I have dyed my hair in many colors before. Natural colors such as blonde, brown, black, but also unnatural, bright colors such as pink, red, purple and blue. Since I started dying my hair in these bright colors when I was about sixteen, so about six years ago, it seems to attract much attention. Not just from friends or people that I know, but also random people in the street. Most reactions are quite positive. People will scream something such as “Nice haircolor!”, or “Beautiful hair!” to me. There also seemed to be some people who saw it as an opening to try to flirt with me and come up with a clever remark about my haircolor. Anyway many people see it as an opening to start a conversation, probably because it is something unusual, something that stands out and they don’t see that often.
I never expected this much attention from dying my hair because I didn’t think about it being very outstanding at first. I just liked the way it looked and how it looks very happy and bright and creative. The creative part is probably because not that many people dye their hair in bright colors. Most people stick to “safe” colors such as blonde, brown or black.
Since I started thinking a bit more about subcultures and whether I myself belong to a specific subculture, I started thinking about my choice to dye my hair in bright colors. Does this make me part of a subculture? Because it is something out of the ordinary, it is not very “mainstream”. I found this a hard question to answer. Because if I do belong to a subculture, then what subculture is it? And is just having a bright hair color enough to make one part of a specific subculture? I started thinking about my own motivations for dying my hair and I came to the conclusion that it probably isn’t just about hair. I like rock music and I also enjoy some clothing elements from alternative subcultures (such as black clothing and Dr. Martens boots). I like the way alternative style looks.
But when I started thinking about what makes this look appeal to me it isn’t just the way it looks, it is also what it stands for. To me alternative fashion represents people who are open minded and don’t always follow the crowd, but are more willing to think for themselves. This to me is a good thing.
So this probably is part of the reason why I like bright hair colors so much. When I see someone with bright hair color (which is done in a nice way) I like it. I look for inspiration from people I see on the street, but most of my inspiration comes from the internet. I watch tutorial videos on YouTube and I follow people who have a style that I like and I follow their hair journeys to get some inspiration for myself and to try something new. There also are some websites (such as haircrazy.com) that are completely devoted to bright hair colors. Here people show what colors they have dyed their hair and how they got it this way. They also show timelines of all the hair colors they’ve had and they get a lot of comments from other people who appreciate bright hair colors.
I wanted to find out what motivations other people have for dying their hair this way and standing out in this way. Because it is so unusual and very bright, people notice you for it very easily, so you probably have to be quite motivated to do it anyway. In this research I sought to find out what motivations other people have for dying their hair in bright colors and whether it is “just about hair”, or whether there is more to it, such as alternative subcultures and alternative morals that may come with it.
Bright hair colors were first introduced in the United Kingdom in the punk scene around 1980 (Cartledge, n.d.). These styles were picked up by teenagers who wanted to express their individuality and rebellion against conformist society (http://hair.lovetoknow.com/Punk_Hair_Styles). These days it seems as if strict subcultures don’t exist as much as they used to. In this research I will see if bright hair colors are still connected to alternative subcultures, but also if it still is such a statement as it used to be. Whether it still is a way to express your individuality and your rebellion against conformist society.
The main question for this research is: “To what extent is having bright hair connected to alternative subcultures?” To research this topic further, this research question will be split into several sub questions. Firstly people’s personal motivations for dying their hair in bright colors has to be researched to get a general idea of this group of people. This will be researched through the subquestion: “What are people’s motivations for dying their hair in a bright color?” As mentioned bright hair colors used to be a way to express rebellion against mainstream society, it is interesting to see whether this still is the case. This will be researched through the subquestion: “Is having bright hair still a form of rebellion against mainstream society?” The final subquestion is about the role of social media, because many websites and online tutorial videos about bright hair appear to be available on the internet, which could mean there is some form of an online community. This will be researched through the subquestion: “What is the role of social media in having bright hair (and alternative style)?” For this research two methods were used. First an online ethnography was used and after that there were also interviews conducted.
Since so much of the bright-haired community is online, such as tutorial videos and sites where people post their hair timelines and talk about hair with each other, this was a good place to start the research. A website that is fully dedicated to bright hair colors is haircrazy.com. Here people share pictures of their hair colors and they discuss how they got a specific hair color and they help each other by giving tips. This site is a social forum in the way that people connect with each other because they have a common interest, namely bright hair colors. But the website pays less attention to people’s individual motivations behind their bright hair colors. So just from this website it can’t be inferred whether these people view themselves as “alternative” or whether they can identify with alternative subcultures. It is still interesting to see that these days people with similar interests can meet each other via the internet. Something like this probably wasn’t possible in the past, but since the coming of the internet people with similar interests can bond in such a way.
