The week Victoria desperately launched itself into social isolation, each of us suddenly shared the same project: to seal ourselves off from the outside world. Some were apprehensively inspired, convinced that we were simply swapping some freedoms for others. Cakes were baked, books were dog-eared, distant relatives were called, and many were naively convinced that we were all just experiencing some kind of state-sanctioned sabbatical, permission to ‘catch up’ on solitude and all of its rejuvenating benefits. In a capitalist system obsessed with productivity, we had to pay homage to the time we were given, had to prove our worth somehow.
Others wanted to change. To experiment. When seclusion is granted, the scope to play with one’s appearance is large and exciting. Local chemists started placing makeshift, cardboard shelves full of bleach and colour kits at their storefronts, and friends started posting photos of their shaved or multihued heads online.
With a bleached head (… and eyebrows), I became some kind of alien prototype of the woman I once was.
When seclusion is granted, the scope to play with one’s appearance is large and exciting.
Shadows fell on my face in peculiar ways, ways that I wasn’t used to. I kept telling myself that with a little bit of mascara and blush, everything would feel, look, appear better. That I’d be able to make up for my appearance in soft and sweet brush strokes. That perhaps it was a good thing, something of a character building exercise, and that in the future, there will be a self-assured, older version of me who smugly shows her make-believe children the selfies she took during isolation, boasting to them about how she covered her face and head in peroxide the year everybody retreated into their homes, timidly. Despite never wanting children, this narrative soothed my discomfort. It made my mission to bleach my head (and face) feel like some kind of collaboration, in the same way that writing a letter to a future self and tucking it into an underwear drawer is a hopeful experiment. If, for nothing else, it at least reminded me that there is a future.
I am no stranger to experimenting with my appearance. I have shaved my head a handful of times, dyed my hair a smorgasbord of colours, entertained a terrible smattering of fringes for different occasions. I have sported regrettably kitsch and dangly jewellery, which hung from my belly button in my teens, my septum in my early 20s, and even—most recently—my lip. (In my defence I had just gone through a break-up, and accidentally stumbled across a photo of Cara Delevingne sporting a petite, silver lip ring as she shuffled away from paparazzi, forgetting—for a second too long—that I am not Cara Delevingne. Chipping my bottom teeth on my new stud before ripping it out altogether was a humbling reminder.)
But experimenting with my appearance in isolation felt different. Perhaps because people weren’t looking.
The ‘self’ as something we actively strive to perfect is no new phenomena. Women have long been expected to enhance—or at least maintain—ourselves. It’s a social fact so tired and clear-cut, it feels tedious to even mention in 2020. But in amidst a global pandemic, one that requires we cocoon ourselves in our homes, there’s no time or space to honour the expectations bestowed on women by the outside world. We have greater projects now, as does the outside world itself, which scrounges around for some kind of economic and social resuscitation while we remain housebound. As the overhang of a tired, patriarchal gaze starts to disappear from sight and all we are left with are our own eyes, we are able to reimagine ourselves. And the ‘self’ I imagine at the moment is a washed-up Yolandi Visser with brassy tufts of hair and questionable regrowth.
Over social media, I can control the reception. I can remain the way I looked before isolation.
To assume that we are only ever ‘seen’ exclusively in public is to forget about the other places we occupy, like the internet. It’s not as if others haven’t seen my new brows or commented on the measly black hairs sprouting from my face on pixelated Zoom calls, and there have been strange and embarrassing moments of angst that have hit me at odd times, reminders that I haven’t posted a photo of myself in a while, that my mother doesn’t know about my peroxide operation. But over social media, I can control the reception. I can remain the way I looked before isolation. As far as Zuckerberg is concerned, as well as distant aunties with unsolicited opinions and an enormous love of Facebook stickers, my brows are dark brown still. During isolation, there have been hair fads that have remained undocumented, in much the same way I have kept a smattering of panic attacks and existential crises offline, too.
If massaging oil into my brittle brows during isolation has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t owe anybody my appearance, and that there is something deeply comforting about being able to experiment wildly with bleach and scissors in my state-sanctioned cocoon. Hair, like all things, grows and changes. It will be back to ‘normal’ again, whatever the hell that is. It, and the rest of the world.
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