The Pink Hair Manifesto

Head shot of Cat Rambo with pink hair

Taken during World Fantasy in San Diego, 2011, by On Focus Photography.

Since 2006, I’ve dyed at least part of my hair pink, usually a few locks near my face. The dye comes in a kit from L’oreal and doesn’t require bleaching beforehand – brush it on, wait thirty minutes, and wash it off. Voila, cartoon-bright streaks among the (once-prematurely) graying strands.

The first time I dyed it, I was about to head off to my first Wiscon – a large feminist science fiction convention held yearly in Madison, Wisconsin. As I’ve found the case at sf conventions since then, I wasn’t the only person there with an odd hair color; I glimpsed rainbows of pink, blue, and green. And I realized it was becoming. Complete strangers would lean over and whisper, “I like your hair,” including two flight attendants on the way home.

After the con the color faded, softer and softer, until finally, when I went to get a haircut, the hairdresser was cutting away dusty rose tips. I looked in the mirror and saw a middle-aged woman with a short, practical cut.

I bought a new kit on the way home and re-pinked my hair that afternoon.

Since then it’s become a ritual following each haircut. I go in and see it trimmed away until only the faintest hint of color remains. Sometimes I take advantage of this time to do my shopping in sedater department stores like Macy’s or Nordstroms, excursions that I think of as “passing for surburban.” Then I go home and re-dye my hair. I’m always a little self-conscious those first few days of screaming fuchsia, when I have to sleep with a towel over the pillow to keep the pink from leaving traces on the pillowcase. I try to time these days to coincide with a science fiction convention or some similar event.

I use that as an excuse when people ask me why I dye it. “I’m a sci-fi writer and it helps fans identify me at cons,” I say. That’s the partial truth. It’s part of my brand. But it’s also more than that.

Sometimes people interpret it for me. When my mother was recovering from surgery for colon cancer one year, I visited the hospital every day and used the valet parking they provided. “I know why your hair’s pink,” the elderly valet confided to me one day as he took the keys from me. “Are you a survivor or is it a relative?” I realized that he thought I was part of the flood of pink that month against cancer. I couldn’t bear to disillusion him, so I said something to him about my mother, and he went on to tell me about the women in his life who had struggled with cancer.

That’s another reason why I dye it pink. People talk to me. There’s something about the color that draws them to ask about it or say that they like it. The only person I’ve ever found who disapproved outright was a relative’s girlfriend. She didn’t last. My hair color has.

But more than that, the pink forces me to talk to people as well. I’ve habitually toed the line between introvert and extrovert, depending on which Meyer Briggs results you look at, and I like the fact that the pink pushes me outside myself, makes me be socially brave in a way I’ve sometimes retreated from.

The pink’s a favorite with people. I tried purple one year, a vibrant, almost fluorescent purple that required bleaching the hair beforehand, a painful process I will never repeat. Some nuance of the purple made it seem more confrontational, less welcoming than the pink. Fewer people came up to say something about it, although I was startled at one point when a man behind me began stroking it. “I couldn’t resist the color,” he said.

I have been advised to avoid blue. “It ages one,” a friend said, although I’ve admired the turquoise shading of Camille Alexa, a fellow speculative fiction writer, at several cons.

I worry that L’oreal will stop making this particular brand. I’ve got five boxes of it stockpiled under my sink. I figure I’ll commit to the color until the year or two that the boxes represent are past. After all, who knows what advances in hair color may have been made by then?

It took a while for my mother to get used to it. Finally one day, when we were coming out of a store, she chuckled. “Did you see that man?” she said. “He smiled at your hair. I guess anything that makes people smile is okay.”

And I agree. If I’m making people smile, I’m doing something right.

I’m lucky to live in Seattle, where hair is often not its natural shade. I’ve found when I visit the East Coast, particularly in the southern areas, people are not quite as welcoming of the color. They’re more likely to surreptitiously (or so they think) point it out to each other. I haven’t traveled abroad with it yet.

And I’m lucky to work at home as a writer, with no boss to object to the pink. More than once someone has wistfully said, “They would never let me do that at work.” That seems a shame to me, much like seeing the trainers at my gym wearing work-mandated band-aids over tattoos lest they shock the sensibilities of the patrons.

The hair color also lets people spot me in a society where being a middle-aged woman is often a cloak of invisibility. Sometimes that’s unwelcome. I’d rather fade into the crowd, which is much harder to do when pink-topped. That’s why I love sf conventions so much, why they feel like coming home to my spiritual tribe. At Penguicon I rubbed elbows with a woman whose wheelchair was tricked out like a Victorian mechanical contraption, complete with sporadic puffs of steam, a strapping young gentleman costumed as Thor, and a woman whose baby was dressed up as a miniature robot, complete with blinking lights. Indeed, at Norwescon, a local convention that’s particularly costume heavy, I look positively sedate.

It’s strange that I engage in this particular cosmetic practice. I’ve always resisted make-up. I put it on and, despite the best teachings of my mother the former Mary Kay representative, I see a clown-faced stranger in the mirror. The pink hair allows me to feel like I’ve managed some effort to dress up. Combine it with the right shirt, and people assume I’ve carefully color-coordinated outfit and hair.

