You Basically Can’t Mess Up Chunky Highlights

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I love my hair. I love it when it’s shiny and smooth and straight; I love it when it has the extra oomph-y grit of chemical processing; I love when it accentuates my cheekbones, my chin, my neck, the small of my back. I love how it can completely change the way I look in different shirts, or shades of blush. (So cool!) But most of all I love that it holds no grudges. I can cut it, bleach it, dye it, curl it, neglect it, or fry it to a crisp, and yet, eventually, it’ll grow back just as healthy as ever. Hair always does.

As soon as I was allowed to make my own hair decisions, I made lots of them. I’ve tried at least 11 hair color variations, made and grew out two major chin-length chops, gave bangs a try, and, most recently, got a perm. I’ve tinted it with henna (don’t recommend) and tried to remove it with Color Oops (really don’t recommend). And then, after a bad bleach job in late 2016 that left me with a crown of ficus-y broken tufts, I decided to stop all the messing around. I let my natural color and texture grow in, slowly cutting off all the damage. Fast forward to a week ago, and my hair was like a born-again Christian: newly virgin.

And then… everything changed. I was feeling anxious, confined, dissociative, and the itch returned. But there wasn’t much I could do with my hair so dark—the rainbow tubs of Manic Panic I hoarded in my childhood bathroom wouldn’t show up on top of my natural color. I’d have to bleach it. I had to bleach it. I had never bleached my hair myself. But if not me, who? If not now, when? Hotel? Trivago. I settled on chunky face-framing highlights, a style historically associated with defiance but also, something that seemed simple enough to accomplish on my own. It was just two little pieces!

As with all impulsive decisions, mine had to be acted on quickly. I texted my mom’s local colorist and asked if he could drop off some bleach, bond-builder, and toner at my doorstep—like UberEats for hair color, if you will, replete with payment for his goods and services. My wish list: I wanted my front chunk skinnier than Dua Lipa’s but chunkier than Beyoncé’s, with a little more contrast than Gloria Steinem’s but less than the bright-white of Rogue’s. He brought over the supplies two days later. And then I just… went for it.

There are the right ways to bleach your hair, and then there is what I did! Reader, I knew better, and have no explanation for my actions other than the heat of the moment. For starters, I am aware of the importance of a strand test. (I skipped that.) That you should wear gloves the entire time while handling bleach. (I… didn’t.) You should absolutely make sure the bleach-doused strand doesn’t swing like a pendulum near your eyes and forehead, an issue I was not prepared for but eventually solved by covering the strand in one piece of tin foil, folding it up, and placing a sheet of paper towel between the foil and my skin. I kept getting little flecks of bleach on the hair surrounding my strand, and had to quickly clean them off before they processed—finally, I covered the border of dark hair with a thick coat of conditioner to prevent transfer. And though I knew from past bleaching experience the roots would lift faster than the rest of my hair, I didn’t realize just how much faster—40 minutes in, my roots looked like the inside of a banana and the rest looked like the peel. After several frantic texts and FaceTimes with my colorist, I decided to do a second round of bleach, just on the lengths, to even everything out. Another 40 minutes later I rinsed, glossed, and showered, dejected. The process left me appreciating the technical skill of colorists even more—I was sure I screwed it up.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t. Once it dried, the streak looked perfectly even with little sign of damage, proof that you really can’t go wrong. I loved how it served as instant cool-aid for a person (me) who hadn’t changed pants in three days. The bright blonde next to my face made my eyes look brighter and my cheeks warmer and, did my forehead look more balanced, or was I actually losing it?

Now that I have the streak, I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities. How will it look with clothes? Suddenly my slip dresses, vintage sweaters, and band tees feel like a whole new wardrobe. Makeup looks different on my face too, between the blonde. I’m also back in the color game: I’ve been playing with Manic Panic’s Velvet Violet, but just bought Silver Stiletto, Blue Steel, and Blue Angel to try. I could also mix the latter with my Sunshine Yellow for a Billie Eilish green! A world of new options took tomorrow, a thing I’d gotten used to dreading, and bippity-boppity-booped it into a new chance for exploration. If it looks bad, I’ll just try something else.

Deciding how your hair should look makes you feel more in control of your life: that’s true, for sure. But you know what feels even better? Remembering that, even if you mess up, even if you can’t find that control you’re looking for, it’s OK. Hair grows out. Things get damaged and they repair. I couldn’t have crafted a better metaphor if I tried.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photos via the author





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