Yes, bleach: Nirvana’s first album; a disinfectant and destroyer of clothing; a Presidentially approved injectable. And a blue powder that, in the presence of an appropriate solution of hydrogen peroxide, becomes the most potent chemical one might apply to one’s hair.
The Nirvana album title was apparently inspired by an AIDS prevention poster that encouraged heroin users to “bleach your works before you get stoned.” I wonder if anyone might have misinterpreted those words – bleach not the needles, but rather, the syringe, your blood, your heart. Die for the sake of your health. After all, you won’t – can’t – regret it.
Six months ago, I would have laughed at the idea of anyone suggesting bleach injections, or anyone capable of reading a label believing they might be helpful.
What a strange timeline we live in – and I know this to be true because those words have become more of a cliché than any public health slogan in recent memory. We live in a timeline “soaked in bleach,” and the bleach has seeped downward into the ridges of our fingertips, into our windpipes, into our national consciousness. If the halfhearted attempts at quarantine are a valley between peaks of activity, that valley is flooded with bleach.
Accordingly, I keep shopping online; accordingly, my hair is fried.
I spent eight weeks alone in my apartment starting in mid-March. But that period of time was, surprisingly, not the most alone I’ve ever felt. Instead, I had sudden company: I am a control freak aware of (and kind of sad about) the futility of seeking control. As daily life collapsed around us, it became apparent that many people are control freaks, and that the unmitigated spread of COVID shined a spotlight on the aforementioned futility. The kindred spirits became corporeal, hunted out of the shadows.
As Americans, we take the beloved closing lines of “Invictus” to heart: “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” That poem feels like a more fitting religious text for American culture than the Bible. We believe in bootstraps, which is to say we believe in personal agency as an absolute truth. To have one’s head grabbed and forcibly turned, to be forced to look upon the ugliness of God’s earth and Trump’s America – this is a wrenching away from a national faith. This is a chokehold on a dream. For me, the pandemic feels like waking up on November 9th, 2016 over and over again, to the same awful sense of powerlessness shining like a spiteful sun through a bedroom window. I know I share this feeling with many, just as I share the new additions to our vernacular: “unprecedented situation;” “given the circumstances;” “we’re all in this together” (outside of the context of High School Musical); “we realize this must be difficult,” etc. etc.
We live in a time of unprecedented empathy! And in a time of ordinary human greed, which becomes its own enabler. In any case, we know we lack control and we know we want control. (I, for one, fantasize about escaping the timeline in which Breonna Taylor’s killers have not been arrested, the world is regarding us with mingled horror and contempt as we kill our own with negligence and apathy, and the President has responded by selling beans with a forced smile that caricatures itself. I would make my escape through a portal to a parallel universe in which Daenerys Targaryen wins the throne and there really is no war in Ba Sing Se.)
And so my hair looks jaundiced.
Like many others, I occupied and occupy much of my time alone with popular fantasy. Animal Crossing: New Horizons continues to let me build and break the land itself with the casual push of a button. My villagers all love me, of course. They happily bask in my presence as benevolent dictator of the island of Elysium, where pears and roses grow natively. Of course. Meanwhile, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has led me into new domains of Reddit and Twitter Discourse™ where I can passionately argue for my chosen path and against the other three possible paths on this choose-your-own-adventure-style JRPG (no spoilers, but I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that Edelgard is the best Lord and if you disagree, you can fight me).
At some point, though, fantasy is not enough, just as “meeting” people via Zoom is not enough. (Helena Bonham-Carter reading “The Wild Geese” to the world via Instagram is almost enough, but not quite.) There is something rotten in the States of America and to look at the world is to feel like you’re touching a live wire you can’t pull away from. But to look away is worse.
O bleach, if only you could disinfect the “works” of this country, this fraught moment!
Contrary to what Cheeto may tell the media, our beloved bleach is not actually capable of such feats. That doesn’t rob it of its symbolic value, however – its ability to clean, to clean harshly and painfully, to drain of color in the name of eradicating pathogens. A bleached material that once held color will never be the same. Here we see bleach as a means of sea-change.
Our environments shape us – our circumstances, choices, identities. But we constitute those environments. The shards of an old idealism in me have yearned to push back against the burden we all bear. Beyond idealism and pessimism, I’d like to take part in reaching a collective breaking point where we say “enough is enough” and finally believe it.
