On "benefits hair"

CONTENT WARNING – This article briefly mentions suicide (in the context of dismissing campus libertarians' shitty beliefs).

My hair was a warmed-up cotton candy pink—the kind of pink we’ve come to call millennial—in June 2015. At that point, I had been finished school for two months, and I was a season into a year of free haircuts and colour treatments after being a hair model for my stylist’s entry in the Wella TrendVision competition. I was about a month away from landing a contract with the Green Party’s head office during the Canadian general election (so, four months away from that election’s Pyrrhic victory over the CPC). For five years, I had been taking antidepressants and The Pill.

The afternoon I got my hair dyed pink (and my side cut and bangs touched up), I meant to stop by the university pharmacy to fill one of those prescriptions. I can’t remember if I went that same day, or if I waited for a bit and refilled the 'script a little late. I recall walking down a hill on campus, glancing at my reflection in the pharmacy’s panel window, then walking right back up that hill, because I had imagined that my new hair, combined with my status as a Trillium Drug Plan recipient, would make an unfavourable impression on the pharmacist. I had "benefits hair" — that is, I had a designer hairstyle that belied or contradicted my lower-income status, outing me as a squanderer of taxpayers’ money.

We’ve seen this argument play out on social media recently: Jason Chaffetz, in defence of the House Republicans’ plot to repeal the Affordable Care Act, suggested that hard-up Americans would have more money for health care if only they would stop buying shiny new iPhones; Twitter reminded Chaffetz that healthcare expenses typically far outstrip the cost of an iPhone and cell plan. Not to say that Chaffetz’s argument would be well-received by radical types in 2015, but I remember hearing from my peers more arguments for spartanness a few years ago. Maybe we were poorer or broker. Maybe we were overeager to (rightly) criticize liberal feminism for encouraging expensive or otherwise-inaccessible methods of self-care and self-expression. It was a weird sentiment, coming from a set of self-described tenderqueers.

All the same, let’s examine the meaning of my hair. Despite the popularity of funky dye jobs this decade, pastel- or neon-coloured hair might suggest a person who has no job, hence no overbearing dress code to follow—or, on the flipside, might suggest someone who’s well-heeled enough, working at a hip & with-it startup, that their dyed hair is trendy. I was decidedly the former. Explications of millennial pink's ubiquity are desperate to call the colour gender-neutral, unlike bluer-toned 'girly' pinks. Evidently, hair dye fades, so a pink dye job, of all colours, might scream frivolity. Cultural aspects of pink notwithstanding, dark hair demands more time and money to lighten. And I’m white, so there’s a whole other dimension of hair politics that I’m missing. (Editor's note: I had to link that article because #TooReal - EB)

Here’s the thing about my situation: you must apply for the Trillium Drug Plan as a household, so I was like the opposite of a wealthy legacy student. My parents (hairstylists, in fact) and I had belonged to this program for at least a decade. The specific prescriptions I took—pills to ward off craziness and pregnancy—compounded my insecurity about my status. To some, like the campus libertarian types, I must have looked like a straw-woman Tumblrina, needing social assistance and special-snowflake hair dye to keep me from getting knocked up or suicidal. Usually, I’d take pride in being a sort of outcast. How can you do otherwise with pink hair? That year's TrendVision contest exhorted stylists to create lived-in looks; I don't think they'd invite me onstage with unwashed-yet-faded hair after a low period in terms of mood, executive function, and cash.

It got better, though. I see reminders on Facebook that we’re wrong to call self-care a necessary praxis for wealthy people but a frivolity for poor folks. Ontario’s pharmacare program will soon make prescription meds free for people under 25. I’m training to be a teacher of English as a second language, so my earning prospects have improved since 2015, but this career path leaves me less room for fun hair colours. I’m mostly my natural dark brunette now, with a blonde ombre holdout on the longer side of my asymmetrical cut. For all of 2016, I let my natural colour grow out, not strictly for fear of hypervisibility, but for reasons of professionalism and cultural respect. For example, many schools in Japan forbid students from colouring their hair, so teachers themselves will often avoid unnatural dye jobs. I don’t need dark roots over bleached hair outing me as a delinquent when my attitude reveals as much!

But for all of 2015, I had the chance to play with dye jobs. I volunteered at a music festival and showed up to the afterparty with rainbow-coloured hair (thank fuck I didn’t yawn in Technicolor after they let us drink our fill of unsold booze). I was icy platinum for that long, internecine election. I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with deep-space blue and neon-yellow hair (RIP Carrie Fisher, who drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra). That tropical El Niño December, my hair was minty teal. I did it all without cost or shame.