The Root Of The Problem


It’s recently come to my attention that dark roots have reappeared as an acceptable, sought-after hair trend that people pay non-Monopoly money for. No longer seen as a faux pas to be swept under the blonde rug, roots are coming out, and they want to world to know they're not just a symptom of being too lazy/busy/broke to get to the hair salon. As I write this, I shudder to recall the great lengths I've gone, the years of paychecks squandered, to fend off my unsightly natural color. And yet, despite the thousands I've doled out to my hairdresser for emergency house calls (really what is a hair “emergency' anyway?), my personal investment pales in comparison to that of fallen starlet Jean Harlow, whose unwavering commitment to the art of natural-hair-color concealment may have ultimately proved fatal.

No, I’m not exaggerating. According to an article in the Atlantic, Harlow, coined the original 1930s “blonde bombshell' by eccentric aviator Howard Hughes, was dosed weekly by her hairdresser with a toxic combo of Clorox bleach and ammonia in order to maintain those famously luminous locks. The article speculates that the concoction could have been lethal due to the a “noxious gas' produced by the combination of harsh ingredients in Clorox, which happen to be the same ingredients currently in the cleaning product. Though vanity certainly wasn’t the only culprit in her downfall (she suffered from polio, meningitis, an adverse reaction to a wisdom tooth extraction as well as kidney disease, among a whole slew of unfortunate diagnoses), it certainly didn’t help. Needless to say, the young actress paid a high price to shine so bright. Before she succumbed to illness at the age of 26, she's quoted as having said that without her hair, “Hollywood wouldn't even know I'm alive.”

Obviously this is a worst-case scenario, and we aren’t all going out to back-alley salons and shooting our scalps up with Clorox, but it did get me thinking about my own codependence on color—and about the risks of basking in chemicals that are poisonous if ingested and make your scalp flake off and burn. Although I rationally know it's a superficial, expensive, and potentially dangerous habit, I'm far more likely to skip a checkup at the dentist than ditch a monthly rendezvous with my colorist. Bleaching fries your hair, touching it up resuscitates it. It's a vicious cycle, and it takes a beyond-your-control intervention to break it. For me, that moment came when I took a vacation, then my hairstylist took a vacation, then I got the flu, then she had to cancel 'cause she had a hot date she met on Tinder or something. By the time she was able to pencil me in, I had roots—a whole 1.5 inches of them. And I was kind of into it.

Now, if you're one of those people with root confidence, who rocks that reverse ombré like it ain’t no thing or touches up her own hair with a DIY bleach kit, more power to you. But for the rest of us platinum junkies who stay committed to eradicating of any sign of natural hair color, you’ll grasp why this was a breakthrough moment for me. Tell me if you disagree, or if I'm a total narcissist (as I've been called on the comment section of many a beauty blog before), but the presence of roots feels sort of like the presence of one's deepest, darkest flaws on display for the whole world to point and gawk at, like airing dirty laundry. There is something so calming and ego-boosting about the physical absence of them (roots and visible imperfections, that is). A sense of purity and unblemished euphoria that comes with a fresh dose of bleach. It's sort of like zapping a stain on a pair of white jeans with a Tide stick. Except, the stain has this pesky way of always finding its way back. Perfectly platinum hair is like porn for a perfectionist (and addicts do exist).

Much like Newton’s Third Law, what goes blonde must turn brown. And if for no other reason than to be kinder to my poor scalp and my bank account, I’m (becoming) OK with showing my natural color. At least a little of it. For, like, a minute before I go back to looking like a beautifully radioactive alien just beamed down from outer space. They are my roots, after all, and I can’t escape where I came from no matter how try. Or dye.

—Jane Helpern

Jane Helpern is a Los Angeles based writer and freelance creative who spends too much money on jalapeño cocktails and concealing her natural hair color.

Taylor Treadwell photographed by Emily Weiss.