I Thought Going Platinum Blonde Would Change How People Saw Me, But It Mostly Changed How I Saw Myself

Courtesy of Iman Hariri-Kia

For as long as I can remember, I've had an unhealthy relationship with my hair. Our connection has been codependent: My thick, black locks, which once cascaded down my back and surpassed my behind, grounded me as an individual. When I close my eyes and picture myself, that's the vision that comes to mind: that unruly, unkept mane. I had invested so much in this image of myself, that I never dared to ask what would become of my identity if, say, one day, that person with whom I identified suddenly changed. I never dreamed of going platinum blonde in the same way that I never pondered cutting off my left arm: My hair had become a vital part of my personhood.

I've never had the privilege of being unaware of my own hair — particularly because I was born with a lot of it. I am from a loud but loving family of Middle Eastern immigrants, but I was raised on Manhattan's Upper East Side. As an adolescent, I was frequently mocked for resembling a werewolf or caveman by my predominantly white, blonde peers. I soon grew weary of my appearance, and thus, resentful of my racial identity. I resolved to blend in with my American cohorts as much as humanly possible. I made the decision to start waxing from the very young age of eight and went on to try every treatment in the brochure: threading, laser, Nair — you name it, I've used it to rip follicles out from under my skin. In fact, the only hair I never dared to touch were the locks upon my head.

As I've grown older, though, I have come to the realization that, sometimes, letting go of aspects of your identity can make room self-recreation. By letting go of old notions of who you were, you may just experience the thrill of discovering who you truly are — or at the very least, who you could be.

This revelation hit me the first time I decided to quit my job. Readjusting the expectations that I had for myself shook me to my very core. Disoriented, I struggled with the idea that, while people viewed me as the "same old Iman," I felt like an entirely different person. Thus, I resolved to alter myself on the outside to match the way I was feeling on the inside. I spontaneously walked into a random salon, and I asked the hairdresser to chop all my hair off. It felt liberating, like shedding skin. The adrenaline that came with physically reinventing myself felt like a sugar rush. Suddenly, I found myself with a major sweet tooth. I wanted more.

The very day I started my next job, I knew that I craved another drastic change. On one hand, I was reinventing myself professionally as person with authority — a role I had not yet played. I wanted a look that commanded attention and respect, instead of asking politely for it. But on the other hand, I had come to a place of contemplation in regard to the tight thread interwoven between my cultural identity and my appearance. For my whole life, my long black locks had presented a sort of catch 22: While I felt they grounded me within the Persian community, they alienated me within the predominantly white Manhattan society I lived in. Could changing the color of my hair alter those sociological effects? Could hair truly hold that much power?

After attending an event thrown by Bustle's Please and Elizabeth Arden's The Red Door Salon & Spa, where I tried on different colored wigs to get a taste of what a drastic color change could look like, I proposed a social experiment: I would go platinum blonde, as light as my hair could possibly handle, and observe how people reacted to me. Would I feel rejected by own Iranian community? Celebrated by those who once differentiated me as "other"? My personhood has always felt split in half, as if I've led two separate lives. It was my naive hope that a measure as simple as dyeing my hair, might be a small step toward convergence.

In the weeks leading up to my transformation, I was met with the kind of stomach jitters I normally associate with stage fright. I had read so many terrifying accounts online from people who had gone through the hair-bleaching process themselves. I internalized their fear and had nightmares of the painful burning sensation, my scalp shedding, and pieces of my hair falling out in chunks. My friends and family all appeared to believe that I'd chicken out of the challenge, and their dismissal encouraged me to prove them wrong. Since I had never dyed or treated my hair before, it was thick, resilient, and healthy. I told myself I'd be fine.

It was 11:00 a.m. when I arrived at Elizabeth Arden's Red Door Salon in Union Square. My colorist was Rachel Bodt, a human goddess angel princess whose styles have been seen across countless magazine spreads. Rachel's presence was immensely soothing — she knew what she was doing and assured me that, not only would I be fine, but that I would be pleased with the results. I explained my reason for coming in to her, and she felt inspired by how relatable it was. We talked through where I wanted to take the color, and then, she got to work.

She began by painting my hair with bleach by section. As the tingling sensation began to spread throughout my scalp, I was put off by a sense of deja vu — I had felt this before. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was reliving a childhood memory that I had since repressed: When I was six or seven years old, before all of the waxing I did, my mother used to bleach my arm hair in the kitchen. I'd sit on the couch, watching her brew it up like a potion, and I'd cry out in pain as she rubbed it from my shoulder to my wrist. Somehow, though, this tiny piece of nostalgia felt soothing, comforting. I had been through this before. I would be fine. After this revelation, I barely felt a bit of discomfort. Despite the memory being painful, I knew I had gotten through it before. And I would again.

