This is a post about the value of self-image. But first, let’s talk about my hair.

This was me in March 2020 – my last hair appointment before COVID shut down our province

About a month ago, I couldn’t stand my hair. Normally, I have long, blonde-streaked hair that is kept up by regular visits to my hairdresser. Over the years I have spent a lot of money on grooming and self-image trips to various aestheticians. I’ve had electrolysis, lash extensions, manicures and pedicures too numerous to count, and, of curse, hair appointments. Thanks to a glue allergy, lash extensions were removed permanently off the list of visits. Thanks to my frequent travel for the union, I have learned to do my own nails. (I could just get acrylics like other members of the provincial executive do, but I don’t like the feel of them.) But my hair has been non-negotiable. Only my hairdresser does it right.

Enter COVID. Suddenly my all-important hair appointments were gone. And then back up a month ago. I couldn’t stand my hair. I’m 49 years old. The natural hair colour I had in my twenties is now more like salt and pepper. Except that I don’t like the look of salt and pepper hair on myself. While some women carry it well, my “salt” hair just made me look permanently tired. Off I went to the hairdresser a few years ago and she made me look like I had my life in order.

Let me repeat that in case it didn’t make sense. When my hair looks good, I feel like I have my life in order. Typically that holds true as well. When I am taking the time to take care of my appearance, it generally reflects that I am placing a very high value on myself. I have pulled myself together and I have shown up ready to do business. I have not shown up with a “well that’s going to have to do – I guess it’s good enough” attitude. I have shown up with a pen. I am ready to go.

(“Show up with a pen,” by the way, is a motto I adopted somewhat facetiously a few years ago. I had a manager – the one who inspired me to become a union activist and fight for the rights of members who had been targeted by their managers – who tried to terminate me. She had a massive list of my transgressions that ranged from pedantic to downright insulting. One thing that seemed to particularly incense her had happened almost a year before. I arrived at a meeting with printed agendas, files to discuss, a notebook – and no pen. She hadn’t said anything at the time. She just handed me a pen from her desk when I asked. But nearly a year later, this incident had marinated to become a paragraph in a three-page letter of my failings. The expectation for me was that if I intended to remain employed, I needed to “show up with a pen.” More than a decade later, it’s now a motto. If I am ready to get work done, I show up with a pen. It’s also become a bit of a theme. When I show up at union meetings, I often have a bag of pens with the union logo on them. Now everyone can show up with a pen. Need a pen? I’ll hook you up.)

I can charm as easily as I can offend.

And then I coloured my own hair.

Four weeks after my last hair appointment, I began to fret. My salt and pepper hair was showing up. It was a contrast to the blonde. I didn’t like it at all, so I did exactly what I knew would give me all the grief in the world but would stop the salt and pepper from showing: I bought box colour. I used it. And yep. I totally made a mess of my hair. In attempting to do my roots, I now had two distinctly different hair colours happening. I had done such a spectacularly bad job, I needed to go buy more box colour to cover what I had done. The end result was that I was a brunette, which is fine, but I had a bad box colour brunette look happening. It aged me. I needed heavy makeup to counter the colour. I looked my age, and not the best version of my age I could have. Once again, I just looked tired.

Let me just pause here because I think I am getting too far into “how I hate my hair” and I’m not leaning into “why my hair is important.” The problem in all of this isn’t how much I love my hairdresser (which I do) or how much vanity money I can throw at my image. It’s how I feel about myself. Everybody has a look they cultivate that sends a message of what they want people to think of them. YES, even if you think you don’t care about your look, the reality is that alone is a message you are sending. Maybe you spend hours each morning getting ready and the result is that you just need to accessorize with your small dog. Maybe you spend no time at all because the clothes you wore yesterday are still bunched in a pile by the foot of the bed and they still look just great. Either way, you are sending a message to people about what you think is valuable, how you want to be treated, and how others can expect you to treat them.

My hair takes monthly trips to the hairdresser to maintain. I like to look groomed, professional, and – if I am honest – a bit homogenous. I know what makes me stand out in a crowd is my personality. (I have a lot of personality.) I don’t want the first thing people notice about me is my appearance. I like to fit in visually. Why? Because when your visual presentation is appealing, the impression you want to make comes down to what you want to say and how you say it. I can charm as easily as I can offend. It’s my choice to do either, but that choice is taken away from me if my look is not groomed.

Right after I coloured my hair, I had a Zoom call with people I see several times each month. Even with my name clearly under my video – I mean – seriously – it says “Charlotte Millington” right there – someone actually said out loud “Has anyone seen Charlotte?” A second of shuffling and protest from me later and the speaker said, “Oh right. I wouldn’t have recognized you except for your lipstick.”

Nice.

In case anyone was thinking this is a post about my hair and my shallow vanity, it’s not. (OK, maybe a little.) It’s about being recognizable. It’s about my self-image. It’s about not having to re-establish myself and my credibility in every meeting I attended.

The finished product! I’m still in her salon and feeling very much like ME again.

Yesterday, our hairdressing services re-opened in BC. I was the third appointment my hairdresser booked in. Before the appointment, I confessed my box colour sins. She was non-committal. I wasn’t going to be her first or her last box colour appointment coming out of COVID. I sat down in her chair at 2:15 and tried not to stumble over my apologies to the point of embarrassing myself. She was very gracious and got to work.

A few hours later, she whipped off my cape with a flourish and a snap. I stood up and turned slowly in the mirror feeling – honest to God – tears prickle. I looked a lot more like me. The box colour was still underpinning the highlights she had added. There was no escaping that. But I had highlights. My hair was groomed. My new salt and pepper roots were gone.

I have three Zoom calls today that start pretty soon. Today no one is going to ask, “Has anyone seen Charlotte?” I look more like me and less like bad stuff has been happening to me. I am RIGHT HERE.

In the words of my RVP bestie who saw my photo on Facebook last night: “Welcome back.”

That’s right. I’m BACK.

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