I’ve never had a particular interest in dyeing my hair. Even with the quarantine hair-dye frenzy, I didn’t think twice about it. In fact, I almost never straighten my hair or put any products in it because I’m too afraid of losing my curls, my hair texture, or my natural highlights. (I also have an irrational fear of losing my hair or going dishwater-grey by the time I’m forty, but that’s not important right now.)
One day, though, I wanted a change. Not because I didn’t like my hair, but because I’m only going to have the opportunity to be young, reckless, and free once. So I started fantasizing about going blonde. But when I proposed the idea to my hairdresser and a handful of my friends, I invariably got the same response—“I can’t really picture it on you with your skin tone.” Which, granted, not many people of my caramel-toffee complexion choose to go platinum blonde. But then why don’t we ever tell people with fair complexions not to dye their hair jet black? Or our shade of brown, for that matter?
Well, as close as I came to it, I decided against dyeing my hair. I cancelled my appointments and put the idea away for a while. Not because of my friends’ skepticism (I didn’t really care what anyone thought), but because I myself had to sit with it a little longer—which is funny considering hair dyeing (especially as drastic an instance as mine would’ve been) is usually an impulsive, thrilling, rebellious act of juvenile pleasure and fun.
But the “F it” mentality wasn’t mine to live up to. The more I thought about it, dyeing my hair, an act most people flaunt on their Instagram pages without a second thought, began to feel like a deep-seated betrayal. How could I give in? Why would I give in? To enjoy the fleeting satisfaction of a new look? What the hell was I thinking? How could I have ever entertained the idea?
I grew up entrenched in whiteness. I went to an all-white Southern Baptist school where history textbooks reduced slavery to “hard labor” and glorified American exceptionalism to the highest degree. I lived in an all-white neighborhood, each house’s white walls towering over the other, riches in excess—the ideal angle for watching my thirteen-year-old brown brother and his thirteen-year-old brown friend have the police called on them for playing at the community pool. I attended white summer camps, where my mom always had to put me and my brother in the only co-ed cohort, knowing we had to seek solidarity in each other. I was taught exclusively by white teachers, and so I was ingrained to understand that power and authority is birthed from whiteness.
I was conditioned to change. I exchanged my family’s hand-me-downs for Justice’s mass-produced, sparkly, overpriced clothing; my mother’s cooking for pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; my identity for self-worth. I was made to never question the hierarchy I was ‘voluntarily’ placed into. I chose to be there. I chose private school because my parents wanted more for my education. I chose the wealthy neighborhood because my parents wanted to shelter us from their own insecurities. I chose the white summer camp because we didn’t have any other choice.
There was no summer camp for the brown kids.
So long before I was supposed to conceptualize beauty, I was forced to understand it. Because beauty is a product of the white establishment.
Before I got to kindergarten, I knew my beauty would always find its home in the second or third tier because my skin was brown, my eyes were brown, my hair was brown. My eyebrows were too thick, my nose was too round, my hair was too curly. To be beautiful is to be white. To be gorgeous is to be blonde. To be stunning is to have blue eyes. And to be breathtaking is to have all of the above.
So dyeing my hair blonde could never have been a senseless rebellion for me. Instead, it would have been an admission of inferiority. It would have been a declaration that I surrender to the very beauty standards that rejected the beauty of all the women and girls who looked like me.
My mom immigrated from Egypt to the United States when she was my age now. She had never thought about her hair before, had never altered it with heat or chemicals. But about three years into living in the US, she began to straighten her hair every day and has been doing so for the last thirty years. She’s almost completely lost her curls now, and no matter how short she cuts her hair, the ends remain split and dry.
About two days ago, I called my mom on the phone. She was wearing a simple satin cloth tied around her head like her mother used to do back home. She was trying to nurse her curls back to health, hoping she’d never have to use a flat iron again. I asked her why she did it—the straightening—all those years, why she let her gorgeous curls succumb to the heat of a white man’s instrument. Her response: “To get a job.”
This is a woman who has a top score on the MCAT, who graduated with a 3.87 GPA in an academic program conducted all in English, (which she was learning for the first time), and who, in her decades-long career as a doctor, has never received any patient rating below 4.5 stars. But to her white employers, her curly hair was a symbol of wanton unprofessionalism. An unkempt lifestyle. Her future was only secured with her assimilation to fairer, more Eurocentric features.
When I told my mom I wanted to dye my hair blonde, she strongly discouraged me from doing so in fear that it would cause irreversible damage– she’s no stranger to the costs of conformity in this country. She would always tell me, “Your hair is so beautiful, why do you want to change it?” or, “Don’t risk ruining your hair, you got our good genes.” Each remark implicated me, implicated my choices, in her longing for freedom. A longing to express her Egyptianness unapologetically. I knew she didn’t want me to lose hours of my life in and out of hair appointments, keratin treatments, perms, at the mercy of a flat iron or with the drugstore shampoo deemed best for my artificial color. She wanted better for me—she never wanted me to be white, she wanted me to be brown. She never wanted me to be American, she wanted me to be Egyptian. She wanted my beauty standards to be situated in the shadow of my grandmother’s complexion, in the splendor of my eyes that change from brown to browner in the sunlight.
My mother was repeatedly told—by white people and Egyptians alike—that she would be so much prettier if she dyed her hair a lighter color, straightened it, put layers of sunscreen on her face each time she went out so she wouldn’t risk darker skin. Her aunts and friends would flood her with recommendations for hairdressers and whitening creams. Because white beauty standards don’t only exist in Western minds—they permeate and haunt our culture. They infiltrate our media, our minds, our identities. Egyptian actresses never have dark skin tones, never have dark hair, and often wear blue and green colored contacts, as if to shield the world from their brownness. When Egyptian girls get married, we’re coated in white foundation. As brown girls with brown hair and brown eyes, we are told by our own Egyptian counterparts that we are nothing special, that we look like everyone else. When I tell people my grandfather had blue eyes, I get the same response every time—pray that you get lucky with your children.
But F that. The odds of my children having blue eyes are slim to none, and I’m happy about it. Our sons and daughters will flourish and be golden for their brown complexion, for their brown features, not in spite of them. When the Arab makeup artist at my cousin’s wedding covered me in powder-white foundation, I told her to take it off. I’ll tell my daughter to do the same. When my brown features were standardized and my brown skin villainized by my white friends, I forcefully refuted their contradiction. I’ll tell my son to do the same. When white and brown boys alike adamantly declare that they’re “just not attracted to brown girls,” I name the racism of their convoluted reality and let them know what they’re missing out on. I’ll tell my children to tell their children to do the same.
I adore my brownness. I cherish it and cultivate it. If I ever want to dye my hair blonde, it will never be because I believe it is more beautiful. It will be because I want to. Because I’m young and can afford to make reckless decisions, just like everybody else can. Your white privilege doesn’t make you ever have to consider changing your hair color—anything you want you can conquer, acquire, and make your own. We’ve never been afforded the same luxury. But no more of that. If we want to dye our hair a white person’s color, we will. We’ll own it. It will become ours, and we will make it beautiful because it is brown. We will not succumb to the colonizer. We can say “fuck it” too.