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first person

Illustration by Chelsea Charles

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The day my hair turned green, strangers became friendlier. After a half-century of being an introvert, this was a nice surprise.

In the queue for my first mammogram, I was slightly overwhelmed by the anxious and confusing rush of medical staff behind the counter and grumpy clients in the waiting room. When the young receptionist looked up at me and broke into a wide sparkling smile, my first instinct was to look behind me and step out of the way to allow her to chat with her friend; but there was no one there showing any recognition. Oh! She’s smiling at me!

“I love your hair!” she exclaimed, and suddenly I felt that warm rush which happens when strangers connect for a brief moment in our otherwise busy and efficient days.

It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why I dyed my hair. When people ask, which they don’t often do, I joke that it was my midlife crisis. If I don’t have green hair at 50 it’s never going to happen! This prepared answer is, frustratingly, the only thing I can manage to say in the 10-second allotted sound bite. But I yearn to explain in a more meaningful way. I yearn to do this because I see the wide variety of reactions, the discomfort, the dismay and the delight elicited by my turquoise coif.

These reactions are amplified by my line of work. As a director of a department of engineers, I already stand out for being one of the few women in my field. I have developed a professional, traditional work persona and most of the engineers that I know are not exactly what I’d call walkers-on-the-wild-side. Perhaps I’m stereotyping by saying that we tend to excel at efficiency without frills. Appreciation for hair colour, hair styles, even hair in general is not high on our list of priorities.

On the Monday morning after I spent four hours transforming carefully selected locks in the hairdressers chair, I had my first work meeting. It was a discussion with a subordinate on how best to restructure his operations. It will be my first opportunity to manage my co-workers’ reactions and I was a little nervous. I put on what I hoped was a nonchalant look and welcomed the manager into my office. Without even a small pause, he began his pitch. Five-minutes in, I looked up from the documentation to ask a question and caught him staring, mouth agape, at my hair. I smiled but he stayed frozen.

I imagined the narration in his head … ”Her hair is green – does she know? Should I say it’s nice? Would it be rude to point it out? Is it on purpose? Is it a joke? Maybe she hasn’t realized?”

Unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying the moment as I watched him trying to place my appearance in some frame of reference – and struggling. I had thought I would diffuse this moment with a self-deprecating comment about the craziness of aging but instead, I let it sit. There was a pause. I asked my question about his proposal. There was another pause. And he breathed in, looked at the paper before him and proceeded with his explanations.

When my hair started turning grey last year I saw my future options before me. My mother began to dye her hair in early adulthood and to this day belies her age with the judicious use of chemicals. Her mother, for as long as I knew her, had soft, white “grandma hair.” It took me several months to conclude that neither of these options appealed to me. Should I buy into the formula that states I need to spend the rest of my life hiding my natural evolution? Or should I accept the transition to looking like a grandmother and being marginalized in a culture that is obsessed with youth?

To resolve the conundrum, I chose to ask a different question: “If you weren’t subject to the pressures and constraints of society, what colour would your hair be?” Green. Some shade of green. That’s my answer.

A few weeks after this profound insight, I arrived at the hairdresser with butterflies in my stomach and was comforted to see shocking blue spikes peeking from under her hat. “I can mix any colour you want,” she explained. “So what will it be?” Caught off guard, I quickly scanned the room and spied a retro credenza with a plastic quilted front. I pointed at it mutely, and thus that exact shade of turquoise became mine.

A few months later, I was biking at a community event with my family on a beautiful summer’s day and we eventually stopped for a break. I pulled off my helmet, feeling the warm sun on my face, and spied a small girl, maybe 6 years old, pointing and staring at me with wide eyes. “Mummy, that lady has green hair!” Her mother was mortified and stuttered apologies, but I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction. “I know!” I exclaimed as the girl is pulled away, “isn’t it crazy?!”

The truth is over the past 25 years I have felt myself disappearing. I was a young go-getter, forging a trail in a male-dominated field. I was a new parent developing my own definition of motherhood. I was a professional woman who had it all, managing to balance a rewarding career and family obligations with a sliver of personal life. But it has always been difficult to reconcile the way I looked and the role I played. In short skirts, I’m the only one in the boardroom showing legs. Without makeup at work, I look unkempt. Do I look stocky in these jeans, next to all of those yummy mummies? When I’m taking charge at work do my peers see their mothers nagging them for neglecting to clean their rooms?

Dyeing my hair turquoise was as much to do with forcing myself to be visible as it was to force others to see me. In the face of social pressures, it is sometimes easier just to fade away. But there is no chance of disappearing when your hair is green. Of course, without access to a hair salon during isolation the colour did fade. I’m still deciding on what my next steps should be. It would be easier to return to the standard blunt cut. On the other hand, purple is kind of fun.

Siân Morgan lives in Beaconsfield, Que.