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How Dyeing My Hair Helped Me Take My Life Back From an Eating Disorder

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I was never a “pretty girl” growing up. I was heavier. I had several minor medical conditions that made my daily life rather miserable. I never had the energy to work on myself or my appearance. No one would say anything directly, but they were always trying to “fix” how I looked.

I started skipping meals at 14. I learned how to purge discreetly enough to not get caught by 15. I had a full blown eating disorder not otherwise specified or EDNOS (as well as the start of depression and moderate anxiety) by my 16th birthday. I counted every calorie. I weighed in every three days like clockwork. I worked out so hard I threw up, and then, I worked out again. I lost a lot of weight in a little more than three months, and everyone was so proud of me.

It took me three years to finally get ahold of what was going on and to start to try to recover. For a year, I never went more than a month or two at a time before I’d relapse in some small way, and eventually, I gave up. What started as a way to control my body, to control my life and how I saw myself, ended up stealing all the control from my life. I couldn’t see a way to get through this without taking that control back.

Then, I started beauty school. It started as a way to learn a skill I could carry throughout life, a job field to find work in no matter where in the world you go. I was good, but for some reason, I still didn’t feel good. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without wanting to cry, and in a building full of mirrors, this can be a bit hard.

I couldn’t stand the strict dress code and the ungodly “stylist robe” we were all forced to wear, which not a single one of us looked good in. I was practical. I kept my hair in a bun or ponytail, or I let one of the other girls braid it back. I never thought much about it. I looked the way I looked. At that point, there wasn’t any motivation left in me to try to change it, whether I liked it or not.

About halfway through my course, we started learning more about wigs. We decided to have a wig styling contest with a bunch of donated wigs from a local costume store that closed down. (It’s much different than styling real hair, believe me.) I was chosen to be a model. So I had to sit with my eyes closed in a chair while another student pinned, curled, tugged and fixed up the itchy, “plasticy” smelling mop on my head.

I hadn’t been paying attention when they opened the box of wigs. So I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen. I didn’t exactly expect much.

When I opened my eyes to check it before the contest started, my jaw dropped. My “hair” was in an updo that in an of itself was a work of art. The kind you see in wedding shows and runways. There were about 100 bobby pins stabbing me, which I was about to complain about but were now totally forgotten.

It wasn’t the curls. It wasn’t the sparkly pins. It wasn’t the teeny, little braids thrown in just to make it interesting.

My hair was purple.

I wouldn’t take the wig off until the end of the day and only because they made me. I had spent the entire day staring at the mirror. I had looked left, right, up and down. I took pictures at every possible angle.

I felt bold. I felt brave. For once, whenever someone glanced at me, I didn’t feel like all they saw was a boring, plain, old girl. I felt something that to this day I don’t ever remember feeling. I felt beautiful. I felt strong. I felt real, in a way my eating disorder could never provide.

That night I pulled out every cent of spending money I had saved for months, and the next day, I spent four hours getting my hair bleached, conditioned, colored, sealed and styled. For the next four months, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t just not want to cry, but I actually smiled. I found myself just staring at myself in the morning in the bathroom and at the beauty school or just catching my reflection in a window on the street. I was happy.

The next time I came close to relapsing, I began to panic. I could feel it coming. I could feel myself slipping, my life turning upside down. So I sat back in that chair, and when I opened my eyes, it may not have been the same rush as the first time, but I could finally smile. I opened my eyes and sighed in relief. Even with blue hair color staining my ears and streaked down my face (because the newer girl didn’t know how to keep clean,) I was happy.

Anyone can be unhappy with how their body looks, and it takes years to change your health and a lifetime to change a mindset you grew up with. It can take only a few comments or a funny look from a stranger to tear down everything you’ve been working for. Something simple can take you back to square one. You can’t control the world, and you certainly can’t put a time limit on how long it takes to heal.

Yet, it only takes an hour and a half in the chair to make me feel beautiful again. It only takes me 10 minutes of putting color swatches to my cheek to take my life back, to make my body my own again. No one can take that away from me.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 10, 2017
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