How a Bad Dye Job Changed My Life

mary wang blue hair man repeller

On a sunny afternoon last June, I walked into a respectable hair salon in Greenwich Village and asked the colorist to dye my then-pink hair ash blonde. Eight hours and a burnt fringe later, I emerged with a tint I would later come to describe as sewage-blue.

I’m no stranger to colorful hair. Before the appointment, my hair had been various shades of pink and blonde for a while. I was well aware that dyeing Asian hair is a “journey;” that any effort towards lightening my naturally black strands would be an attempt at best. But I’ve always been up for the challenge, having watched enough America’s Next Top Model to know that winning looks were often accompanied by fear, uncertainty and chemical burns (and that tearing up in hair salons is never a good look). So after the colorist explained something about unfortunate layering, and apologized for the few gratuitous minutes under the heating cap, I smiled, paid, and walked out of the salon hoping that my hair would look less like wastewater in natural light.

It did not.

Caught up in a beauty-version of Stockholm syndrome, I spent the next few weeks claiming to love my colorist’s transgression. It was unique; it was memorable; it left people praising my courage. I even started to reconfigure my wardrobe, wearing only colors that matched the alienesque hue — and patting myself on the back for having more clothes in the color of mold than I had expected. It was an attempt to convince myself that I had control of the situation, or at least to make it seem like I really did intend to resemble an oil stain left on scrap metal.

Altering our appearance is always an exercise in control — like a gardener pruning their shrubs, it’s a battle to tame nature’s plans. Scouring my hair with hydrogen peroxide was only the latest regime I had subjected my body to: I’ve gone through phases in which I scorched my skin in the sun to acquire a tan, filed my three-inch-long nails into pointy daggers, and tried — and believed in — waist-training.

Though I eventually received a refund from the salon, I hesitated to spend it on a color correction elsewhere. The money felt like the only thing I had actually earned in a period when work had hit a drought. And I didn’t have much more time to spend in a salon anyway; my grandmother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness that year, and I spent a lot of time either traveling to Asia, or from Asia, or recovering from the 12-hour time difference. So the truth is, it wasn’t courage that drove me to keep my new hair color. I kept it because, even though I had no choice in its particular shade, I could make a choice in letting it be.

As the weeks progressed, my hair morphed from sewage to moss to titanium. I knew from experience that color fades with washes, and that I would have had to adapt even if I got the color of my choice the first time around. But the oddity of my shade seemed only to emphasize its artificial condition, as it morphed along a spectrum of grays like a chemistry experiment left on the table too long. On top of that, solid black roots began making their reappearance, pushing the color further and further away from my body. Nature was gaining ground on me, reminding me that control is a mere folly.

I once heard that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” Over this period of my life, those words became a comforting battle hymn; a coping mechanism that helped me prioritize the laughter of the future over the pain of the present. With time on my side, I turned my sewage-colored days into a beguiling anecdote — of the little tragedies I experienced last year, it had the most potential for comic relief. By now, my family has settled into a routine around my grandmother’s care, and my career has sorted itself out in ways as mundane as they are revelatory. The season in which my hair looked like rotten fish is an image much easier to conjure.

The last part of this anecdote goes like this: I eventually embraced the color whole-heartedly, so much so that I went back to another salon and asked them to recreate it. But by that point, my oft-bleached hair had apparently endured too much, and the colorist refused to soak it in more peroxide. Just as I had little control over the color my hair took on — or the width of my waist, or reality’s willingness to follow my plans — it turned out I had none over what color it would remain: a subtle reminder that mess is life’s default mode, not its anomaly.

Photos provided by Mary Wang and Cédric Pradel.

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