This is all very broad. But one has to start somewhere. I started with myself, and with lyrics from a largely forgotten Lady Gaga song on Born This Way:
I just wanna be myself
And I want you to know, I am my hair
I’ve had enough, this is my prayer
That I’ll die livin’ just as free as my hair
Before 2020, I had never touched my hair with anything stronger than those “semi-permanent” dyes that never last as long as the box promises. Not for lack of interest – I was fickle and afraid of ending up with a color I hated (my parents also forbade it before I turned 18, but my fickle nature still stands). My options were also fairly limited because my natural hair color is a medium-dark brown. To dye hair more than a couple shades lighter than one’s natural shade, one must set aside the typical box dye kit and reach for the ever-daunting bleach. The chemical process. The point of no return.
Turns out the point of no return is great for simultaneously serving as a respite from current events and as a purveyor of visible agency, however small. To deviate from my natural color, the color that’s grown from my head since infancy, was to reject a given condition. It also meant dedicating an inordinate amount of time to watching other people burn their hair off with bleach on YouTube, and eventually reaching the conclusion that losing my hair was an outcome I could live with. People’s judgements of my appearance (whether real or projected) no longer felt significant. Not when they would never see more than my pixelated representation on a screen. Personal agency – what beautiful words! And only sometimes a lie.
People’s hair reacts differently to bleach based on a number of factors, e.g. natural porosity, moisture and keratin or their deficiency, melanin content and underlying pigments, etc. The bleaching process opens the hair cuticle, where the bleach-developer solution essentially leaches away the natural pigments within the strand (as well as artificial color). In the ideal scenario, this leaves the one bleaching with intact hair lightened to the desired shade, whether that’s a brown or honey blonde or a white base for toners. In the worst case scenario, the hair can’t handle the harsh chemical stripping process and literally begins to melt off during or after bleaching. Other less-than-ideal scenarios include bright orange hair and leopard-like spots that weren’t adequately saturated with bleach or that processed too slowly. Often, amateur bleachers will be left with “hot root,” in which the roots lighten significantly more than the ends because body heat around the scalp makes the bleach process faster.
To summarize: bleaching your own hair is risky. Especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. And therein lay a paradox: to take control of my hair meant to relinquish control of my hair – for a time – to a foreign chemical that made no promise but permanence.
The trouble with agency is that it doesn’t reach far enough outward, barring the presence of money or other resources it might attach itself to. Frustrating. But something about the idea of consciously choosing to give up control captivates me. And others. It must be why skydiving and bungee jumping exist as cultural institutions. On some level, it’s the most difficult choice to make, and the one that requires the most faith – faith in scientific reactions, in one’s ability to fully saturate the strand, in the expertise of YouTube hairdressers, to name a few examples. Faith in agents of change.
My first attempt at bleach gave me yellow-orange hair and a couple dreaded leopard spots. It gave me hair that will never be the color it was, not before it’s replaced by new strands. It gave me hair that frayed at the ends and felt altogether too strawlike, hair that required deep conditioning masks and protein treatments to prevent it from blowing itself into a frizz cloud.
There have been second and third attempts, root touch ups, self-inflicted questionable haircuts. I’ve learned about toning and bleach baths and at this point, I’ve probably spent more money on hair products than I would’ve spent at a salon (not that the salons were open). My hair still isn’t the exact shade I want – I was inspired by the disease bleach trope and wanted and still want silvery white hair meant to symbolize the emotional tumult of this past year. Every time I add more abrasive products, I’m playing the fun game of “will this be what finally burns it all off?”
No matter. It looks significantly better than it did after that first round. It no longer feels like straw; my curl definition has mostly returned. And I don’t regret subjecting my hair to a chemical crucible. I don’t regret doing what the internet warned me not to do, although a number of my fellow quarantine bleachers have testified otherwise.
I can look in the mirror, look at myself and say, “There was an action; here is its consequence. Here is the evidence of a choice I made. Here was a conscious decision to change.”
I realize how trite it sounds, but fucking up my hair has been my most empowering experience in recent memory. Purely at a personal level, yes, but the macro rests on foundations of the micro. I am not, we are not bodies pushed along predetermined currents through the aether. We set our own paths within our confines.
What an awful year this has been. I don’t expect things to improve soon. But I will cling to my blue power and my peroxide developer as I cling to the comfort in knowing that nothing lasts forever. The dream-shards can be reassembled into something better, maybe even something good, until it breaks again. And so on.
There are steps awake and waiting to be taken.
I will take what I can get.