The year was 2007. I was cooped up at home, on the sofa watching the Joss Stone video for her song “Tell Me ‘Bout It”. Although I had been a fan of hers for a while, her purple hairdo had me more intrigued than ever before. I thought it was a very bold move on her part, considering most major female popstars in that era were blonde – Joss herself had been blonde beforehand.
I remember precisely it was the first time in life that I gave dyeing my hair a proper consideration, a surprising thought in itself, since I was always proud to look, for lack of a better word, regular and unassuming. To me, the boy next door look was my way of resisting whatever current trend the other guys around my age were co-opting in the pursuit of coolness – spiking my hair or slicking it back was obviously out of question. But seeing Joss and her cool new hair perked up my interest in trying out something new.
It would take me nearly a decade before I finally got around to doing it. For some reason, I kept putting it off in the intervening years, perpetually under the impression that I would have to go to one of those fancy salons to get it done, spending a huge amount of money and countless hours perched on the stool. That would also mean having to ask my domineering mother for money, and I was not going to let her have her say on the matter and try to coax me or the hairdresser into whatever hairstyle she deemed appropriate for me.
A few years earlier, a hairdresser had cut my hair off entirely because my mother thought I would rock the bald look. I remember crying my eyes out and cursing her on the way home and the days that followed. It wasn’t as much the loss of hair that devastated me, it was the loss of privacy, and autonomy, to my own body.
It is this power struggle that laid the foundation for my relationship with her and continues to pervade its development. During these years, I would sneak out to the nearest hair salon, get a haircut and pay it with whatever scraps of money I was able to accumulate. I was not going to let her dictate what I should look like.
I would go home after these unceremonious trips to the salon much to her surprise or chagrin. Quarrels would take place and I would balk at her claiming, “This is my hair, not yours!” Which would typically be met with retorts revolving around the fact that she’s my parent and therefore always knows what’s best for me, or that she sees my hair differently as an outside party and she just doesn’t like what she sees. This would occasionally turn into an inglorious shouting match. If I had the last word (and I almost always did), she would start cursing to the world and leave the room for a smoke. Then the silent treatment, at least until my hair grew back.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Fast forward to 2016 and I was getting chummy with someone whom, up to that point, I had known for a couple of years. We were working together for a cause and I had kind of dismissed him as another of those typical, boring gay urbanites. But one day he showed up and had green hair.
While obviously it was not the sole reason, there was no denying that the change of color was leading to a change of heart. Now there was a new, fresh talking point to be had; now I learned that you could just go to the nearest convenient store, buy a coloring cream and dye your hair at home; now I was becoming increasingly drawn to him as we talked more often about the matters of the heart.
Shortly afterwards, I dyed my hair purple as I had set out to do nearly ten years prior and the first time he saw me with this color, he was taken aback and commented on how good it looked on me. A few days later, he dyed his hair with an identical color. I was deeply enamored of him at this point, and that gesture might as well have flown me way over the moon.
But I suppose I was just turning into Clementine Kruczynski, changing my color to fit my mood. I went green at one point following in his footsteps just before a collective trip to Bali, during which I came to realize that romance was not in the cards for us. It would take me a few more months until I became red.
That same year, Solange released a song called “Don’t Touch My Hair”, an ode to black women’s oft-scrutinized hairstyles and taking pride in them. I had never heard a song so eloquently express my sentiment from that particular angle (“Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear” goes the opening line), and it prompted me to meditate on my relationship with my own hair and how it relates to my existence as a queer person since hairstyle is one of the means that I use to express my queerness – or just myself, period.
I didn’t start growing my hair longer than usual until about four years earlier, the first time I properly fell in love, and it was with a boy with wild, tousled hair. I would keep my hair disheveled just like his for a good number of years as a way of remembering him and the brief period of time we spent together, which had to come to an abrupt ending. It was my way of keeping him around when he was not.
Between tousled-haired guy and green-haired guy, I also became the most out, queer version of myself and I felt my look had to reflect that. So between purple, green and red, I have also been beach blonde, hazel, dark blue, orange and even pink. I have not reverted to my natural color in nearly two years, and there are moments when I do seriously consider this with questions running through my head: Am I taking this too far? Do I come across as too outré for people? Would I look more acceptable if I cut it short again?
Then I thought about how I spent nearly my whole life looking like the society’s idea of what a guy is supposed to look like, so why back down now? So I can appear more wholesome and be more attractive to guys? Surely if they like me enough, they’ll see past my hair?
I remember staying over at a friend’s place and the landlord apparently made a comment after I had left, probing him whether I was a guy or a girl. I chortled when he relayed this anecdote to me, feeling like I had accomplished the mission to confuse people and make them play “Guess The Gender!” Then not long afterwards, another friend made a comment about how he thought big guys looked better with short hair “because it just makes them look less convoluted” and just like that, I fell into another tailspin. Maybe I should just cut it and be done with it. I can still be queer and look like the average Joe, can’t I?
I keep going back and forth between these questions and bouts of insecurity, and there are times when I go, “Screw it, I’m going to the salon tomorrow!” But I’ve yet to do so.
Maybe next weekend I’ll finally act on it and get a nice, clean trim. Or maybe I’ll spend another two years just letting my hair grow and drain out whatever will be left of my current reddish brown. But this morning I woke up with “Don’t Touch My Hair” in my head, I stepped out of bed and saw myself in the mirror, my hair matted in all the right places, and I liked what I saw. This hair is mine.
Fajar Zakhri is too lazy to make his own blog despite his knack for writing, and this confuses people. But confusing people is his thing after all. Get in touch with him via Twitter (@whatsthefaz).