But I cringe, just a faint recoil, when I look at those shirts in my closet: the crisp peppermint striped or hibiscus and butterfly printed shirts gleaned from the local Talbots outlet. Because here’s a secret: I’m not particularly fond of pink. I was never a Barbie girl. I like deep purples, turquoise, and emeralds.

In fact, I resent the way pink’s been mandated for little girls. I worry that I’m doing this to make myself less threatening to men, that I’m saying, “Look! I’m a feminist, but a fluffy pink harmless one.”

But I tell myself to stop over-thinking it. It’s a color, not a lifestyle. I embrace my pink and claim it. Which adds another dimension to it for me: it’s ironic statement as well as fashion one. It says I don’t give a damn about what other people consider age-appropriate. “This is me,” my hair says. And I look damn good in pink, or so I think.

Or maybe that’s just ego talking, an overly healthy one bolstered by all those strangers telling me they like my hair.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 100+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012.
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  • http://jennifer-willis.com Jennifer Willis

    I streaked my hair with fuchsia once—New Year’s Eve 2004, I think. Color Rays, or some such product—maybe the same as what you’ve been using? It was a pretty slap-dash job, but I liked it. I was newly transplanted to Portland from the East Coast, and had always admired people with streaks of vibrant color in their hair.

    It was a small way of embracing my new home in the Pacific Northwest, and of letting go (temporarily) of that Southern mindset of wanting to blend in, don’t rock the boat, don’t make a scene. Don’t stand out. Of course, truth be told, I’d need a lot more than a few colorful streaks in my hair to stand out in Portland.

    I love that you’ve found an easy and satisfying way to be who you are on the outside as well as on the inside. Some people turn to body art like tattoos and piercings. Others alter clothing to create their own fashion styles, wear signature colors, weave feathers into their hair, strap on a pair of fairy wings for a trip to the store, etc. More of us, though, reach for those safer costumes of tailored suits, or chinos and loafers, perhaps giving into that little voice and its pleading whisper, “Don’t stand out.”

    Like many, I think I’m still searching for my “signature”—apart from my comfortable, practical clothing, tiny ankle tattoo, and occasional ethnic jewelry and accents.

    I’ve not repeated that hair-streak experiment, though I wonder about it from time to time. I have found a nice burgundy “chocolate cherry” all over color, and would like something even deeper, plummier. And/or maybe a return to the fuchsia streaks.

    As long as I’m still breathing, I get to define my style!

  • http://www.bradrtorgersen.com/ Brad R. Torgersen

    Wow, this is fascinating. I’ll admit that your pink hair has definitely become a calling card of sorts, and I’ve never even met you. But when I see an image pop up on the web and I see the pink hair, I instantly think of you — whether it’s a picture of you or not.

  • http://pambainbridgecowan.com Pam B-C

    Love this article. It really resonates. First, I (a fan) did find you at Norwescon because of your hair. It is such a strong brand that even in a crowd of strangers you do indeed stand out. Second, I’ve also found my trademark, which is a hat covered with con buttons that I wore at Westercon. When I asked my hubby on day two if I should wear the hat again he said, “Wear it, of course. Otherwise, how will all the people you met last night recognize you?” So now I am of the hatted set. So I can certainly relate to the hair/hat as brand. Third, I’m also of the outgoing yet introverted set. I can pretend to be sociable, but can only sustain it for a while. Getting folks to start conversations is much easier than having to start them myself. My hat seems to do the trick. Fourth, we middle-aged women must refuse to fade into the wallpaper and if pink hair, or hats, does the trick, than so be it. And finally, you’re right. You do look damn good in pink!

  • http://www.amichopine.com Ami Chopine

    The whole pink for girls thing is relatively recent, around mid 20th century. We recently got this very colorful new bed spread for our young female Japanese homestay student. She’s gone now, my 17 yr old daughter doesn’t want it. But my 7 yr old son does. My 17 yr old daughter: It’s got too much pink in it! Me: So what? He doesn’t care. He’s also sporting a butterfly tattoo today, because its Nature, and he might attract some bugs outside so he can catch them.

    Your hair is awesome.

  • http://madison-woods.com Madison Woods

    Your story was interesting. Thanks for sharing it!

  • http://twitter.com/teetate Tee Tate

    I currently have vivid purple streaks in my hair. As my time in Corporate America draws to a close, I find subverting the rules makes me feel less suffocated in my daily routine. Also, it gives me an excuse to spend the day (at the salon) away from bosses, schedules and kids. It’s joyous. Of course, pink is far cooler. :)

  • anne

    Way to rock it, Cat. This really resonated with me. I, too, just can’t wear make-up. And I, too, tend to disappear in the crowd. I am so often frustrated when people I know and like don’t remember me at all! I haven’t yet found my way to stand out. Someday.

  • http://www.terribruce.net Terri Bruce

    Great post, Cat! Yes, yes, yes to all this, though I’m terribly distressed to find that blue ages one, as I did blue for a while. Must be why I gave it up :-)

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