What Pastel Hair Means For Women Of Color

Our latest obsession here at Refinery29 is probably pretty obvious to you by now: We can't get enough of pastel hair. So, when Diana and Everdeen, two R29ers, approached us and expressed interest in taking the pastel plunge, we jumped at the chance to put them in touch with celebrity colorist Lena Ott of the salon Suite Caroline. Ott is known for creating vibrant, rainbow-inspired hair colors, making her the perfect person for the job.
But, as we anxiously awaited the day when Diana and Everdeen would go blue and purple, respectively, an interesting angle emerged: the unique challenges this sort of beauty trend poses for each of them, as an Asian American woman and a black Latina. Because hair has to be very light for pastel color to show, their manes would need to be bleached. That's not without its own risks; bleached locks are dry and susceptible to breakage.
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On another level, this sort of hair color can also be very loaded. For many, the shade of one's locks is tied to racial identity. So, what does it mean to change it to something so unnatural?
Ultimately, Diana and Everdeen ended up with more than just a new 'do. They pushed the boundaries of their own comfort levels and explored what their identities mean in the context of their appearances. Ahead, stunning photos of their new 'dos and thought-provoking essays that explore the relationship between race and hair color.
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Everdeen Mason
"I was in grade school the first time I tried to color my hair. Copying a close friend of mine, I put Sun-In in my hair, thinking I would have illustrious, blonde locks. Needless to say, it didn’t work. I felt like a fool.

"About 15 years later, I’m sitting in a chair at Suite Caroline Salon on Greene Street as colorist Lena Ott massages bleach into my strands, feeling very much the same way I did a decade and a half ago. Who told me I could have purple hair and look cool? Well, honestly, no one.

"I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, a black Latina with nappy roots, with pelo malo. I spent a lot of time letting people tell me what I was supposed to be doing with my hair. It was infuriating.

"My whole life I’ve been looking for hair that identifies me. Unable to attain (or get my parents to pay for) the elaborate, braided updos and beehives of my black classmates and unable to style my hair effortlessly like my white classmates, I was attracted to the extreme but never fully took the plunge. I was still trying to look normal, which to me meant having straight hair. But, how is relaxed hair any more natural to me than purple hair?

"Back to Suite Caroline. I tell Ott I want a pastel purple but that I’m afraid the cool tone would make me look like Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. We choose a warm violet because of the peachy undertones of my skin.

"As Ott applies the bleach to my head, I ask her if she had many requests to dye hair from women of color.

"'There are more and more requests,' she says. 'People are trying to get a perception of what it’d look like. But, it’s still mostly just girls in the industry.' Lena, who has a gorgeous, green, ombré bob herself, says she thinks bright hair will never be mainstream.

"It’s understandable. Most people, regardless of race, don’t want pastel hair. I know it feels really widespread: You can’t go through Pinterest or Tumblr without seeing some waif-thin, ethereal white girl with flowing, pastel locks. But, that’s not what most people are doing; the look just happens to be popular in the modeling and blogging circles."
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
"Plus, I grew up in a place where, regardless of race, you’d be considered a freak if you had colored hair. I’m now fortunate enough to work at a company that lets me have colored hair, and I live in a city where people won’t stare at you at the grocery store.

"I was also scared about how badly the process might damage my 'do. Lena was honest with me, telling me the texture of my hair could change and that there could be breakage. Women who already get chemical processes, like relaxers, shouldn’t try for very light hair; it’s too dangerous, she adds. Ott recommends getting dyed extensions or trying hair chalking for a safer, temporary effect.

"After a while in the chair, hair chalk was starting to sound like a good idea. The bleach was tingly and hot, and putting the dye on caused searing pain. But, I was lucky: Despite how dark my hair is, the bleach lifted the color in one go.

"By the time Ott finished, I couldn’t remember why I was so nervous. I felt so amazing, in fact, that I walked an extra 20 minutes to debut my glorious mane to the world rather than take the train. If people were born naturally with purple hair, this would be the most desired shade.

"Women tie so much of their identity to their hair; it’s why I’ve spent so much time trying to find something I love. With bright hair, it’s not so much about other people noticing you more (although this is true). Rather, I noticed myself more. With this new 'do, I’ve gone from a certain ambivalence about my look to being narcissistically pleased with it.

"In the end, though, what shocked me more than the color was the texture. My hair, rather than its normal tight, springy coils, is a little straighter and fluffier, more like the feel of a shag carpet, and it fluffs out like cotton candy. It’s very dry, like straw. The other negative is that the pastel doesn’t last very long. To make it stick around, Ott recommended I wash it as infrequently as possible, as just one wash would cause the color to lose its luster.