Many videos about bright hair colors can be found on YouTube. Most of the videos are tutorials where people tell their viewers how to they got their hair a certain color and they can also give each other advice. But because these people have a channel with all sorts of information, more about their personal lives is shared with their viewers. So even though one of the videos is just about, for example, “How to dye your hair bright pink”, this person can also have some videos about more personal issues that don’t necessarily have to do with their hair color, but by comparing what different people with bright hair colors have in common an image of these people can be drawn.
The people I have been following for some time on YouTube who dye their hair in bright colors do this because they feel they are part of an alternative community. This includes people who identify as being goth, punk, emo, scene, or just alternative in general. Many of them don’t necessarily identify with one specific subculture, but they take some inspiration from one style and some from another style and this way a unique style can be formed that fits with that person. These style elements can be hair (bright hair colors), but also certain clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. Forming a personal style by only using certain elements is described as a “supermarket of style” by Ted Polhemus. He states:
“Street style “tribes” offered (and, for many, seem to have provided) that sense of community and shared identity that is so difficult to find in contemporary society. But while significant remnants of many of these subcultures remain scattered around the globe, such commitment and group identity have become less typical of the twenty-first century. Such looks are now, typically, plucked off the shelf of the post-modern “supermarket of style,” tried out, promiscuously mixed with other looks, and then discarded” (Polhemus, n.d.).
Bennett also mentions that subcultures are not as solid and static as they used to be, he speaks of neotribes instead of subcultures (Bennett, 1999). But even though these style elements might not belong to a specific style or subculture, for outsiders, the ‘mainstream’ people, they might still be viewed as alternative. These days many young people form their style in the way Polhemus describes. Their style is very individual. They do it for themselves, trying to express themselves and form a unique style that fits their personality. Such a person doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a broader subculture and behave a certain way and only interact with people of that subculture. Take, for example, videos on YouTube such as “Grunge-inspired Lookbook” by Roxxsaurus. She mentions beneath her video:
“Hey guys! so many of you are into the whole grunge scene when it comes to makeup and fashion so I decided to create these outfits for you as some inspiration. This is what grunge fashion is to me, it’s my interpretation and I hope you enjoy it!”
Grunge seems to be a style that is derived from a subculture, but nowadays young people take elements from it such as tattoo choker necklaces or Dr. Martens and put these elements into their own style. There are more video’s such as this one where people do a grunge makeup look on themselves or show a grunge outfit even though they don’t look like this all the time and they are not necessarily part of a grunge subculture. Similar videos can be found for gothic or emo makeup or clothing, or punk-inspired clothing, etc.
There are also numerous videos on bright hair. When searching on YouTube for “How to dye your hair bright pink”, for example, many videos will come up. One of the videos is titled “Considering bright hair m’dear?” by lauraacanfly where she discusses the pros and cons of having bright-colored hair. She mentions the same issues as are mentioned by my interviewees discussed below. She talks about how difficult it is to get a job with bright pink hair and how people on the street stare at her, but how she still likes to do it because it makes her an individual and how it is a conversation starter. She says, ”I don’t like how people start identifying you with your hair, like: Oh that’s Laura with the pink hair!” It makes someone “the person with the bright hair”, because this makes someone stand out. So, while people with bright hair like to stand out with their bright hair, at the same time they don’t because to some people it becomes all they can see.
Another video about this subject is “Misconceptions about bright colored hair” by Kiera Rose. She says: “For some reason when you have bright colored hair, it makes people think that you are very outgoing, but this doesn’t have to be the case”. She was in a BBC documentary about mental health issues, as she suffers from serious social anxiety, but people commented that she was faking it because if she would have social anxiety she wouldn’t dare to stand out with her hair like that. She says: “When people stare at me when I have blue hair, I don’t mind that they stare because they are looking at my hair, but if my hair would look normal and people would stare then my mind would race and I would think what is wrong with me and I would make up all these things in my head”. This made sense to me because this is something I also experience. I just wasn’t aware of this before I heard someone else say it out loud. It isn’t the main reason why I chose to dye my hair this way but it might have to do with it. For Kiera Rose having bright colored hair helps her to deal with her mental problems. This will be further discussed below.
