Bright or Blight

There is something strange about being old enough to see fashion recycling itself. I have a degree in fashion design, so I have been finding myself acutely aware of the fact that people half my age are now wearing reissued platform sandals and overalls.

I’m thirty and despite growing up on an island a few hours from Seattle I missed grunge. I don’t remember the kids in my school having many options in terms of fashion, my high school wasn’t awash with much style diversity. A lot of us wore whatever odd second hand clothes we could come by, and even those that seemed to linger on the fringes of the social structure typically didn’t make it all the way into the realm of “goth”.

I was infatuated with punk rock and found myself seeking out skinny jeans before they became a staple. I listened heavily to the Clash as a teenager and, bored with the social norms I had grown accustomed to every day, began dying my hair in bright, new, interesting colors.

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Me at the Denver Art Museum in 2003, Photo by Michael Putlack

 

That was a lot for a small rural town to handle at the time and every day I was greeted politely by someone telling me I didn’t belong. To be fair, they usually said, “you ought to be living in the city!” but no matter how it was phrased, I knew that we agreed on something: I didn’t quite fit where I was.

Experiencing the budding effects of bipolar disorder and psychosis in my teens made it hard for me to see a place for myself among my peers and as funny as it might sound, dying my hair orange (or blue, or pink, or green) was one of the only ways I felt like I could express that. Trying to avoid how different I felt, how much I felt like I didn’t fit in only acted as fuel for my depression and a little hair dye went a long way in helping me accept those differences and realize that being myself was something worth doing.

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Living in Seattle the last ten years and working in the fashion industry in particular has meant seeing all kinds of trends come and go, both in style and in my own life. Some seasons I am happy about some cute boots and sweaters, some seasons I am happy with where I fit in the world. Other seasons everything in stores is mustard yellow (which is crap for my complexion), other seasons I find myself hating Seattle. The city has been tumultuous that way, and every March I tell myself I can’t stand anothe Seattle winter… but here I am.

I gave up the neon colored hair almost nine years ago. It was hard to keep up as a broke student and then, even working in fashion, it wasn’t something that was exactly welcomed when the economic crisis hit in 2008. Making my departure from the fashion realm didn’t pave the way for brilliantly colored hair either, there were no studies I could point to that suggested pink hair might sell more condos.

Somewhere in the interim I slipped back down into depression first, and then found myself with post traumatic stress disorder after a slough of unwelcome male attention. It seemed to be something that was all around me, coming from bosses and strangers and people I couldn’t seem to get away from. I found myself wanting to fold myself up like a tiny note and hide in a crack somewhere. I was having so many panic attacks that I had to wear sunglasses on the bus in an effort to hide the fact that I was crying most of the time.

So even when it began, when the citizens of Seattle began showing up more and more with brightly colored hair, it wasn’t something I could celebrate. I was too busy hiding to be willing to put a neon sign on my head, too busy wanting to be invisible.

That hesitation followed me for several years. I felt too afraid of the police, too afraid of anyone noticing how agitated I might be at any moment, how aggressive I might seem without realizing it, how manic I might be acting to feel like drawing attention to myself. I obliterated my wardrobe in an effort to remain unseen, packing anything noteworthy up in boxes or giving it to charity. I became an expert at blending in, even when I found myself so overcome by my symptoms of bipolar disorder, PTSD, & psychosis I was only really blending in with the rampant population of those living with mental illness on the streets in Seattle.

I told this to my therapist a few weeks ago and she seemed confused by the idea that I didn’t want to be seen, she kept asking why I would be afraid of people looking at me and if I was always afraid of attention from other people. Instead of try to explain how much anonymity has eased my anxiety about a local police force with a poor track record regarding those with mental illness and the expanse of men who have always seemed to believe that I owe them something simply for existing I revised my statement to say that so many people are dying their hair “just because” that it didn’t feel punk rock anymore.

Gross, I feel gross for saying that. At this point doing something because it is in fashion is not enough to motivate me, but not doing something just because everyone else is doing it is something I find equally disturbing. I don’t want trends or what people want or expect to play into the decisions I make about what I wear or how I look or the confidence I feel in myself. I want the freedom to look however I want, and even though chipping away at my own anxiety is what will eventually help me tear through all of that (though hypomania seems to work too) it is important to me to work toward doing what I want, regardless of any other opinion.

You know, when the idea came up of changing my hair again I really wrestled with it. I had so many excuses not to, I didn’t want to relive the past (heck, I’d already done every color), I didn’t want to spend the money, I didn’t like the idea of people looking at me… but ultimately I had nothing to lose (well, except hair and mine grows so fast it would only be a travesty for a month or two). Without remembering the sense of peace it gave me the first time around, the confidence, the comfort, I had a hypomanic sort of upswing a few weeks ago and just let it happen.

It’s true the fashion police in my head were in an uproar (“you’re just trying to recapture your youth!” they cried furiously) but something funny happened that I didn’t expect. I didn’t revert to a past version of myself, I just found her in one of the deep recesses of my mind reading John Irving. I tapped into her sense of levity and found that I feel more like myself than I have in several years. That might sound goofy, the idea that orange hair could produce such an outcome, but I find that I’m remembering what it was like back before I felt the need to hide all the time.

Whatever I thought might happen when people looked at me, well it hasn’t. Heads haven’t exploded, I haven’t had strangers trying to talk to me every five minutes, and I haven’t been approached by dozens of creepy stalker suitors because even though my hair is different, that isn’t the key. I am different too. I am older, yes, but also wiser. It has been important for me to realize that I don’t need to hide from unwanted attention, I am strong enough and capable enough to deal with it when it comes, even if there are times I don’t feel that way.

 

 

 

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