"She was right. Three weeks and three washes in, and my hair has faded to a rosy light brown. I had described it to my boyfriend as a sherbet color. (He disagreed and likened the color to poop. Note: We are still together.)

"I love it anyway, and the bleach underneath looks adorable — a very pale, Peeps yellow. I think I’ve found my hair, the one that defines me. I’m a natural purple."
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Diana Nguyen
"I am a hair-dye virgin. Or, I was before I bleached my hair from black to a white-ish gray all in one sitting.

"The burning sensation was bearable at first. I can handle this, I thought. I’m tough. Eventually, however, every sizzle on my head felt like someone was trying to burn the prints off my fingertips. When I finally emerged from under the heat lamp, layers of color had been stripped away. I could’ve stopped if blorange (blonde-orange) was the goal, but it wasn’t, and another painful bleach session was needed. Two more, in fact.

"No one ever tells you in those boxed-dye commercials what kind of commitment it takes to go from dark to light. (Thanks, Tina Fey.) I have typical Asian features: dark-brown eyes, a petite stature of 5-foot-1, and very fine, jet-black hair. I love my natural hair color, so why was I going through hell and back, and again, and again, to bleach the bejesus out of my hair? Why do other women?

“'To youth-anize it,' explains Lena Ott, as she works the same magic she has on clients like Rachel Weisz and Björk on my own tresses. As we get older, our hair fades and coloring brings back vibrancy, she adds. On top of that, having naturally blonde hair is rarer than being a brunette, making blondes, real or not, stand out. About 75% of her clients opt for blonde highlights or some kind of blonde coloring, Ott says. For Asians, it’s more about this attention factor and, possibly, a desire to look more Caucasian. Oftentimes, we dye our hair in the hopes of looking more Westernized, but when not done correctly, the final look can come out brassy and copper.

"As I sat in the wash chair, toner in my hair to help remove the yellow and orange, I thought of how many of these hair colors I’ve seen in Orange County, California, the origin of my fascination with all Asian subcultures that put so much emphasis on beauty. Think: K-Pop stars, Harajuku girls, anime look-alikes. And, behind the 'Orange Curtain' of suburban affluence, there really is a wealth of culture. In fact, the OC (the real one, not the Mischa Barton variety) is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam."
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Photographed by Julia Robbs.
"Up until college, I was surrounded by similar-looking people. The same dark-brown eyes. The same skin tones. The same hair. Except, as I got older, hair colors got lighter and blonder. Meet another subculture: the Asian Baby Girl or, as the locals like to call her, the ABG. She is a doll, an Oriental Barbie, personified. Her makeup is always perfect, with nary a fake eyelash out of place. Her blue or green contacts complement her overly teased blonde highlights or bleached-blonde ‘do. She pops in a club of electro-house-dancing, black-haired peers. She is my brother’s girlfriend. She is, at times, my sister. She is quite a few of my friends. But, she is never me.

"Until Ott was done with me, that is.

"Back home, in a community teeming with black hair, going blonde is how I’d set myself apart. But, instead of the normal bleached or honey color, Ott went above and beyond with a gray-to-blue ombré effect. It wasn’t just a color that would attract attention in Orange County or even New York City, but something that would garner compliments all over the world — especially from spirited high-school girls, apparently.

"I’ve never wanted to look anything other than my natural self. That is probably due to my minimalist predilections, the lazy girl in me, and my wallflower tendencies. And, honestly, I was a bit scared; the unnatural can lean toward cheap. Surprisingly, this hair color gave me a bit of swagger and confidence. I felt more edgy, and as a result, I spent more time picking out my outfits and perfecting my makeup. I understand now what blonde-haired model Soo Joo Park says about her own hair transformation: 'It brought out a character from within myself.' And, it’s a fierce one to behold. It’s like an accessory or piece of clothing that perfectly expresses you. It’s like the tattoos I have on my body; though, its short lifespan — my color will last six weeks, at most — affords more experimentation.

"In the end, it was an experience that opened my eyes to a subculture I’ve been immersed in but didn’t quite understand for years. The ABGs, Harajuku girls, crazy-hair-colored women everywhere, they do what makes them feel special. Every woman deserves to feel different. At the same time, for me, it isn’t worth the time, pain, and money (my process costs upwards of $600) for hair that I love just as much in its natural state. Yes, I appreciated the change, but it’s also too much maintenance — the dried-out strands, the hair masks, the recoloring — for a low-key girl like me. To each her own."
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