Reasons for wanting to look different from the mainstream can be very diverse. I have found three reasons that seem to be the most important. It can be a creative outlet in which you express your artistic views through a creative and colorful appearance. The people that died their hair in bright colors generally were also very much into makeup and many of them were makeup artists. This became apparent because I follow quite some people on YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram for their makeup skills and quite a few of them have had bright hair colors. For other people it can be because they identify with alternative subcultures, which implies that they are more open-minded people who don’t adhere to society’s strict rules on what is acceptable and what isn’t. This can be only about appearance but also about moral standards; for example, being open-minded can mean that someone thinks that all love is equal, not only heterosexual relationships but also homosexual relationships, etc. So this is about feelings of belonging towards alternative people.
A third reason is the feeling of not fitting into mainstream society; a person that feels like an outcast may want to express this feeling that they have on the inside on the outside. This can be because someone has been bullied or because they have different life experiences (such as traumatic experiences) from their peers, which entails that they don’t connect on the same level. It might also be that they feel different because they have something that makes them feel different such as a disorder. Although we shouldn’t generalize, it was very striking that many of the YouTubers who dress alternatively and dye their hair in bright colors had some experience with mental disorders such as depression. This became clear as they also made videos about these experiences. Of course, not all people who dye their hair in bright colors have a mental disorder. Not at all. But it does seem logical that someone who feels different on the inside from most people (the “mainstream” people) internalizes this feeling of “being different” so much that they don’t even want to fit in in a regular way, they have made the feeling of being different their own and they also express this on the outside for the world to see.
Because many people have these feelings of “feeling different” (which doesn’t have to be negative as it can also be related to one of the other reasons), and express this through, for example, bright colored hair, this automatically identifies them as being alternative, which makes it easier for other alternative people to identify with each other and form bonds with each other. Thus, even though it is very much about individualism, it is also about being together with other people like you, about feeling and forming bonds. These bonds don’t have to be in the “real world”, many of these bonds are formed through online communities, such as YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram and Forums.
This can be illustrated by the reactions people get when posting pictures of their hair on the site crazycolor.com, for example: “Absolutely stunning. I’m always amazed how beautiful you are and how well you do your dyejobs. I think you are a great colour inspiration”. Here people can follow each other by viewing their hair timelines and trade tips with each other. Another example which demonstrates that these online communities are about more than just hair are the comments on YouTube videos where people share not only trading tips on how to dye hair, but also personal problems such as the mental health issues mentioned earlier. YouTube provides an important platform this way, where people give the YouTuber feedback and ask questions and the YouTuber will then make a video about it or answer questions in the form of a “Q & A” (questions & answers). I myself started following some YouTubers just because I thought their hair looked cool and as I continued following their videos other subjects such as personal problems came up as well, and these people offered advice that has also helped me along.
Besides analysis of online content, interviews were used to find out about people’s motivations and opinions about bright hair colors. The people with bright hair that you meet in daily life aren’t necessarily the same people that visit the online communities. It proved to be quite hard to find suitable respondents to interview. For the first interview a friend with green hair was interviewed (Ana; all names are pseudonyms). This girl knew quite some other people with bright hair colors, but meeting them was very hard to arrange so the best way to reach them was by sending a questionnaire with open questions – such as, “What do bright hair colors represent for you? What do they stand for?” – in which they were encouraged to give as much information as possible about the subject. These people could later be reached via Facebook messenger if more clarification was needed about their answers. Five respondents were interviewed this way. All but one of them (Sara) were Dutch. A seventh respondent was interviewed via chat (Tirza) because she didn’t have the time to meet in person due to a busy work schedule. By doing the interview via chat rather than a questionnaire it did become more personal, as chat allows for immediate follow-up questions to see what someone means specifically by saying something a particular way. Because the interviewee was a personal friend, there already was a relaxed and open atmosphere.
In the following, when referring to “most of the interviewees” this is because they all had similar reasons and views on a particular subject. When something someone said stands out this person will be mentioned separately. Not all interviewees are cited here, but their opinions are still expressed here because they felt the same way as the other interviewees about certain subjects. It was an interesting coincidence that most of the people interviewed had dyed their hair blue, and stated that they had a specific love for blue hair, although they liked bright hair in general.
