When my sister and I dyed the ends of our hair pink a few summers ago, one of my male friends had been warned of this phenomenon in advance. “Every girl who dyes her hair pink is going through something,” he told us. “It’s better not to ask.” Ours was semi-permanent dye that washed out quickly, so I’m not sure what that says about our level of resilience, but I do remember how it feels to have pink hair—a tiny bit rebellious, interesting, outside the ordinary, even though a pretty significant percentage of modern Americans have a hair-dyeing phase.
I’d say that blue hair is in fact more telling than pink. Blue hair pointedly telegraphs a message. For one thing, it’s difficult to arrive at blue hair without a lot of bleaching in advance, and secondly, it’s complementary to almost no one’s complexion. So you don’t dye your hair blue like we dyed our hair pink, on a whim. You dye your hair blue because you’re making a point, because you don’t want to conform, because society has failed you in some way, because you need to have a teenage rebellion or make it clear that your steampunk clothes are intentional rather than accidental.
Generally, people dye their hair blue because they want to be nonconformists. The problem would-be nonconformists always face is that there are a set number of possibilities for being nonconformist. You can shave all your hair off like Britney Spears; you can get tattoos; you can dress all in black; but you will look at least like Britney Spears or everyone else with tattoos or all the ninjas and stage hands out there. Gen Z and the millennial generation have attempted to get around the oxymoronic element of nonconformism with a healthy dose of irony, but it turns out that irony has the same homogenizing tendency. Being a VSCO girl or being obsessed with tiny mustaches or treating everything with ironic detachment have all been done many times before. And there are a lot of people with blue hair.
On the other hand, IKEA, a Scandinavian furniture (and everything) store that still carries the same children’s plastic cups that I used when I was four, appears to be all about conformism. There were IKEA cups at the coffee shop I worked at when I was 23 and there were IKEA cups at my grandma’s house I visited last week. IKEA furnishes almost everyone’s first-time apartment and also furnishes many hours of productive or unproductive frustration.
Like many middle-class fixtures, IKEA is fundamentally aspirational. Particleboard and plastic cups aren’t always aspirational on the surface—but they are here. For one thing, items in IKEA are always arranged into little rooms—beautiful but budgetable kitchens with knit farmers’ market bags hanging from pegs, tiny one-room apartments with fake city views.
The customer has a carefully-orchestrated experience of the store. First, you walk through all the rooms. You can imagine yourself in those rooms, living the lives they depict. Then you round the corner and are faced with a vast wilderness of variations on themes—cutting boards in primary colors, glass bottles of different sizes, fake plants that look like real plants and real plants that look like fake plants. At the end, you face the tremendous warehouse of pure potentiality (and are reminded if you want any of these cute little pieces of furniture you will need to assemble it yourself from a flat box). But through all of these twists and turns you have those visions of the tiny rooms before you. You can move through the shelves of flatware and bump-and-dent section of unintelligible lamps with confidence, with an imaginative framework for an individuated life.
Now that I’m living in a house of my own, I know that this kind of vision is what makes a house yours—you sort through the clearance section of Walmart and the estate sales that you stood in the rain for and your grandmother’s neighborhood thrift store to assemble something that means something to you particularly. Like dyeing your hair pink, what it means to you may be ineffable, unexplainable. But just like assembling a life, you’re curating something that is specifically yours out of a set number of possibilities.
Yes, everybody else in my friend group does have that IKEA lamp. But they don’t have it perched on the edge of the piano, next to a brass lion from an antique store and a long narrow mirror from a Gage Goods warehouse sale. Behind their IKEA lamp there isn’t a vinyl record emblazoned with the enigmatic title L’UNIVERSE that they have never played even though the record player is literally right there. My interior decor is a story about things that specifically happened to me, about someone leaving a vinyl record in the “free books” section of a coffee shop where I worked, dazed and demoralized, the year before I got a Fulbright and could afford to go abroad and get the PhD I was dreaming of.
Dyeing your hair blue is in the same spirit as finding a lamp at IKEA. It’s attempting, by carrying out something that in itself is conformist, to become something specific. To become an individual is maybe just amalgamating a hundred thousand things that have all been done before. You never will really be autonomous and self-determining, but the fact that you try to be—that you go around IKEA and believe in the pretty rooms, that you buy the box of hair dye—means that you are willing to join a long line of optimistic human beings trying to build unique lives with limited materials. In that process of becoming an individual, you may realize that the more you want to be independent the more you must depend on everyone else.
Come back in two weeks: for a patron-only post on why hockey is like morning pages.
We are trying: something new. Let me know your thoughts on this new Monday posting schedule!
In honor of: the new year, a book recommendation: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which sounds like it’ll be hacky, and is instead (at least so far) the opposite of that: earnest and at times profound. It’s a classic example of something that I would have read a long time ago if I had thought it was original and cool of me to do so, and it turns out it’s great even though everyone else likes it. The sci-fi-style soundtrack of my audiobook version (read by the author) is an added bonus.
Very creative. Liked the part about dying your hair pink.