Breakups, Bleach, and the Beauty of Clichés

·13 min read

“Breakup or divorce?” This question came from the first stylist I consulted about dyeing my dark hair platinum blonde. It was a breakup, and, yes, I was aware of the cliché. Or the “strope,” as I’d taken to calling it, i.e., a self-aware trope. Like, say, venturing to Midtown in the hopes of transforming your appearance after your three-year relationship came to an abrupt end.

The day prior, I’d sent one of my grad school classmates a photo of myself curled in the fetal position, a weighted heating pad shelling me like a depressed turtle. We were on winter break, which meant I’d been able to dedicate approximately 75% of the last 14 days to perfecting this precise activity.

He texted back promptly: “I love how breakups turn everyone into an 80-year-old NFL player.”

I was, by all accounts, inconsolable. The only thing that helped was being distracted. And a great distraction was researching hair bleaching and going platinum blonde, something I’d always found intriguing but had brushed off as being too frivolous, too costly, and too time-consuming to ever actually try. A week into deep Google searching, I shared my newfound fixation with my mother and she—a woman who can’t apply eyeliner and who banned my sister and me from talking about looks while growing up, proclaiming that they had “no bearing on life”—was alarmingly supportive.

“I have a consultation with a stylist in two weeks,” I typed.

“Can they do it sooner??” she asked.

***

I ended up booking multiple consults. Some took place over the phone, others in hair salons with gaudy chandeliers and floating mirrors, a few over text and Instagram DMs. At one point I ventured to a warehouse turned salon a few blocks from my ex's apartment, going the long way so I wouldn’t run into him even though he was supposedly 8,000 miles away on the tropical family vacation I'd purchased a plane ticket to join months earlier. I tried not to pity myself as I skirted 18-wheelers and scrapyards, wrapped in two jackets to ward off the subzero Brooklyn chill.

A physical transformation is a shortcut, a way of signaling that you’re ready to move on, of demarcating the before from the after.

Most stylists, it seemed, were deterred by the potentially combustible duet of my tenuous emotional state and the vastness of the task: taking my virgin hair from a 2 (“darkest brown”) to a 9 (like the inside of a banana peel, I was told). I might not like the result, they warned, and walk away even more distraught, possibly even mirror-avoidant. I couldn't get a straight answer regarding how long it would take or the exact price tag.

“It’ll be a real project,” one stylist said. “Plus, the chemicals will probably kill your curls and make your hair brittle.”

At an establishment where feathery, bang-heavy mullets abounded—a trend that I had gleaned from my December 2021 Salon Tour was very in right now—the stylist caught me staring at her own business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back cut and mentioned she could give me that for a mere $120, a much cheaper and less risky move.

I don't know about less risky, I didn’t say.

Another professional tried to steer me in a different direction, literally. “You could go on vacation for the amount of money it would take to turn you blonde,” he said as if I didn’t understand how money worked. “You could buy a plane ticket to Miami and get a tan and natural highlights instead.”

But I didn’t want to be miserable in Miami; I wanted to be miserable in Brooklyn—as a blonde. I left without an appointment.

***

There’s a trope that women alter their appearances when something significant happens—the emotional writ large on the body. Nascent motherhood and menopause both call for a dramatic hair chop. Some, à la Michelle Obama in 2013, go the route of “midlife crisis” bangs. The heartbroken can choose between a breakup bod and a breakup bob. The only way to actually feel better, of course, is time. But the physical transformation is a shortcut, a way of signaling that you’re ready to move on, of demarcating the before from the after.

Some salons have capitalized on this trend. The Bird House, located in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, offers an “emo cut.” For between $85 and $155, clients who have recently gone through a breakup, birthed a human, are preparing for a new job, or have simply been ground down to a faint nub of themselves by current affairs can get a haircut that will act as “an extension of [their] current emotional state.”

Sometimes, when we’re too tired to be original, it is easier to signal something to the world and invite it to respond in kind.

