Celia Barbour gets highlights.
Photo: Inga Ivanova/iStockphoto
She was a blonde as a child. What had she missed out on by letting her hair go brown? Stung by strangers' comments, Celia Barbour decides to reclaim her birthright.
I am failing to live up to my hair.

My hair deserves to be taken out to fancy dinners. It should be admired, adored.

I, meanwhile, can't even find a mirror. We (husband, three kids, and I) have just moved from the city to a small town, and me and my freshly colored hair spend our days unpacking boxes (but not, dammit, the one that holds the mirrors), me in a T-shirt, my hair wadded into a clip. When I do happen to catch myself in the rearview on the way to the store, I am startled: Me! With blonde streaks! Check 'em out!

My hair droops in dismay.

I didn't set out to disappoint my hair. On the contrary, I thought my timing was quite clever. A new town seemed like the perfect place to start over with the hair I was always meant to have. When I was a kid, it was blond—white-blond, the color of a sugar cookie. But starting at about age 4, it began its long, slow descent into darkness; by high school it was the color of oversteeped tea. "You know what's neat about your hair?" asked a classmate whose gorgeous, honey-colored curls tumbled to her butt. "It's the exact same color as your eyes."

Yeah. Thanks. Brown. Wow.

Still, I would have been fine spending my whole life as a brunette because being fine was something I was very good at. I'd been working at it for years, thanks to my big sister. Growing up, Elisa saw everything as changeable. Her hair was long, then short; blunt then feathered; straight then frizzy; brown then Cheez Whiz (remember Sun-In?). For her, nothing was fixed. Everything was mutable.

I took the opposite path, probably just because sisters do that—Elisa was scattershot, ergo I would strive to be grounded, steadfast, deep. Instead of incessantly changing the things I didn't like about my appearance, I'd accept them. My hair, which was long and straight in seventh grade, was long and straight in college, and long and straight on my wedding day. If superficial dissatisfactions ever roiled my life, a new hairdo wasn't going to fix them—or so I told myself.

I cannot pinpoint the moment when this philosophy crossed over from Zen acceptance into a kind of stern inflexibility—from "I don't need to change my hair" into "I need to never change my hair."

Life has a way of playing tricks on people like me; the more self-righteous we are, the better. And so life handed me three kids, all of them blond. Stunning, spectacular blond. Strangers would see us and say, "Where'd they get that fantastic hair?" or "I guess your husband is blond." No, I'd say, sighing. No, it was me. Once. A very long time ago. (I hate strangers. They always stir things up.)

Before long, they had me wondering about the blond life I never lived, my unfulfilled birthright. And so I decided to try it out, if only to coordinate better with my kids. Mind you, I had no idea what "going blond" would entail, having never so much as squeezed lemon juice into my hair. I knew that it would be time-consuming and difficult. But when I found out that I would have to strip all the brown from my hair before it could be dyed, I blanched. Covering over my brown was one thing, but erasing 40 years of comfort scared me.

I told Gina Gilbert, the colorist at the Serge Normant at John Frieda Salon in New York City, that I was starting to chicken out. I expected her to be irritated at my spinelessness, and so to rekindle my nerve. Instead she smiled and said, "Thank God. When I heard that you're a mother, I thought, 'Blond is going to be a nightmare.' You'd be in here every three weeks."

"Oh," I said, relieved.

"Besides," said Gina, "I like your hair brown. It's the right color for you."

I nearly laughed out loud. Perhaps the plain, brown rut where I'd spent the last four decades was exactly where I belonged.

I was wrong—not about the brown part, but about the rut. Gina didn't change my color, but somehow made it gorgeous, like a polished tropical wood. It was as if she had noticed in me a prettier, nicer person than I'd ever dared see in myself, and coaxed her out of hiding. For the first time in ages, I felt that my surface matched my core.

As the week wore on, though, my curiosity gradually began to reignite. And so, two weeks later, I was back in the colorists' chair again—this time, Marie Robinson's, at the Sally Hershberger Downtown salon—for brighter, lighter highlights.

I told Marie that I needed to experience life as a blonde—even just a partial, streaks-of-gold-through-a-mane-of-brown blonde.

"I bet you'll like it," she said, as she enfolded segments of my hair in foil envelopes. "But once you've tried it, I think you should go back."

"Why?" I said.

"Brown suits you."

She was right, of course, on both counts. I do like my sunny highlights. And they don't quite suit me. It's fun to have gold-streaked hair, the same way that it's fun to try on gorgeous-but-not-me clothes in the dressing room. In front of the mirror, it's all make-believe, but the moment I step out in public I get insecure, lose my poise. For me to feel pretty, I have to be confident, and for that, I have to feel like myself.

That doesn't mean I'm going back to my plain-Jane hair, however, because that doesn't feel like me anymore. In fact, it doesn't feel like anything. All those years when I thought I was being true to myself, I was just growing numb on monotony. Getting a great new color made me realize that the right kind of change doesn't take you away from yourself; it wakes you up to yourself. So what if the self I discovered doesn't happen to be a blonde? I can accept that.

So I'll let my highlights fade. I imagine that will happen about the same time the last box is flattened and sent to recycling. Then I'll head back to the salon and watch the colorist turn the haircolor I've simply put up with all my life into the color I now crave—the beautiful, vivid, glossy brown that feels just right for me, a woman who knows a thing or two about change.


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