Courtesy of Iman Hariri-Kia

What the process truly did take was time. So much time. 10 hours, to be exact. My hair had to be bleached off in sections, then treated with Olaplex twice. She assured me that I shouldn't freak out at the bright yellow color my hair became after the first bleaching. I wouldn't be sentenced to a life as a Ronald McDonald impersonator.

As the saying goes, beauty truly is pain — I can confirm. After eight hours of bleaching hell and zero tears, I thought I could handle anything. So I was really thrown off by how much the toner, applied to my hair to give it that grandma-chic white color, would hurt. My eyes welled up, and I felt my scalp growing more numb. But then, I lost sensation somewhat. The pain sort of escaped, and I got used to it. Once the toner had been washed out, Rachel gave me a quick blow dry. When I finally looked in the mirror, I let out a large gasp. I was left with the perfect, crisp shade of white, but that wasn't all — I also looked white.

While I have truly never felt more myself with platinum blonde hair, the societal response to the change has been truly thought-provoking. On a grand-scale, it has met my expectations. My immediate family has been amused, but relatively supportive. My grandmother offered up a, "Well, thank God it looks good," and my grandfather gave the helpful suggestion that I might consider moving to Finland, where all the girls are naturally beautiful and blonde. Noice.

Several weeks ago, a prominent member of my tight-knit Iranian community passed away. Her funeral presented a strange scenario: Every single member of my community would be introduced to the newly blonde me... and the result was strange. I felt ignored and overlooked by many who have known me since I was born and watched me grow up. Family friends didn't recognize me, and others quickly reported straight to my mother, desperate to gossip about what she really thought about my hair. The condescension I was met with was swift. A few people even looked at me with a sort of dismissive pity.

I've also observed a large paradoxical shift in the way my American peers see me. As a Middle Eastern American, I had oftentimes been described by others as "exotic" or an "acquired taste," intended compliments that only felt backhanded. Since going blonde, I've experienced the effects of a sort of standardized American beauty that is recognized more broadly as attractive. I get more looks on the subway and more offensive catcalls on the street. My friends love my platinum hair, my co-workers are here for my newfound confidence, and what's more is — they get it. They embrace the change because they don't understand the significance that comes with saying goodbye (for now) to my long, black hair or the complicated subtext it has for my community, my family, and for me.

I wondered if the attitudes of my Iranian community were related to the ongoing phenomenon back home in Iran, where many women are choosing to dye their hair blonde in an attempt to further Westernize themselves. Perhaps my community saw my actions as tied to those of some Iranian women, an attempt to abandon my roots and my heritage. But there is one major difference between us: Citizens in Iran are doing so as a means of expressing their individuality, by using beauty as a tool to fight an oppressive, theocratic government. Their choice veers on political; mine was personal. I did not dye my hair in protest, but rather, in the pursuit of my own personhood. I didn't go blonde to feel less like an Iranian and more like an American: I did so as part of a quest to find myself, an amalgamation of my two separate identities into one single human being.

The most shocking consequence of this experiment was not even how other people now see me, but how I see myself. The more people who began to meet me and see me as a white, American girl (OMG, I can't even picture you with black hair!) the more internal guilt I felt for passing as white. As someone who had seen firsthand the horrific effects of institutionalized racism and Islamophobia in a post-9/11 New York, I didn't identify with that narrative. The idea that people might think I was attempting to escape this experience, perhaps even to white-wash myself, made me profoundly uncomfortable.

I found myself overcompensating. I brought up my cultural ethnicity more than ever before, finding new, creative ways to subtly entwine Iran, or Persian culture, or Farsi into the conversation. I needed new people who met me to know that they were wrong about me. I didn't want to benefit from the privilege of looking whiter than I am, when my friends and family still suffer from xenophobic looks and remarks.

Yet, I have never felt more myself than I do now, my relationship with my hair this healthy. I almost feel as if my platinum blonde hair has been the missing piece of the physical manifestation of myself, like suddenly the way I present myself to the world accurately reflects the way I internally imagine myself. Not because I'm more white-passing or less foreign looking, but because the shade of my hair against my skin is jolting — it commands attention, and it makes me stand out, which was exactly what I wanted. The confidence it gives me is indescribable. I love that my hair, in nature, makes a head-turning statement. It's a conversation starter — and I want to be the type of person who initiates these conversations about beauty and identity politics.

I am a multidimensional, dynamic human being, with many facets to my identity. Some conflict and some intertwine. But somehow, they melange together to create a thing of beauty, a singular personhood — me. My Persian heritage can be an intrinsic, vital part of my being, but simultaneously, I can feel beautiful as a blonde. Those two things don't need to be held in contrast to each other. They can co-exist peacefully, within me. My personhood doesn't need to be neatly packaged, but rather, it can be an imperfect kind of perfection. I am happy as an Iranian-American blonde, and for me, that checks all the right boxes.