When it comes to Black hair, we’ve been sold a lot of lies over the years. Since the beginning of time, the culture — television and film, music, our grandmothers, our bullies, our hairdressers, social media, and more — has been prescribing limitations on what is appropriate or even possible for Black women to do with our hair. One of those rules involves coloring our hair; who hasn’t heard the lie that Black women shouldn’t rock anything lighter than our natural 1, 1B, or 2 color scale? Fortunately, most of us know better now, and we’re seeing Black women embrace every hair color in the rainbow. Red tresses are especially popular these days, and regardless of why or how it comes about, I think everyone needs to have a redhead phase.
I didn’t start experimenting with my hair until I was in my mid-twenties. Growing up, I stuck to the Black girl basics:
fried relaxed tresses that I was too scared to trim, bumped ends, box braids, micro-braids, even a kinky twist here and there. When I got into college, I took things a little further with a teeny-weeny afro, blunt bangs, a sew-in pixie that was supposed to be reminiscent Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad-era cut (but really, it just looked more like a bad mullet), and 24-inch Rapunzel weave down my back. I even started wearing wigs, sporting big “natural” hair that people almost couldn’t tell wasn’t all mine. Even with the various looks I switched out throughout the years, I rarely, (if ever) ventured beyond the comfort zone of 1B. That natural soft black was normal. It was safe.
Fast forward to 2018, two years after moving to New York City to pursue a masters degree at NYU when I felt anything but safe. Two years in, I was still having a difficult time adjusting to the fast pace of the city, to the perpetual presence of pigeons (*shudders*), to the frigid cold weather, to the distance from my family back home in Houston. Everything was hard, and I wasn’t doing well in the city — even with weekly therapy sessions. I didn’t know what to do to lessen my anxiety, but I knew that I needed to do something. I had to make a drastic change in my life. So I cut my hair, purchased a box of Dark and Lovely Fade Resistant in the color Berry Burgundy, and dyed it red.
Red Hair Ineye was a vibe. I traipsed around this wild world with chaotic energy, feeling like I could do anything just because I just knew that I looked good. Now, I’m not going to lie and say that dyeing my hair magically solved my mental health issues, because it didn’t; I was still homesick, stressed out, and sleeping only a few hours each night because of my insomnia. But at a time when everything in my life felt like it was spiraling out of control, changing my hair color was like finally grabbing hold of my agency in some small way. It sounds dramatic to think of it this way, but I was starting anew. By challenging myself with a new look, I was fighting back.
I’d have to fight again just months later, when I graduated from my masters program and was once again facing another crisis. I couldn’t find a job despite my new accolades, and I was running out of time and money too quickly to be able to stay in the city any longer. The familiar desperation, this time heightened by the looming fear of failure, crept on me quickly, sending me into a month-long state of deep sadness and fear. After a month of feeling bad for myself, I made another visit to the hair salon, intent on manifesting a new start for myself with yet another haircut. This time, I thought, I’d go even lighter and even shorter, with a determined new mindset to go along with it.
I did end up going lighter and much shorter, thanks to a bad cut and even worse color job from a barber who shall not be named. (God will deal with you, sir.) Said “professional” indiscriminately chopped my hair off into a questionable shape, and the hair dye he used didn’t quite take all the way — my natural black-brown color was still clearly evident in certain spots on my head. I sobbed in the Uber all the way home and then wept some more in the Uber to another barber shop the next day, where Yohnee Miller, the owner of Bedstuy’s Hundred Grand Barbershop, kindly listened to me explain through tears that my new hair was supposed to represent a brand new chapter in my life. The stakes were high, I hiccuped, and she knew exactly what I meant.
So she transformed me, shaving my hair so low that I could see my scalp, and bleaching it to a cute, but not-quite-me honey blonde. (To this day, Yohnee, my mom, my older sister, and the Uber driver that picked me up weeping are the only people who have ever seen me blonde.) Knowing what I had to do, I left the barbershop with resolve and immediately strolled into my local Walgreens, heading straight for the hair care aisle. Red hair was my destiny, and I needed it to unlock the next level of my glow-up.
You’d think that, having been a redhead just months prior, I would’ve had an easy time of my new look, but being a redhead with a fade was a totally different experience. I hadn’t prepared myself mentally to look so distinct, and every time I looked at myself in the mirror in the days that followed, I was surprised to see a red head peering back at me. Red hair gave me a boost of confidence, but the jarring shortness of it suddenly made me feel self-conscious and hyper-aware of how I looked. While I could once hide behind my cropped coils, I started seeing how big (My cheeks!) or how small (My eyes! My top lip!) my facial features were because Fade ‘Neye was all face.
That new understanding of my appearance also led to a shift in the intention behind my gender presentation, forcing a pivot away from "girlier" prints and patterns, and towards louder, more powerful aesthetic choices to match my new hairstyle: bigger hoop earrings, bolder makeup, more androgynous-looking outfits. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but dyeing and cutting my hair forced me to re-examine my perception of femininity, to see how closely I’d linked being a woman to having a certain appearance. As I wrestled with my new identity as a jobless 20-something New Yorker who might not be cut out for the concrete jungle, I also came to understand that my idea of what it meant to be a woman was static when it should have been limitless — which simultaneously helped me reconcile with the fact that although my life wasn’t playing out the way I had planned it (or the way that my peers’ lives were, or the way my parents’ envisioned it going), I was not, in fact, living it wrong. I was just living it…differently. And that was okay, too.
Yes, we are not our hair — word to India Arie — but whether we like it or not, Black hair will always be a statement, regardless of how we choose to wear it. And dyeing it anything other than our natural Black or brown, especially if that new color is on the louder end of the spectrum like blonde or red, feels like shaking the table in some small way. For me, dyeing my hair red was about expanding my worldview and embracing change during an unexpected period of transition. For others, it’s the beginning of their villain era — the first step in embracing a “I'm doing me” mentality after a lifetime of catering to the whims of others. (Rihanna famously went fire-engine red for her Loud rollout, and we all remember the series of events that contributed to transformation.) And still others see it as a rejection of the beauty norms and limitations forced upon Black women.
Red hair means different things to different people, but it’s something special to all of us because it’s usually accompanied with some kind of transformation, big or small. It’s likely that you’re not going to be a redhead forever — I’ve since grown out my red hair and reinstated 1B as my go-to color — but you’ll never forget the series of events that led you to that box of hair dye to begin with, or how amazing and unique you felt with red hair, even if it was just for a brief moment in time. If you’re brave enough to venture out and try it, the color just does something to you, reminds you that no matter what, you’re still that girl.
So if you’re reading this, take it as your sign: it’s time to go red. It might just change your life.