked in the mirror it was like ‘Who is that?’ It was pretty magical,” he said. The change in appearance can affect the way that the wearer interacts with the world. Lucy Horgan ’20 said, “I think your hair color definitely changes how you act a little bit.” Elizabeth Carpenter ’20 noted that she is conscious of the way that her bleached hair affects her social interactions: “My hair is definitely tied to my self-esteem.” Even bleaching itself can be a social activity. I always bleached my hair alone, covertly eradicating any trace of dark roots. But for some, the ritual can be more communal. Latoria Bailey ’22 recounted the experience of bleaching and coloring her hair together with her mother and cousins. Ukaj, Carpenter and Horgan bleached their hair together as housemates.
College is a space that embraces bleached hair, a choice which might not be a viable means of self-expression while living at home with family or when entering the workforce after graduation. Carpenter plans to wear her hair platinum when she graduates, rather than dyed a bright color. She explained, “My mom said, ‘Elizabeth, when you graduate I want nice hair.’” Horgan concurred. “My parents are definitely more proponents of the natural look,” she said. The grooming of one’s hair has an added degree of complexity for queer bodies. Of his decision to bleach his hair, Dardan said, “I’m a child of immigrants. Both of my parents came from Kosovo, so they have very strict, traditional values.” As a result, he didn’t bleach his hair until leaving home to attend Vassar. He continued, “My hair was something that was constantly surveilled by them.” Dardan plans to let his hair return to its natural color before graduation as per his family’s wishes. Clara Lerchi ’21 also described a negative association between bleaching and the surveillance of their gender expression: “When I think of hair bleaching my immediate reaction is like a negative, frustration thing because I picture my mom throughout high school being like, ‘Bleach the hair on your face.’ Personally I’m just like, done with that.”
Adopting such a dramatic social signifier is not without its hardships. The look requires a dedication to artifice that involves a degree of technical know-how as well as frequent maintenance; at my blondest, I was bleaching my dark roots as often as every two weeks. As a means of self-expression, however, bleaching hair can be an affirming practice. Each time I bleached my roots, I felt like I looked more like myself. “It feels like I’m in control,” said Lerchi. “I think that sometimes I dye my hair as an emotional thing if I’m feeling very intensely. It’s a creative outlet in a way, so that those feelings get out in a relatively healthy harmless way.” All of the students I spoke to mentioned that, though they love their hair, it’s not to be taken too seriously. The hair eventually grows out. While so much of individual presentation through clothing or branding can feel banal and disingenuous, bleached hair is, ultimately, meant to be fun. Bailey agreed, “My hair is like one of my favorite things about myself. It’s like top of the list. Very high up there.”
All photos courtesy of Haley Whetstone.