But not all hair professionals actively encourage the emotionally turbulent to alter their appearance. Ebony Sims, a senior stylist at Brooklyn's Union Beauty Salon in Park Slope, says that those who come in seeking a radical change are most often trying to procure a sense of control. After comforting a few too many of the newly single turned newly shorn as they cried in her chair, though, Sims adopted a fresh policy. She now encourages smaller stylistic differences or color—which are more easily reversible—over dramatic haircuts. “If somebody wants to go crazy short,” she says. “I'm like, ‘Okay, let's start with bangs. We're going to do bangs and give you a trim. We're going to zhuzh it up and you'll feel totally different.’”

Joanna Hernandez, a nail enthusiast and founder of the brand @pocpolish, decided to get a “blonde short bob hair thing” after her own breakup in 2016. “I was hoping to feel like Beyoncé,” she says. “I'm gonna have a cute little haircut, get some attention.” Instead, the bleaching failed spectacularly and she walked away with her formerly midback length, curly black hair fried into a frizzy triangular orange bob. “I just remember feeling like I looked like Carrot Top.” She cried the entire train ride home, but now believes that the experience did help her move on. “I think it was a distraction,” she says. “Because I was so heartbroken about my hair that I didn't have time to care [about my ex].”

Prior to this, I’d never altered my appearance in any overt, semipermanent, or expensive way. I don’t have tattoos. I had never bought a luxe face cream, undergone laser hair removal, tinted my lashes, or fake-tanned. I replaced my two pieces of drugstore makeup—mascara and an eye shadow stick—every three to five years (I know). So why this uncharacteristic preoccupation?

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Luna Adler and Jesse Friedman</cite>
Courtesy of Luna Adler and Jesse Friedman

“What we're looking for after such a big heartbreak is a fresh start, a new attitude,” says Sanya Bari, LPC, founder of the School for Transformational Healing. “We're looking for new experiences. We're looking to make new choices.” Bari believes that the more overwhelming the pain, the greater the opportunity for personal metamorphosis. And while some people change their looks for unhealthy reactionary reasons—such as revenge or because their partner never wanted them to look a certain way—there are also healthier, inner-directed “response” motivations. “You're doing whatever you want to do because you love yourself so much. Because when you look inside, you notice that this is what you want,” she says, later adding that even if someone’s actions originally stem from a reactionary place, that doesn’t mean the journey can’t swerve positive along the way.

I wasn’t thriving, and I certainly wasn’t basking in an inordinate amount of self-love, but I wouldn’t have classified my interest as externally motivated, either. It was a more convoluted, inner-directed melting pot of curiosity, the need for a diversion, and my own dilettante theory that looking in the mirror and not seeing the same face that appeared in hundreds of iPhone photos beside my ex would help build new neural pathways. Which, in turn, would help me move on. Sure, I thought, clearly operating with grief-brain, $550 minimum for all of the above—why not?

***

A month after my breakup, I flew to Los Angeles for a family vacation and finally found a stylist willing to try coaxing my inky hair to a 9. It took nearly 10 hours and I had a low-blood-sugar attack around hour five. Cloaked in a tentlike smock, I sat outside, my foil-wrapped head gleaming in the West Coast sunshine, and slurped down an emergency tin of canned oysters that I’d found in the dregs of my bag. A Chihuahua skittered up and its owner, seeing me, tugged it across the street. The cars on Santa Monica Boulevard slowed to stare. It was a low moment in a series of low moments over the course of a low month. But at least I was on my way to somewhere new.

“I admire you for taking on a traditional breakup ritual,” one of my writer friends texted while I sat through hour seven, the bleach scorching my scalp. “We cannot deny ourselves clichéd simple, good things just because we have graduate art degrees.” At the very least, he hoped, the process would burn all the sadness off my head.

The urge to care for ourselves when we’re hurting is primal. The modification can be as minuscule as washing your face or as overt as permanently altering every hair follicle on your head.

In grad school, my professors talked about how the goal of a fiction writer is to “defamiliarize the familiar.” How can you describe your character making a sandwich in a way that no character has ever been described making a sandwich before?

