The first time I dyed my hair I was 19 in the Brumby dormitory bathroom at the University of Georgia. They called Brumby The Virgin Vault for its nine floors were teeming with bubbly college freshman girls. I wasn’t in a sorority which placed me in a minority group of women without construction paper greek letters on our door, without scheduled dates and socials every other night. It was a surprisingly isolating place to be, until I met Paige.
I met Paige in that same dorm bathroom while we brushed teeth during Greek Week. I had decided to rush, based on my mom’s and grandma’s experiences at The University of Montana. I dropped out of the race pretty quickly. Frankly, those few days of feigning poise through insecurity as I listened to sisterhood fight songs wrecked me a little bit. And then we’d all check The List to see which houses wanted us and which didn’t. Girls weeped in the hallways, Resident Assistant’s called on the help of professionals when scary depression seeped in. A part of me wanted IN. I wanted to be on that list, to be invited into that cheering gaggle of sisters. And that’s why I pulled out — because I was being pulled in and campaigning for acceptance felt terrible.
“Are you rushing?” I asked the tall toehead two sinks down, through my foamy mouth.
And that was the beginning of our friendship. We were both art majors, both awkwardly discovering ourselves through mistakes and triumphs. She called me Red because I spontaneously colored my hair one Sunday afternoon. Pink water swirling down the pink porcelain. It was a deep purply crimson that caused my mom’s eyes to expand like shocked saucers when I came off the elevator into the Virgin Vault lobby for her visit.
I regularly think of that first hair dye job. The action was simple enough but it meant more. It was a decisive stab at being different. I didn’t really want hair the color of a red velvet cake but I wanted friends who would be ok with it. I wanted to stretch and grow and I didn’t know how. I was sad. I was too busy putting my finger down my throat and comparing my thighs to Maggie’s. I wanted to rebel, explore, push. My red hair ignited change. I wore my scarlet locks like a scarlet letter — perhaps only known to me — but it was my deep, dark secret on the outside. Bulimia had gripped me something fierce and I was twisted over whether I’d just die from it or get out of it. It was my choice.
The hole grew deeper and deeper that year until my friends reached in and pulled me out, pushed me into help. Paige and my childhood friend, Lindsay. Oh I kicked and resisted. I was angry at first, but those women remain my best friends, my family. They waited for me at the end of a grassy aisle 10 years later when I married my husband. My kids know them as aunts.
Now, my hair is gray. Yes, nearly completely gray. And I dye it every few months. Sometimes I let it go, feeling good about my steely streaks. I see other young women with gray hair and I like it. I always return to the Deeply Brown box, pushing the pigment into my scalp while I lock eyes with myself in the mirror.
You and me, we are capable of limitless change.
We define the rituals and experiences in our life story. I don’t have a cell that considers purging. I haven’t compulsively exercised in 15 years. I have never one time talked about my body negatively in front of my daughters. They will always only hear me mention what makes me feel good, healthy and strong. My red hair existed way before I even considered having kids and my disorder began to leave with that pink water down the drain. What remains is an evolved version of my younger self. I was strong then too. I just didn’t believe it. Now I know.