Dyes, dads, daughters
I am five years old and elected president of my grade-one class. My best friend, who is petite and fair and soft-spoken, is elected muse. I do not yet comprehend why this is painful, but when class ends, I run crying to my father anyway.
I am 14 years old, a junior, and dancing with a senior boy at the high school prom. Sparks flare up and down my spine as we sway, even if the atmosphere is horribly awkward and he gets a cufflink caught in my curls. Later, I find out that my friends had connived to get that boy to dance with me.
The Monday after the prom, the prettiest girl in sophomore year gets a song dedicated to her during a school-wide band competition. After class, I go straight to the salon and have the hair I’ve been growing since I was 12 cut off.
I am 16 years old and running my fingers on the boxes of hair dye at the local grocery store.
“Julia, shall we go pay?” my father asks, from down the aisle.
I turn around, a box in my hands.
“Daddy, do you think I could dye my hair?”
“Huh? But why would you want to?”
I bite my lip, then tug at my boring, dark brown hair.
“No reason. I just want to.”
Dad looks at me, then at the box in my hands. The label declares it to be light golden brown.
“Your hair is already brown, anak,” he says tentatively. “Under sunlight, the brown really stands out. You don’t have to dye your hair.”
I run my fingers through my hair, tug at it again.
How do I explain to him that all my life I have been stuck with the smart-girl stereotype, while the girls around me are quintessential pretty girls? How do I explain that I’ve gotten sick of being overseen and overshadowed, and this is my fumbling way of rectifying the situation?
How do I explain that despite the seeming innocence of dyeing hair, it actually implies a lot—that it is a tangible expression of my desperate desire to break free from the rut in which I’m accidentally trapped?
How do I explain that I’m doing this because I’m mortally afraid no one will ever love me—I don’t even particularly like myself—and the hair dyeing is an attempt for attention and to make me like myself better?
None of the explanations I try out make sense, even in my own head. So in the end I just don’t say anything at all.
“Just… Dad, please?”
He looks at me again. He must read something in my expression, because he nods and says, “You’re going to need a comb and a brush, as well.”
We end up going to the cosmetics department and buying a rattail comb with an attached brush, like a weird hybrid of a comb and a paintbrush. Dad keeps oddly quiet through all of it, paying without even a murmur at the cost or the time this is going to take.
When we get home, I open the box and pull out the instructions. Part your hair into four sections, cut off the tip of the bottle that contains the developer, pour the colorant into the developer, ensure that the bottle is pointing away from you when you shake it…
The acrid, easily identifiable smell of hair dye begins to fill the room. I place myself in front of the mirror, put on the gloves provided in the box, and start to squirt the dye like the diagrams said to.
“Anak, ako na,” Dad says, and takes the bottle from me.
“Anak. Just trust your dad, all right?”
He puts on the gloves and starts to squirt the dye into the first section of my hair. It’s awkward, his big hands clumsy, but the dye goes in like I assume it should. I’ve never actually dyed hair before.
He gets the comb, and starts to comb the dye through my hair. Once that section is done, he lets down the next section.
“Oh, wait! The dye will stick to your face!” he says in a moment of realization. “Wait, let me get some oil for that…”
He gets some cooking oil and tells me to rub it across my forehead, the sides of my face, and the back of my neck. This is so that even if the dyed hair sticks to my face, the dye won’t stick to my skin and can be washed off easily.
Dad dyes his gray hair black, and there were times that the hair dye stuck to his fingers and the back of his neck and didn’t wash off. He has learned since then, and he is passing on the knowledge to me.
Eventually, the dye starts to stiffen my hair, and then there’s nothing to do but wait.
“Wait 30 minutes before washing it out,” Dad says, from his easy chair. He retired there once he finished the final touches on my hair.
I protest: “But the box says 20!”
“Yes, but your hair has never been dyed before. It’s going to take a while for the chemicals to bleach your hair lighter.”
So, after 30 minutes, I go into the bathroom and stand under the spray until the water runs clear. Then I apply the conditioner that will stop the damage that bleaching did to my hair.
Then I go back outside, and wait.
The color doesn’t show up immediately, unlike what I had been expecting. It blooms in my hair over the course of an hour, starting off with a lightening just barely visible under bright light. Then it lightens and lightens even more until it is visible even without light overhead.
I go to my father, who is sitting in the living room.
“Thank you, Daddy,” I say, the words awkward on my tongue.
Wordlessly, he draws me into his lap, into a hug.
“It took a while,” he says softly, “but it worked, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, Daddy, it did.”
“Was it worth waiting for?”
“I think so, Daddy. Yes.”
“You’ve always been beautiful to me, anak. You’ve never needed any hair dye for me to believe that.”
My throat is tight when I say, “I know that, Daddy. Thank you.”
His brown eyes—the eyes we share—are very warm when he says, “You’re welcome, anak. And after all, it’s just hair dye.”
It’s just hair dye, I think, as he runs his fingers through my new hair. But it also means so much more.
Julia Danielle Maaño, 17, is a journalism sophomore at the University of the Philippines and a native of Quezon province. She says she wishes dogs could text because then she wouldn’t miss her dogs, Theodore and MacKenzie, so much.
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