Why 2021 Is the Year I Stop Highlighting My Hair
Fran Lebowitz once wrote, “The most common error made in matters of appearance is the belief that one should disdain the superficial and let the true beauty of one’s soul shine through.” Now, I don’t know what exactly the world-class wit thinks of bottle blondes, but if we take her words at face value, they seem to suggest that our God-given hair color is perhaps not what suits us best. While I tend to agree with Lebowitz on just about everything (the value of a uniform; the idiocy of lounge chairs in Times Square), this is where we diverge.
A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my colorist’s Instagram when I spotted a photo of myself that stopped me in my tracks: I look like everyone else, I thought, appalled. From this vantage point, I was just one of the many masked, mouthless, wannabe baby blondes posing in the same black salon robe, against the same black backdrop, with the same head full of expensively placed highlights. It was enough for me to cancel my follow-up appointment—permanently.
And it turns out I’m not the only one: Who could forget Gigi Hadid’s star turn in Jacquemus’s fall 2020 collection, when the newly pregnant mom-to-be flicked her mousy (yes, mousy!) lengths, and, in a single motion, dispelled the age-old adage that blondes have more fun? Gone were her signature sun-kissed streaks—one of the world’s most famous towheads had grown up. Just a few weeks later, she made her debut appearance on The Row’s runway, and one couldn’t help but wonder if her darker—dare I say, duller—tresses had helped her earn a spot in the ultimate purveyors of discreet chic’s lineup. After all, at some point in the mid-2010s, Mary-Kate Olsen herself seemingly abandoned dye altogether.
Jen Steele, the Brooklyn-based photographer and filmmaker, similarly began highlighting what she describes as her “dishwater”-hued hair as a 14-year-old Wisconsinite. “The first time I did it, I got all this attention, and so it was set in my head that that’s what I had to do to stay looking fresh or pretty,” she recalls. And yet, a few years ago, around the time she turned 30 and met her now-husband, she had a sudden change of heart. “I didn’t like the way I looked anymore,” Steele recalls of her Jessica Simpson–like buttery blonde. “It didn’t feel like who I was and I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror as much.” And so she went cold turkey.
The growing-out process, however, is not without its pains. “So many women can’t stand that [demarcation] line, so they rush back to being blonde,” says the Los Angeles colorist Cassondra Kaeding. Presented with a temporary respite from the once-constant need to be camera-ready, though, a number of her celebrity clients, such as Hailey Bieber, are now asking her to oversee their own root-heavy transitions from platinum to brunette. Armed with a handful of reparative products, such as intensive leave-in masks and Kaeding’s go-to Acidic Bonding Concentrate Shampoo from Redken, they’re experiencing the welcome side effects, too: namely thick, healthy lengths. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to work with hair that’s not damaged,” she adds.
It’s a belief shared by Parisian colorist Louis Trautwein, who prefers to see his Gallic clients (think Camille Rowe, Malgosia Bela, and Gaia Repossi) just a few times a year. “You can send me the biggest [celebrity] in the world, and if she says she wants a big changement, we say non,” he explains, emphasizing that he focuses on subtle enhancements that will not compromise the quality of the hair. After all, adopting a more natural shade doesn’t have to be left entirely to fate. “There are fine-tuning services you can do to make yourself feel better that won’t destroy your hair,” Kaeding notes, suggesting a few light-reflecting balayage pieces, or a pop of gold—not bleach—on the ends. Ultimately, “Just be patient,” she advises. “It will be worth it in the end.”
I, for one, am taking her words to heart. Sure, I bristle at my roots, but I can easily conceal them in a bun for any Zoom meeting—and, with each passing day, they’re moving closer and closer to my ends. Down the line, perhaps I’ll squeeze lemon onto my lengths at the beach, or book a shine-enhancing gloss treatment—but right now, I’m most looking forward to embracing something effortless. Something authentically me. And, whenever I have any doubts, I just think of what Steele said: “The more you become yourself and the more comfortable you are with yourself, the more you exude confidence,” she told me. “That’s much more attractive than any kind of thing you could do to make yourself look glamorous.”
Originally posted in US Vogue February 1, 2021. By Zoe Ruffner. Available here: