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Everything to Know About Hair Dyeing When You're Not White

Two women of color walk into a hair salon...

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Monica and I are deeply attuned, so of course we had the same stylistic whim at the same time: We wanted to dye our hair — and dye it bright, fashionable colors. In her case, electric blue; in mine, lavender.

Neither of us had dyed our hair any kind of crazy color before, and looking through the pages of dyed hair on nearby salon websites or Instagrams, we realized none of the people featured as hair-dyeing examples had hair anything like ours.

Compared to the hair in those pictures, my hair is very thick and black, while Monica has a soft, fine afro. After a while, we realized that despite the very big trend of dyed hair, neither of us knew really where to look or who to ask for recommendations. And personally, I was not interested in dyeing my hair at home — I had a friend with hair as dark as mine who dyed her hair at home, and it took her three bleachings to get it light enough. Considering my hair was much thicker than hers, I could tell this was not going to be a simple or quick process.

On Twitter, beauty editor Sam Escobar directed us to Cameron Glover, a black writer with several jewel-toned colors in her afro.

“Almost every black woman that I know will tell you that hair for us is highly personal,” Glover told me. “Your hairdresser is a member of the family and a trusted friend, it’s such a personal connection.” She told me about going to Adina Sutton in Winter Park, Florida, for her color, who had previously worked with Glover’s mother and grandmother. “We all have such different textures and hair needs, but Adina does such an incredible job for all of us.”

Upon hearing this, I admit to feeling a twinge of jealousy — while my mother has certainly had loyalty to hairdressers, I haven’t. Even when I’ve liked a haircut, I have a tendency to be so uncomfortable immediately after a cut that hairdressers would offer a discount just to try and soothe me. This did not inspire either of us to keep in touch, so I didn’t have anyone I trusted to do my hair.

“When I change colors, it usually takes about six hours in the salon to get the color applied right and styled,” Glover explained further. “But since I’ve been blue for quite a while and I normally just get touch-ups when I’m in town, sessions are usually just two hours.”

Since a trip to Florida wasn’t possible for Monica or me, Glover suggested we speak to the people at the Paul Labrecque salon in New York. “They were really great about me asking a bunch of questions before the appointment to make sure that they knew how to address the needs of my hair type without ruining its health.” Glover said she recommended this type of extensive vetting to any woman or non-binary person of color looking to find a new hairdresser.

Based on that recommendation, Monica and I made a consulting appointment and met with Nikki Mecker, a colorist of 21 years.

“The first step would be to bleach,” she said, assessing both of our hair. “You have to use a bleach with pre-lightener, and lighten up the hair to be very, very light. There are new products out that we are testing right now... someone just used it last week, where a purple can go straight on top of dark hair. But that came out extremely subtle. Extremely subtle.”

However, Mecker also cautioned against dyeing all our hair. “When it's what we call ‘crazy colors,’ like your blues and your violets and your greens, you don't tend to do it full head.” In particular, she told me she didn’t think a full head of lavender would suit me. “With this amount of hair and the way you wear it, it's not going to look at its best. With something like what you have, I would just go over pieces and tip the ends.”

While Monica’s hair was curlier, she explained its fineness was what would factor into how to lighten it. Mecker also said that she’d work on Monica’s hair as is, not straightened, so as to place the color “exactly to frame the face, to frame the haircut, to show off the layers." She explained that this would look good on straight hair as well as Monica’s natural curl: "If you do wear your hair curly 90 percent of the time, there's always that 10 percent when it is straight.”

Mecker told Monica specifically that she had a colleague at Paul Labrecque named Layla with an afro like Monica’s, but with the blue tips Monica wanted. She also straightened her hair and found, according to Mecker, that her straightened dyed hair was a “very different look” compared to her curly dyed afro. “When it's curly and bold, it looks more randomly placed. When it's blow-dried smooth, it looks more like a placement of highlights.”

Monica asked about chemically straightened hair, and Mecker said that lightening wouldn’t be an option for someone who’d done that. “Anyone with chemically straightened hair, you cannot use a pre-lightener on. It's too damaging for the hair.”

Mecker guessed it might take an hour or so to bleach my hair, but when I actually got it done, it took about two hours to bleach the tips.

I had actually gone in for a consult at a salon near me, and had been shocked at their response. “You’d definitely have to come in for multiple bleachings,” they said, holding up a lock of my hair. They quoted a price that, with tips, was almost twice my budget. When I told them I wanted lavender, their expressions made me hot with embarrassment. “It would be really hard to go for a cool color with how dark your hair is,” they explained. “A warmer color like rose would be much easier.”

So instead, I ended up getting my hair done with Amber Sermeno, a co-owner at Down at Lulu’s, a thrift store and salon in Oakland, California. While all that might’ve been true, the other salon’s reaction, based on my experiences with Amber, was somewhat unwarranted.

Unlike Mecker, who suggested a special color shampoo to take home after, and Glover, who went in for touch-ups, Amber suggested I pick up a $7 bottle of Manic Panic to play with my hair colors. “Basically, you're paying for the lightening that you're going to live with after this. You're going to have this pale yellow color any which way, and you can have one color hair one week, and then change the color the next.” However, to make this color last, she said to just make sure it was color-safe. “With shampoo, you just want to get the scalp anyway, you don't really want to shampoo the ends. That will give your color a little bit more life.” She suggested Kevin Murphy shampoo in particular, and used it on my hair throughout the process.

We only bleached my hair once, though Amber said we could’ve gone for two. “It looks like your hair is pretty healthy, and it could handle it,” she explained beforehand. “I'm going to use my strongest developer to lift you in one shot.” Amber experimented with the blues and pinks to make a deep, rich violet that would fade to my preferred lavender over time.

Overall, the process took eight hours over two days. (I was so not kidding about how thick my hair is.) It was a relatively painless process, considering. I realized, as I joked and talked to Amber over that time, that I had put more thought into choosing this person than I had even put into certain people I’d dated or befriended. I told her, truthfully, that it had been my best hairstyling experience ever.

There are a few other side effects of the dyed hair, besides my newfound loyalty. First, my bleached hair is surprisingly more easy to tangle, though that is not necessarily that different in texture from the rest of my hair. It’s just that the tips can really stick together. (Argan oil overnight helps.) Second, while I was expecting to see dark violet dye making streaks in the tub, leaving my hair like a bad spirit, I was not expecting the looks.

“I definitely get more looks now with the hair — which is its own mixed bag, I guess,” explained Glover when I asked her about it. “I’m more introverted, so sometimes the attention genuinely freaks me out, but I try not to overthink it.”

It’s really surreal, though — especially when I’m walking in sunlight and my hair glows purple like something out of a Marvel movie, people will look at me a beat too long. It’s nice when, say, random women smile at me, but once I went into a café and a long line of people just stared at me in unison.

I guess dyeing my hair seems attention-seeking, in a way. But that’s not why I was interested in doing it. Instead, I thought of something else Glover said to me: “Dyeing my hair was so important to me because... how I see myself in my head now matches how I see myself on the outside.”


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