Maxine Marshall, California
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

Red

The first time I dyed my hair, I was a senior in high school. The new X-Men movie was coming out, and a group of my friends had tickets for the midnight showing. Everyone was going to dress up, and I decided to go as Mistique. Mistique is a shapeshifter, able to mimic the looks and voices of others. In her natural form, however, Mistique is one of a kind; she has blue skin, yellow eyes, and bright red hair. She moves with an athletic, elastic kind of grace. She has the power to both blend in and stand out in equal measure. Mistique is also a villain, a bad girl (although complicatedly so, as good bad girl should be). For 17 year old Maxine, Mistique felt almost like an alter-ego, the woman I could be when I wasn’t studying. She was wild and beautiful and free. With hair the color of a fire engine. 

       A friend and I went to the local costume store—Pib’s Exchange—and browsed the bottles of hair dyes that were lined like an apothecary’s potions in the glass cabinet beneath the cash register. Yellows and rich royal blues. And red. Sinful shades of red. We dyed our hair in my parents’ huge rectangular bathtub, one large enough to host a dining room chair. I sat in the chair, in the bathtub, wearing an old t-shirt and I watched in the mirror as my friend spread the thick near-purple dye into my hair. 

       Being a body can be a tough ride, as we all know. At times, my body can feel like a trap, unforgiving and inflexible. There are many things about my body that I cannot change. But there are a few things that I can. My Mistique costume was the start of a revolution, a great shift in the way I relate to my body and the way the world receives me. My hair was not the only thing that turned color that day. In the mirror, afterward, my eyes looked back at me with a brighter and sassier glance than ever before. The bends and angles in the curls of my hair looked more complex, more twisted. 

       When my mother saw what I’d done, she cried. We stood on the balcony outside her bedroom door and I stared pointedly into the spring evening while she wept and berated me for making a mess of myself and of my beautiful blonde curls. The fact that the dye was temporary (or, rather, semi-permanent—a significant distinction I was later to learn) was irrelevant to her. 

       My family is full of blondes. We are actually quite notorious for our hair. My mom and her two sisters share similar, though not quite matching, curly poofs. When on family vacation we always joke about finding each other by looking for the hair. It’s a pretty effective strategy. That might have been part of what bothered my mom that day, coming home from work to see my head glowing crimson. A loss of the family aesthetic. But, more likely her emotion was a reaction to this proof that I was old enough to know what my body was and to want to rebel against it. That’s a hard awareness to watch your daughter take on. 

       A few weeks later, when I graduated from high school wearing a white cap and gown, my hair was still laser red. The contrast to the stark white of my gown and the deep green of the boys’ gowns on either side of me was nothing less than spectacular. My dad still teases me about being able to pick me out of the crowd that day, sitting in the seats high above the floor where we lined to await our diplomas. “We couldn’t have missed you if we wanted to,” he says to me. 

       These days, my mom will be the first one to tell you that she thinks I should have been born a redhead. I’ve tried other colors, dark browns and pale, ashen blondes. But I always find myself returning to red (although I’ve toned down in the drama of my color choices, often opting for more natural-looking hues than in my Mistique days). Although the brunette Maxine and the blonde Maxine and the red-haired Maxine are sisters, they are not the same girl. Dying my hair is a small way that I have discovered to assert my will over this unwieldy body of mine, one small way that I choose to help tell the world who I am. Who knows who I’ll be tomorrow?

— Maxine Marshall