The first interviewee was Ana, she is 20 years old and a first-year student of artificial intelligence. She comes across as a kind and open-minded girl who likes to laugh and make jokes. Her hair wasn’t colored at the moment of the interview, it is brownish with an outgrown blondish color, but it used to be bright blue. Ana said that she dyed her hair this way because she “just liked the look of it”. She didn’t feel she did it because she belonged to a specific subculture or wanted to rebel against mainstream society. She was part of a subculture though, her hobby is “fur suiting,” this is when people dress in animal suits together and go on the streets and interact with people there, like playing with children and just having fun in general. She didn’t think bright hair colors are specifically part of this subculture although there were some other people in the subculture who also dyed their hair in bright colors. She thought this is mainly because many of her friends are a bit “alternative” in general and bright hair does appeal to these people. Her main motivation was that she likes being individual. She feels that because there are so many people on earth you have to do something special to stand out and to look special. This was a theme that many of the interviewees mentioned. Young people these days are very much into individual expression, and part of that is expressing themselves through their appearances and style. They see dying their hair in a bright color as a fun, happy way of doing this.
Other interviewees also mentioned that they dyed their hair in a bright color because it is very important to them that they can do what they want and be their own person, since they didn’t have positive experiences with this in other parts of their life. For example, one of the interviewees, Jennifer, a 20 year old girl with bright blue hair, has Lyme’s disease and because of that can no longer walk. Because of this disease and other events in her life she feels that much has been taken from her and she doesn’t have control over most of the things that happen to her. For her, dying her hair is something she has decided on by herself, something she likes, and even though other people, such as her parents, classmates or an employee may not like it, she does it anyway. So it seems to be a form of agency to get back control over her life and identity. Because it is something that she has control over and something that makes her happy. This makes it a very personal thing to do. I found this very interesting that something as simple as dying your hair can have such a deep meaning to someone.
All the interviewees mentioned that “doing their own thing” is very important to them. They don’t like to follow the crowd and if they like something because it feels good to them they do it. This is something which they associate with alternative subcultures. So even though they were not part of a specific subculture associated with bright hair colors, they do feel an association with “alternative people” and “being alternative”.
Another interviewee was Tirza, a 29 year old young woman with a master’s degree who now has a full-time office job. She used to have a lot of bright hair colors when she was younger, such as bright pink hair, but now it is back to her natural color, blonde. Tirza comes across as a very open-minded and kind girl. It wasn’t hard for her to express her feelings and she had a clear view on things. This could be because she is slightly older than the other interviewees so she had thought about subjects such as identity and style more. Tirza mentioned that “being alternative” really is a mindset. It is about doing what you like no matter what others might think of it, not only regarding your appearance, but regarding your mindset in general. She gave a funny example to illustrate: “If you might feel like playing in a kid playground and jumping into one of those barrels filled with balls (in Dutch: “ballenbak”), you will do this just because you feel like it and it doesn’t matter what other people think of it”. So to most of them it is about more than just their appearance.
All of the interviewees received plenty of reactions on their hair color. Most of the reactions were very positive. Such as, “I like your hair”, or “I wish I would dare to do that”. Some of them also receive weird or flirty comments from men as some people see it as a way to start a conversation. However, most of the interviewees said they didn’t necessarily dye their hair because they wanted to stand out and receive reactions, but mostly because they like it themselves. Regardless of the reactions they still kept dying their hair anyway. Even the creepy remarks would not keep them from dying their hair. For example, Ana mentioned that when she had green hair and she was shopping in a supermarket an elderly man told her: “Jij bent een groentje en ik een grijsje”, which sort of translates to: “You’re green (which in this context means an inexperienced young person, in a kind of sexual way), and I’m grey (which means that he is experienced and older).” This was very creepy and threatening to her. Having bright hair certainly can provoke some interesting and weird reactions. It is as if because their hair isn’t very normal that people can also react in a way that they normally wouldn’t do. As if people suddenly can say things that normally would be seen as inappropriate because such a hair color is sort of “innapropriate”. This can also be linked to the idea of ‘deviance’, it seems as if because people with bright colored hair deviate from the norm the norm of social values doesn’t apply to them.
Although most of the reactions the interviewees experienced were positive, they still sense a lack of understanding for why people choose to look alternative. Jennifer mentioned that at a job interview her future employer told her that it was her own choice if she wanted to be hired or not because she probably would get bullied because of her hair color (and also because of the fact that she can’t walk). This was very shocking to me. Tirza mentioned that because of negative reactions such as “Gothic!”, or “You stupid alto!” she disliked those “mainstream” people even more and this made her want to rebel against it even more. So for her, dying her hair really was about rebelling against mainstream society and this is what she likes about it.
