My blog explores the connection between health and identity so I was thrilled when I read my friend’s essay about how allergies forced her to give up an identity she had come to love. She is kind enough to let me post it here.
new image courtesy of contact dermatitis 11.14.11
by Maria M., guest blogger
When my allergy doc asked, “do you color your hair?” I initially felt flattered. The artistry of Scott, my beloved hairstylist of the past 15 years, often solicited such accolades. Instead, the question was one of many that she asked on the penultimate day of my patch test, a four-day diagnostic that aimed to uncover the reason my eyelids had begun swelling, deflating, cracking, and bleeding. The test involved having potentially allergenic substances dotted onto my back, from shoulders to waist, and waiting to see which provoked a reaction similar to that on my eyelids. Once we identified — and I avoided — these substances, said the doc, my eyelids would return to normal.
Certainly, I thought, the chemicals that elicited the shine and sparkle of the many blonde shades woven into my hair couldn’t possibly be the culprit. I’d been some shade on the blonde spectrum for more than a dozen years, and my eyelid problem was only a recent concern. Plus, I wore my hair away from my face and definitely away from my eyes. But the doc told me otherwise. Skin is capable of tolerating the thousands of substances it comes across, but sometimes it decides it’s had enough of one or more of them. She also told me that the thin, delicate skin on my eyelids is vulnerable to the residue of any substance transferred whenever I rubbed my eyes.
I remained steadfastly optimistic about the unfathomable concept of being allergic to my blonde until, as the doc requested, I tracked down the ingredients of the products Scott used on my hair. On the phone from the salon, Scott patiently spelled lists of multisyllabic chemicals as I transcribed each word with hopeful surgical precision. The next day, I gave the list to the doc during the final day of the testing. My spirit sunk when she circled the three chemicals ending with “persulfate” on the list of ingredients. Though I silently hoped for an alternate source of lightening, the doc informed me that any product with bleaching capabilities was verboten.
When I received the final results of the patch test, I discovered that I was allergic to almost all of my cosmetics, as well as most of my other beauty and personal-care products. I was okay with ceasing their use in the name of good health. Yet, I couldn’t imagine returning to my natural hair color, whatever that was. The doc told me that one special kind of hair color existed that I was permitted to use. Her nurse gave me an information sheet about the color, readily available at beauty supply stores in many shades. Many shades of brown, that is.
Thinking about my trip to Miami the following week and my vision of my hair glimmering in the Florida sunshine, I asked the doc if it would be OK for one last hurrah with retouched roots. She declined my request, underscoring the dangers of continued exposure. An allergen weakens the skin, which allows the allergen to be absorbed by deeper layers of skin tissue and, potentially, the bloodstream. And when I researched pursulfates at home, I learned that the FDA issued a warning about the pursulfates in denture tablets causing allergic reactions as severe as anaphylaxis.
Death by blonde, of course, was out of the question. And so I tolerated my increasingly dark roots in Miami and for an additional month, well aware that I was prolonging the mourning process for my blonde, and that I had to let it go. Intellectually, I knew that blonde was merely a hair color, but it also represented something else: it was something I never knew I could be. I’d ruled out blonde half a lifetime ago after a college experiment with the fabled Clairol Hairpainting kit. But Scott had affirmed that anyone could become a beautiful blonde, even a brown-eyed brunette like me. And once I had gorgeous, glossy golden highlights that really seemed to be growing directly from my scalp, it seemed like anything else in life could be possible too. And that outlook gave me confidence.
Luckily, Scott squelched my worrisome thoughts about no longer being blonde. Over the years, we had become good friends and supported each other through life events more dire than having to return to a shade of darker hair. I had always been game for his artistic vision. He, too, would miss having creative control over my tones and highlights, but he cared more about my health beyond my split ends.
On the day I said bye to blonde, Scott applied the brownie-colored gel to my hair and gave me encouragingly positive reviews about the medically approved coloring while I averted my nearsighted eyes from the ongoing transformation. Guiding me back to his styling station after shampooing my freshly colored hair, Scott presented me with an interesting offer: for years, he had always wanted to cut my hair into a certain style – a much shorter style, in fact. He had never mentioned it, since he knew that I wanted to keep my blonde hair well past my shoulders. Without wanting any other details, I knew my answer.
“It’s all yours.”
New hair, new attitude
I watched darkly-lacquered locks, large and little, flutter onto the nylon hairdressing cape I wore before they slid gently onto the white ceramic floor. Seeing these excised the sacrificial feeling I had when I first sat in the chair, and replaced that feeling with optimism and excitement. I hadn’t had this much hair clipped from my head in longer than I could remember. As a blonde, I never wanted any of my hair’s length, always (and unnecessarily) cautioning Scott to simply trim the ends. But taking away the blonde, as well as a lot of my hair, now revealed other possibilities. As Scott combed, snipped, and chopped, he raved about the color’s finish. He blew it dry, piece by piece, some pushed back, others pushed forward. And then he handed me my glasses.
My momentary anxiety over losing more than half a foot of my formerly blonde hair morphed into delight over my shiny, bouncy ‘do. It smoothed out my cold-weather skin tone. It highlighted the gold and grey flecks in my irises the way that (I thought) only the eyeshadow I used to be able to wear could do. It also drew a few other hairstylists to Scott’s station to admire his work and my rich, radiant color. I soaked in all of the compliments and continued to unabashedly enjoy my reflection in the mirror because, for maybe the first time, all of my vanity was perfectly healthy.