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The Incandescent Purpose of Purple


Recently Dave, an older friend of mine, asked me in a concerned undertone why a mutual friend – a much younger woman – colored her hair the way she did. That is to say, in all kinds of unnatural shades and hues usually seen only on God’s more splendiferous creations. Like parrots and peacocks.

I told Dave that nothing was wrong with our young friend: weird haircuts and multi-colored hair was a big fad in the city – lots of people did it. It was just self-expression.

But, in fact, I felt my explanation was incomplete. It put me in mind of the first time I ever saw somebody with rainbow-colored hair, in the late 1970s. I was in lower Manhattan, in a Soho deli, when I caught sight of a willowy young woman with short hair in fluffy tufts of blue, purple, yellow and green. She looked like a parrot. She even had a beaky kind of nose. She caught me staring at her. It was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen. “I love your hair,” I mouthed across the space between us. She laughed and blew me a kiss before walking out the door.


Long after I first saw parrot plumage on a human head, I became a regular at the hair-dye parlor, but I’ve never had the urge to go purple. I am very happy merely returning to shades of my youth. Still, I love seeing tropical-colored hair and I’m glad it has persisted – or maybe recurred – as a trend.

Breaking and entering is the M.O. of hair coloring – an assault on the natural fiber causing permanent restructuring. Ammonia opens up each hair, which is made of the protein keratin. Inside the hair shaft, two types of melanin (eumelanin and pheomelanin) create natural hair color depending on their proportions and overall bounty. Peroxide strips the melanin of its color; then other chemicals (not actual pigments) combine with each other inside the hair shaft to create the new refractory hue. A conditioner gently closes and locks the shaft and voila – the new house of me!


Isn’t it something amazing that we can restructure nature as we do? That we can alter the fundamental nature of nature itself? What power! What a showoff! What fun! Isn’t it amazing that in the late 1800s, William Henry Perkin started the hair color industry when he tried to make quinine out of coal tar and instead of curing malaria, he produced mauve?

What I wanted to tell Dave is that sometimes we need to recreate ourselves. Sometimes the very banality of an ordinary life needs a shout of “Here I am,” and “It really is more than what we thought it was.” Sometimes we want to cloak our heads in sunsets, like Grace of the apricot hair, whose head gracefully bending in line ahead of me makes me think of the clouds breaking over the western hills at eight o’clock on a summer evening; or like Bruno in the subway, getting ready to return to Brazil, whose black curls shimmer with the blue edge of almost dark when fireflies are just coming out; or Kalyani, whose defiant Mohawk tilts back like a peacock, its glistening neck arching under its strange cry.


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