When asked about the do’s and don’ts regarding bright hair colors (because do’s and don’ts could mean that there are rules which could indicate that it is a subculture), most of the interviewees mentioned that people should just do what they like. This individualism and doing what you like, as mentioned earlier, is an important part of being “alternative” and something that all of the interviewees thought about in a similar way; it was contrasted with following fashions. Lara, a 20 year old student with bright blue hair, mentioned that she didn’t like it when people dye their hair in a silver, greyish color because she thinks that people only do this because it is in fashion and because other people do it too. She said: “If everyone just starts dying their hair because it is hip, this way dying your hair in bright colors could become “normal””, and she viewed “normal” as a negative thing because then bright hair colors wouldn’t be special and alternative anymore, but would become mainstream and loose its meaning of an alternative mindset.
This becoming mainstream of bright hair colors seems to be gradually happening already. The interviewees mentioned that bright hair colors are already becoming more “normal” since celebrities such as Katy Perry and Nicole Richie are dying their hair in bright colors. These pop icons don’t really have any associations with alternative subcultures, they just think bright hair colors look “pretty” and this way it may lose its meaning. This erosion of meaning of alternative styles is quite common in pop culture. Something is started by an alternative subculture and it is later picked up by a brand or a celebrity and suddenly it becomes cool for mainstream people so that it loses its meaning and becomes less interesting for alternative-minded people. A similar process can be seen in subcultures such as skateboarding. Style elements such as Vans or Nike shoes were a part of the skateboarding subculture, but after big corporations became involved, skateboarding became very much commercialized and more mainstream so that it became less interesting to the alternative skateboarding community (Lombard, 2010).
Most of the interviewees did mention they looked at pictures or videos online for inspiration. For example, Sara, a 21 year old French exchange student of Social Sciences with bright green hair said that she wanted green hair for a long time and she always searched for pictures of green hair on Google and Pinterest and this way she formed an idea of what she wanted for herself. But to all of the interviewees it wasn’t really more than inspiration. They like bright hair colors and they also like bright hair colors on others. But just because two people both have a bright hair color doesn’t automatically mean they have something in common and they should be friends (to say it bluntly). Most of them did have friends who have bright hair colors, but they thought this is mostly because people who are a bit “alternative” are attracted to like-minded people. This seems very logical, that your friends are just people who are a lot like you and think about things is a similar way.
Opposing an undiscerning mainstream
Subcultures don’t really seem to exist anymore like they used to according to the respondents. Tirza mentioned she used to protest with other alternative people (like punks) but that this wasn’t really happening anymore. She thought that these days a lot of “being alternative” is about style and music and no longer necessarily about issues such as political views or anything. The other interviewees also mentioned this. It seems that style has become more of an individual thing. People take certain elements from a style that they like, and many take their inspiration from the internet or from people they meet on the streets. It is mostly about expressing themselves and not so much expressing that they are part of a certain subculture. It still has bonds with what subcultures used to stand for, such as being open-minded and doing what you like, not following the crowd. Having bright hair is still very much intertwined with this. Mary Bucholtz has something to say about this in “Youth and cultural practice” (2000):
“The explanatory power of resistance becomes less adequate as youth identities move further away from the class-based cultural styles that the concept was designed to account for. … [Youth cultures] are better understood as founded on a politics of distinction, in which [cultural practice] is tied not only to pleasure or social identity but also to forms of power. This is a very different kind of oppositionality than is implied by the concept of resistance, for it is based not on a rejection of a powerless structural position but rather on a rejection of an undiscerning mainstream culture”. (Bucholtz, 2002: 541)
To me it was very interesting to see that it really isn’t just about hair. Talking to people and hearing their personal motivations opened new views for me. This also made me think about my own choices about dying my hair in bright colors and I came to the conclusion that it definitely is about more than “just hair”. I like being identified with alternative subcultures and what they stand for, I like being an individual in a world where there are so many people. I feel the same way as the interviewees, so these views together with the reasons mentioned earlier do create some kind of bond.
(Research paper written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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Bucholtz, M. (2002). Youth and cultural practice. Annual review of anthropology, 525-552.
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