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How Dyeing My Hair a Weird Color Helped Me Re-engage with the Physical World

There are some surprising psychological benefits to dyeing your hair blue.
Photo: Eliza Brooke's iPhone

Photo: Eliza Brooke's iPhone

The second time I dyed my hair blue, I was startled by how many stares I got. There was a certain afternoon, shortly after I'd turned my hair an aquatic blend of Manic Panic's Blue Moon and Enchanted Forest, that I walked down Houston and found that nearly every person I passed lifted their eyes to meet mine. At least, it felt like that. Most likely they were focused on my hairline, but in motion you can willfully mistake it for an effort to make eye contact. 

When I first gave blue a shot the summer before, the color wasn't nearly as vivid and it didn't last as long. That's the difference between letting Manic Panic process for an hour rather than 20 minutes. I also wasn't engaged in a concerted effort to spend less idle time tooling around on my phone back then. The two events were coincidental, but as it turned out, the combination was more psychologically potent than either would have been on its own. 

I'm part of that generation that remembers a time when Nintendo Game Boys were the most advanced piece of pocket-sized technology a kid could have, but for which cell phones were an inextricable part of the coming-of-age narrative. Smartphones are an established, if unregulated, part of our young adult lives. We all have some personal understanding of when and where it's appropriate to bust out our phones, but there's no real consensus on the subject, let alone any sort of etiquette book.

Some people I know have developed what appears to be the ability to simultaneously scan Twitter and Instagram, absorb all the relevant data points, and not suffer any mental fog for it. I can't. Some time after Fashion Week in February, I got really sick of spending my work day staring at one screen and the rest of my waking hours watching another. I hated the way I compulsively toggled between Twitter, Instagram and my email, flipping back and forth until some new piece of non-information popped up. This isn't to say that technology is the devil, but I was struggling and failing to create any sort of mental space for myself.

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So one day I just decided to cool it. I read a bunch of pop-science articles about the benefits of spending time with your head in the physical world as motivation, and when I left for work the next morning, I kept my phone hidden in my coat pocket. Every minute or so my hand would inch toward it. 

Some time that week, I got a drink alone at a bar and examined the decor while eavesdropping on the other customers' conversations. You feel naked at first, but then a certain amusement kicks in as you realize that everybody else is too engrossed in their own phones and personal woes to worry about you.

The decision to dye my hair blue again was unrelated — born of beauty boredom, it had more to do with having a clear Friday night to ruin an old t-shirt (and, because I was out of gloves and too lazy to get more, my hands), but it came at the right time. As I fought the urge to pull out my phone and dive into the digital menagerie I'd created for myself, the real world came up to meet me. 

People who dye their hair weird colors will tell you that it's a conversation starter, and it is. An older lady on the subway will say something like, "You go, girl," and you'll find yourself encouraging her to go purple. The teenage boy ringing up your egg sandwich at the deli will tell you he thinks it's cool, and you'll be secretly thrilled. Even people who don't particularly like it will compliment you, just because you were bold enough to do it and they feel obligated to say something. Friends, too, will ask you about it, but in a city as salty as New York, it's the exchanges with strangers that leave you with the warmest glow. But what really surprised me was how good it felt simply to make eye contact — or, what I perceived as eye contact — with people as I walked down the street or stood on the subway, phone tucked away in my pocket. 

Frankly, I'm not convinced my subconscious didn't orchestrate the whole thing, provoking me to go blue when I needed it most.