One of the keys is to avoid clichés. But once you pause, you realize they’re more plentiful than you thought—a sort of razor-sharp verbal obstacle course threatening to cut and split you at every turn. We’re better safe than sorry. We’re at the end of our ropes. We’re sheepish, the cat’s got our tongue, we arrived in the nick of time and/or at the speed of light, we’re reading between the lines, we’re trying not to judge books by their cover, we’re cool as cucumbers, red as beets, our fucking hearts are fucking broken. These linguistic shortcuts are so widely used that they’ve been codified as rote or lazy—but they’re also useful and often true. Making the decision to say goodbye to the person you hoped would be the love of your life does make your heart feel like it’s shattering into a million pieces. Even when it’s mutual. Even when you spend 13 hours discussing it and both agree it’s probably for the best, or at least worth a try. Even when you can see that said heart must still be intact—pumping healthily, in fact—because you’re alive and unbearably aware of each and every moment you still exist.

Sometimes, when we’re too tired to be original, it is easier to signal something to the world and invite it to respond in kind.

By the time the stylist took the foil off, rinsed the toner out, dried my hair, crimped it, and flipped my chair around so I could see his work, it was 9 p.m. The pastel day had melted into a soft night and all the other customers were gone. “What do you think?” he asked.

I looked in the mirror. I thought I resembled a Dr. Suess character, with my dark eyebrows and squiggly blonde hair, but I was too tired and hungry to care. I had finally done the big and different thing that would visibly mark the line between the before and the after, between the person who thought about doing something and the person who actually did it.

“I think I like it?” I said.

***

Maybe it was the cosmic dose of sunshine, which had historically been the only antidote to my annual SAD-girl New York winter blues. Maybe it was spending time with my family. Or maybe it really was feeling like a subtly different person with my flaxen tendrils. But I did start to feel a tiny bit better after I returned to Brooklyn, a newly minted blonde.

According to Bari, this reaction makes sense psychologically—the urge to care for ourselves when we’re hurting is primal. The modification can be as minuscule as washing your face or as overt as permanently altering every hair follicle on your head. “There's a large subset of people that, when they change their look, they're forced to look in their eyes,” says Bari. “They're forced to look at their features…. It's like a witnessing. And this is more about you allowing yourself to witness you. One part of you is getting the hurt part out. And she's saying, ‘Let's make you happy. Let's love you.’”

Now that I had witnessed myself, I figured it was time for others to witness me too. I updated my photo on various apps, subbing in a polaroid of platinum me, smiling over my shoulder, a friend’s arm slung around my neck, his disembodied fingers forking into a sloppy peace sign. I was wearing a silver lamé halter bathing suit and jean shorts, but the photo was cropped in a way that made me look naked.

“You’ve never looked funner,” one of my friends said, which seemed accurate.

“I like it…” My mother was clearly less worried now, more willing to be honest. “But you don’t think you look better, do you?”

I didn’t think I looked better, but I didn’t think I looked markedly worse. I looked different, which I liked. I liked it enough that I kept touching up my roots every 8 to 10 weeks even though I was periodically sickened by the amount of money I was spending. Even though I did miss my curls, which had in fact been killed in the process, and was ashamed of how fluent I had become in the niche language of rejuvenating hair masks and sulfate-free purple conditioners.

Perhaps what I like best is the understanding that a “strope” is just a confusing way of saying cliché and that a cliché is a cliché for a reason. I like how it’s defamiliarized me to myself and how, after seven months of operating as a blonde, I’m still often startled when I clack into the bathroom first thing in the morning and glance in the mirror. Who is that? I wonder before remembering that, yes, it’s actually me. The same but different. A banana peel blonde who sometimes is and sometimes isn’t having more fun.

Luna Adler is a Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator. You can find her words, art, pro-choice postcards, long-winded comics, and slightly unhinged newsletters on her website. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter.

Originally Appeared on Glamour