It’s only hair, it grows back.
My mom was always very permissive with fashion and bodily modifications. And there were some things I’m not sure I’d be OK with now, believe me. It gave me a great freedom to explore and express myself, and took any ‘forbidden fruit’ temptations out of dressing, piercings, hair dyeing… and for some reason I was taken away by idea of being a redhead with freckles from very early on. A major influence was a hairstyle book dedicated to braids I got when around 8 that among other models featured a girl just like that! I’m unable to find a pic of the book cover online, it was around 1996 after all.
At the age of 11 (that’s 1999!) I had two transformative experiences on the same day: trying nail polish and a temporary coloring shampoo in red. I abandoned the nail polish in 2004 after realizing that it took too much effort to do it well, but the red dye stayed and became permanent. I wish I got an euro every time people assume this is my natural hair color or ask which my ‘real’ hair color is. For a while I quipped back that red was the real one while another – let’s be polite and call it ash blonde – is the natural one.
Since then the only time I’ve seen my natural hair color was after I shaved my head in June 2008. These are the steps I went through from full locks to running back to henna as soon as my hair was long enough, i.e. January 2009. The gray ‘pixie’ (it was never a proper haircut, they just grew back like this) was so much fun for both me and my mom – we finally got to see and document that natural color:
I switched to henna sometime in my late teens, and I haven’t looked back. I started with henna from a Hare Krishna store in Riga. Lucky for me, it was a decent product, because at that point I could’ve easily fallen for whatever shit. I did no previous research, put it right over my chemical dye (thing nobody in the dyeing world approves of, because there is no guarantee of the result), and my mother never asked if putting unknown powders into my head was a good idea. She actually helped me with it, convinced that I was too sloppy about it. We hadn’t heard about black henna and people getting seriously harmed. The worst thing I’ve tried since then was ‘henna’ brought from Egypt as a souvenir that stained my hands pink, and by then I clearly knew that something was off with that product. I don’t remember, though, if I used that pink stuff on my hair. I think I did. I don’t think I ever looked up what my henna was made of. As far as I purchased from a trusted-enough place, and it looked and smelled alright, I didn’t bother.
In Spain I have mostly used the Radhe Shyam henna. They are widely available in health food stores here, have pretty boxes and offer a gradient of colors (a red flag if you are looking for sth ‘authentic’). A random video of my favorite whole-foods-plant-based guru Michael Greger sent me googling in September. The video is rather alarming and could be more precise in describing that the health hazard in ‘henna’ use comes from the additives and therefore the warning that ‘according to FDA guidelines, henna shouldn’t be applied to skin at all’ does not apply to the actual henna, defined as pure lawsonia inermis. So I went looking what my henna contains… pretty sure that nothing too horrible, but curious now. I still can’t believe I hadn’t done it the time I purchased the first package every time I had tried another brand! After so many years of flirting with veganism, you’d think that reading labels should be my number one step in every aspect of life.
The box I had listed as ingredients cassia obovata, lawsonia inermis, and sodium picramate. Assuming that they are listed according to proportion in total volume, turned out that my henna contains mainly not henna but another plant known as ‘blonde henna’ that produces the ‘treatment’ effect of the product and a seemingly inoffensive dye fixer. Both of these make sense as I did try a pure lawsonia inermis powder when my closest health store started to phase out the Radhe Shyam in favor of Khadi (funnily enough, they have now gone off the high horse ‘well, you know we want to carry only organic products’, and sell it again, ha!) And it felt… ineffective! Pretty much as if I hadn’t done anything, at least in comparison with the product I was used to. Now I know that that inefficiency was just natural, the pure henna without the gloss of cassia and without a dye fixer. And cost double, so I went back to the previous brand.
If you’re interested, here’s what I do. It is a bit messy and takes time, I still prefer it over the ammonium stink:
1. Preparation for henna dyeing: Mixing it the day before with hot water to a consistency of a puré. For shortish to mid-length hair I use 50g (half package). The only add-ons I’ve experimented with was olive oil, and, no, don’t do that.
2. The weirdly smelling brown-green mud all the way the day after mixing it. I use an old toothbrush for the hairline and my hands afterwards. This is messy and not for perfectionists. A professional hairdresser would not be happy with my dye job. I just try to cover it all, assuming that the harder-to-get parts won’t dye as well. I tell myself that the effect is a bit more natural this way…
3. Now it has to work its magic for a couple of hours! I put a plastic bag and then a scarf to protect my surroundings. Henna washes out well, but why create work housework? Keep in mind that at least the scarf and the t-shirt will need a wash after this.
4. Then you wash it out and go on with your life! Repeat it when the need strikes. I have many layer of it already and the contrast is not striking when the roots are visible. If you want to be diligent it, about once a month is what you have to plan for. It washes vaguely orange first few times and stains linen. Again, nothing in comparison with the synthetic dyes. And the smell also lingers, especially when washing or sweating. I’m now used to it and don’t care, but there are people who find the experience – between the muddy too much.
My recent conflict about dyeing is between looking to reduce even more the everyday hassle vs. my redhead identity. It is partly cultural, though. I have somehow accepted – thank you Latvian media and so many women around me – that that ash blonde base is very boring and inexpressive. I’d even dare to say that it is a rite of passage in average Latvian girl’s life (at least it felt so around 2005) to chose your color: varying shades of blonde are the most popular, then the dramatic ones opt for black or red, or being happy (or too busy doing something else) with what you’ve got. After seeing my dye fade and my roots appear for a couple of months at the end of 2018, I went back to my green powder. It felt very bright this time… So my current plan is to tone it down a bit shade-wise but keep up with the henna routine. Fun fact? I have no idea if I have gray hairs. A fully white head could be appealing too.
What are your hair dyeing adventures? Do you live it – be it dyed or natural – as a part of your identity?