Mermaid Hair by Edith Hope Bishop
Recently, I visited a beloved childhood friend in Florida. I hadn’t seen her in several years and was nervous about what she might say when we reunited. She’s famously honest, and has a certain way of putting things that makes her sentiments stick. When we were kids she told me that I had “a bottom lip worth a million bucks” but also that I had “shit for hair”. This time I guessed she would comment on my aging appearance. She’d probably say something about my lack of make-up and prolific fine wrinkles etched into my pale, Seattle sun-deprived skin, or the bags under my eyes. I braced myself for something like, “Time catches up with all of us, eh?” or “Where’s that pretty girl I used to know?” Instead, as we hugged, and I marveled at her bronze skin and ageless strength, she pulled back and scanned me. She chuckled, her dark eyes sparkling, and said, “Blue hair? What are you, twelve?”
My hair isn’t entirely blue. It’s a dirty blonde (okay brown), but there are two large swaths of blue on either side of my face. They’ve been there for the past few years and this color has become so much a part of my identity that I often forget it’s there. My hair, as far as I’m concerned, is supposed to be blue. It was always supposed to be blue.
Growing up in Miami, I was one of very few tow-headed part-Scandinavian kids in my neighborhood. I’m not going to whine about this because for every tease I got for being a gringa, I also received a compliment. I get that hair is currency. I get that blonde hair is, in much of American pop culture, sometimes worth more than its weight in gold. Nevertheless, like so many little girls, I hated my hair with a passion. It was too thin, too oily, too wispy, too flat. I wanted thick gorgeous locks. I wanted magical, always lush and wavy, model hair. I wanted to look like Kim Bassinger in Batman. I looked more like, I don’t know, an ailing Macaulay Culkin. No, that’s too generous. A knobby stick someone scraped across a cotton ball.
My mother, in allegiance to her vaguely Swedish but entirely Midwestern upbringing, kept my hair short, very short, until I turned twelve. I then became, in no uncertain terms, her worst nightmare and refused to cut my hair at all. I also wore blood red lipstick for an entire summer. (Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman had apparently eclipsed dear ol’ Vicki Vale.)
From then on I liked my hair better. When I swam, I could make it billow behind me and pretend it was more full. When I spent time on it, it could sort of look thicker, maybe? Maybe. Mostly I wore it back in a messy bun because I was too busy chasing dreams (okay boys) to learn anything helpful about products and curling irons.
And then I grew up, and then I became a mom, and then, one day, I found myself looking in the mirror and missing something. In many ways, at thirty five, I felt more myself than ever before. I knew my loves, my losses, and my dreams with a clarity that only comes from time on the planet, or intense experience, or both. I’d recently survived bouts of grief and significant life and career changes. I’d resurfaced after deep dives and it was good, even miraculous, to be alive. So what I think I missed, looking in the mirror that day, was the whimsy and the magic of little me. The ability to giggle at myself. I needed change and color, and my hair seemed a good place to experiment.
I knew I shouldn’t try any dye stunts on my own. My (then new) hair stylist heard my request, measured my inexperience, and colored my hair a subtle ash blue that blended like silver into my natural hair color. I remember when she handed me a mirror and asked me what I thought, I struggled with my impulses to be “no trouble” and “not too fussy”. Finally, and with more apology than was probably necessary, I told her that I had hoped for a much brighter, even surprising blue. A girlish blue. Mermaid blue. She dyed it again, and you better believe it was blue. Damn near cobalt.
Since then, I can assure you there’s plenty about my life and my days that need work. One cosmetic change did not suddenly leave me happy and wise in all the ways I’d been missing. Still, when I dyed my hair blue, another small part of me clicked into place. I felt a little bit more like me. Pushing forty and rockin’ mermaid hair: I can only hope that this is what aging gracefully is all about.
Edith Hope Bishop is a writer, volunteer, and mother. She taught for several years in a high needs public high school in Seattle, WA. She is most at home near, on, or in any body of salt water.