In early March, I got an email that at the time felt as devastating as coming down with COVID-19, a virus that was still somewhat enigmatic: my hair salon wouldn’t be open until mid-May. Then May came and went and the salon remained shuddered. A gloomy June passed, and July and August went by in a blink as the nation underwent a racial reckoning and Los Angeles County’s virus infection rate continued to surge. Finally, on the cusp of Labor Day Weekend, Los Angeles County officials allowed salons to reopen (if they followed certain protocols, including limiting capacity to 25 percent, maintaining social distancing, and requiring employees and customers to wear masks). In a press conference, L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said the decision to reopen hair salons and barbershops was based on the county’s data trends, along with what the county learned during previous reopenings. I obviously wanted to be part of the solution, but why did L.A. hair (and nail) salons bear the burden of bringing down the numbers? At the time, I felt like I’d done my time. I wanted my blond back.
We all hung on to some “thing” when we realized we would be locked down for an indefinite amount of time. Maybe your “thing” was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup like your mom used to make, reconnecting with ex-boyfriends on Facebook, or re-watching The Office. My thing was hair. Specifically, Balayage, a French technique where blonde highlights are artfully painted onto the hair to create a beachy, sun-kissed look. My long, highlighted, ginger locks that matched my freckles had been my signature look for 25 years, and obsessing over it became something of a pandemic pastime.
I spent my first 20 years accompanying my beauty queen mom to Betty’s Mode de France in Houston, Texas, where the mantra was the blonder, the bigger, the better, Yes, I’m OK with product. “More hair spray, please” is what I learned while watching her coppery auburn get teased, tousled and sprayed aggressively with Elnet. Getting my “hair did” was not just a right, it was a responsibility.
I’d never gone more than eight weeks without getting my highlights touched up and that was a stretch. When my natural color—an ashy version of a mousy brown—made itself known, I got cranky. Good hair was my religion.
So, after a month in quarantine, I felt desperate. Much like the people who caused DIY hair color to spike 23 percent in the first quarter vs. 2019, I took things into my own hands, but I took a slightly different approach. I stalked my colorist.
“You can’t mix the color yourself,” Kadi said after I emailed, left three voicemails, and slid into her DMs. Kadi, the owner of Highbrow Hippie on the stylish, beach-adjacent Abbot Kinney and colorist to stars, was an artist and took her work very seriously. “My blonds will have to wait,” she informed me.
I was willing to socially distance, work from home, wait in line at grocery stores for hours, and wear a mask, but I wasn’t sure how I would go back to my roots. Obsessing about my hair when the world was falling apart made no sense. And I couldn’t tell anyone. I felt ashamed for caring. But I wasn’t new to self-criticism. It had been my best friend growing up, beginning when I was an awkward 13-year-old with a mouth full of metal and plain-Jane brown hair.
Yet after a lifetime of filling my insides by fixating on my outsides, which left me a miserable shell of myself, I dismantled the Texas-sized belief that my appearance was my most valuable currency. I gave up my dearest companions—the scale, fat free yogurt, my thigh gap, and male approval—and replaced it with meditation, morning pages, and embodied affirmations in order to learn that my insides were what I had to offer the world—and they were more beautiful than any blond highlights. Then COVID started chipping away at my healthy, readjusted outlook.
What made my hair obsession even worse was that after my rebirth, if you will, I publicly chronicled my journey from self-loathing to self-love on Instagram. As a self-proclaimed self-love advocate, I was supposed to have it together. My mantras were “you are enough” and “screw perfect.” Certainly, I had done the soul searching necessary to deal with some root growth. Hadn’t I?
I don’t think my stylist understood that I mainlined the “just stepped out of the hair salon feeling” like addicts mainline heroin. I knew my blond gave me confidence and, in many ways, was the cost of entry to a life where I felt beautiful. But what I didn’t predict was how lost and out of control I would feel without it.
As the pandemic continued to alter our daily lives, all of the ways I made myself feel beautiful were suddenly off limits. My fingernails were naked; my toenails, usually coated in lilac gel polish, were suddenly au naturel, discolorations and all. My down-there hair reintroduced itself as a fluffy bush even mousier than my roots. The worst thing was I could see European Wax from my front door in Marina Del Rey. Alas, they were closed too. And a ten pack of Brazilians waited while a jungle grew inside my panties.
As the months wore on, I was looking rough and feeling even worse. Who would I be if I weren’t the bubbly Cali blond by way of Texas that everyone knew me to be? I wasn’t sure because I had never met that woman. From my perspective, she wasn’t worth being seen in my own mirror, much less on a Zoom call for the world to see. It was a lot harder to love myself looking like this.
Although it was disturbing to realize how integral my hair was to my self-worth, I wasn’t surprised. Life got good and my practice took a back seat to the blessings that “waking up” gave me. My morning pages were hit or miss. Setting daily intentions were non-existent. Meditation was no longer sacred, mostly happening in my car. In the self-love world, they call it “spiritual bypassing.” Simply put: I was coasting.
Each morning, I realized I had been participating in the almost unconscious habit of looking to my reflection to determine my mood. Were my eyes red? Was my face swollen? Even after ten hours of sleep, my broken perspective would convince me that I looked tired. I’m not sure when I fell into this newfangled self-evaluation ritual, but it fueled the old belief that my worth was rooted in my physical self—that I was merely “a thing” to be seen.
So, I did something very L.A.: I hired a captivating, loving, and truly spiritual-AF model-turned-coach from Topanga to help me level up my self-love game. And we started with mirror work. I started by writing everything about myself that I deemed unworthy. My roots were first, my hereditary jowls and hood eyes… I held nothing back. Next, I created declarations of love that connected to my being, such as, “I love your vulnerability, I love your resilience, I love that you’re doing this work.”
For two months and three minutes a day, I stared deeply into my eyes and, uncomfortable as it felt, professed love for the “me” I had ignored. I cried every time but forged on. And, slowly, the hateful voices quieted.
Four months into quarantine, I stopped fighting my roots. My natural hue was my new normal and I liked it. It made me more human. More like the teenage girl I was before external pressures got the best of me.
Most importantly, I forgave myself for the destructive self-criticism. I understood that tracking down hair color and keeping score in the mirror helped me feel in control amidst the helplessness and existential unknowns of COVID.
And my roots, well, they were just hair.
Aubree Nichols is a self-love advocate and writer.
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