I decided to color my hair red during my first year of graduate school in 2017. I had attended a conference about Asian American psychology that October. Some graduate students and I had been standing in line for a dinner banquet, taking turns introducing ourselves by sharing our names and home institutions. When I shared mine, a fellow gaysian grad student looked at me and said “oh, you’re a *insert name of program stated in an elevated and slightly incredulous voice* student,” eyebrows raised.
I imagine that gaysian said that to me because my grad program has a bit of a prestigious (code for: elitist) reputation in my field. I felt icky when he made that statement. His comment reminded me of times in my childhood when people stereotyped me as emotionless, math and science-oriented, and foreign based on my race. When I got home, I went to the hair salon right across from my local grocery store and asked for red hair, based on Jisoo’s look in the “As If It’s Your Last” music video that had come out that previous summer.
Perhaps I sought out red hair to signal difference from the stereotypes some people project onto Asian Americans: ceaselessly hardworking, meek and shy, and interested in career advancement above political revolution. These stereotypes are racist and stem from the model minority myth, and at the same time I knew a bunch of Asian Americans growing up who adhered to those ideals. Through changing my hair from black to red to pink to blonde, I think I wanted to make starkly visible the ways I felt I differed from Asian American stereotypes, like how I loved Psychology and English, enjoyed running around screaming about burning down frat houses and abolishing the wedding industrial complex, and prioritized emotional health and self-awareness over external forms of accomplishment.
My colored hair also embodied how I felt different from other people throughout my life. Maybe this sense of difference or distance stemmed from my childhood trauma or my queerness. I sensed these feelings early on in my life but my mother didn’t let me color my hair as a child – so it felt nice and agentic to do it now.
On one hand I switched back to black hair for symbolic reasons. Over the past few years I explored more of my roots, like learning about why my father had children in the first place and honoring the parts of myself that may come from my biological family. After this journey I felt ready to go back to black and claim more of my heritage and origin story. I recognize too that I can of course have black hair and still get angry about politics, explicitly name power dynamics both within and outside of work, and present with my same gay and quirky and outgoing energy.
Practical reasons influenced my decision to go back to black too. Now that I’m moving soon, I’ve started to think about home ownership after my upcoming residency year, even though I won’t own a home anytime soon
unless a rich queer man of color wants to pay for it hashtag zaddy. I also want to preserve time and space during this upcoming year so that I can focus on job and postdoc applications and research when I’m not seeing patients. Not going to the salon every eight weeks will help conserve money and time for these future goals.
I’ve had black hair for almost a week now and I’m still me: saying “I’m gay” at random moments in conversations with friends, rolling my eyes at people and media who promote taller men as more attractive, and over-disclosing about my life on the internet. I’ve changed my hair color several times in the past few years and I’ve also changed on the inside too, letting go of control a little bit and understanding more of what I want in relationships. Maybe my hair will stay black for the rest of my life or maybe I’ll color it again after my residency year – at this moment, I’m okay with not knowing.
Have you ever tried to modify an aspect of your appearance and if so what was your underlying motivation for doing so? Did you ever return to a former state of appearance and how did it feel to do so? General reactions to this post? Ahhh I turn 27 one week from today screaming, though moving stuff will be even more hectic in the upcoming two weeks so I’m going to try and post next week and if not you’ll hear from me early June as long as the move works out! I sold my bookshelf and couch and got my wifi set up and preordered some furniture for my new place so progress is being made, yay. Until next post.