Rinsing off the last bit of the brown hair dye from my hair, my mom looked at me and went, “You were right, you do look better with yellow hair.” I looked her at with my go-to “I told you so” face while lamenting for my blonde hair. It has become a nonverbal agreement between my parents and I that every time I go back to China, I would cut my hair short and dye it back to my natural color. Failing to correct my hair to the acceptable color before going home, plus getting a comment from my aunt who found my new hair color “interesting,” my mom suddenly decided it would be “ a lot of fun” if we dyed our hair together.
So here is the thing, I am a guy who happens to look and sound like a girl. Because of this, my parents would always force me to cut my hair whenever it reaches a “misleading” length. Since I came to the U.S. for college away from home, I decided to grow my hair out and just let people think whatever they think of me. Let’s face it, there will always be people who love you and those who hate you regardless of who you are or how you look.
In my sophomore year, I realized just having long hair was boring so I started experimenting with different colors. My experiments, however, was soon paused because my parents were frustrated that they had to explain my gender to other people whenever they show pictures of me with long light-colored hair. Hence the nonverbal agreement, criteria of such agreement entails me not sending them any pictures of myself with long hair, no video chatting with long hair, cutting my hair before going back home, and saying “okay” whenever my mom feels my hair’s too long and might cause confusion. At this point, you may think that I am portraying my Chinese parents as conservative, strict, and cold-hearted monsters. The truth, on the contrary, is that they are subjects of others’ perceptions and as much as they love me, they want me to be accepted by society. I, however, was tired of keeping up with a “socially acceptable” appearance at that point in my life. So as any rebellious college kid would do, I began to see my hair choice as a symbol of freedom as if my long light-colored hair is a liberating agent that could set me free from repression.
Or so I believed.
One day, I was chatting with my fellow international students from CCT about receptions and influence of American media in different countries. During the conversation, I suddenly brought up the question with my friend, “sometimes I wonder if I dyed my hair because I want to be free or if I want to be white?” I was shocked by this idea and instinctively I think “no.” In fact, I think I have just been repressing this concept into my unconscious and it was only brought to my conscious by a Freudian slip.
So here is a logical connection between my hairstyle and whiteness. I treat my hair as a sign of liberation since having yellow hair in many East Asian cultures is a characteristic that it belongs to the misfits. Being a fan of American culture, I have learned to see the U.S. as the “land of the free.” Subconsciously I joined together two signifiers of freedom and arrived at the logical conclusion that if I wanted to become the opposite of what my parents want me to be, I would have to dye my hair in a color that not only is outside the acceptable range of my own culture but also as a sign of liberation. This is why I wonder if my intention of dying my hair comes down to: do I want to be free by becoming someone else?
In Orientalism, Edward Said maintains that westernization is so potent that people of the East would see themselves as enslaved beings who could only be liberated through means of the West.1 This is exactly what I did, thinking dyeing my hair to a common color in the States would aid me to express my suppressed desires and identity.
Did dyeing my hair set me free from repressions? Not really. People are people, regardless of where we come from, we are bonded to social contracts to behave and to think in certain ways to obtain a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging, however, is sometimes overrated. Especially if you are begging for acceptance from people, and they only treat you as a subject of gossip to kill time. What we assign as socially acceptable or even desirable is arbitrary and only significant at a symbolic level. Sometimes individuals read into the symbolic structure of another culture to look for ways of liberation through symbolic means. These means only make them, like myself, feel symbolically liberated yet only to feel disgruntled once the action is complete. This creates a chain of desire that can only be temporarily satisfied while leaving the root of problems unaffected.2
I am not blaming anyone or any culture, it is how it is. To me, it is more meaningful to be aware of the root of the problem rather than grabbing the easy solution you can find in media, hoping it might instantly make the current situation somehow better. The only way out of this, in my situation, is to dissociate my hair from what I perceive as my identity, which is difficult to do because we experience reinforcement of fixed gender role expectations everywhere.
These reinforcements often take place on media. A class offered at CCT called Critical Theory Class helped me to look deeper into the relationship between ego formation and the culture industry critically. Jacques Lacan maintains the ego formation is a process of objectification of self in the “mirror stage (Lacan 1986, 735).” The mirror stage initiates when infants lose a degree of autonomy upon realizing they are visible objects in the mirror. The sense of losing autonomy generates fear, which can be eased by rationalization through tangible objects. As a result, by identifying with the object, children obtain an integrated sense of self. The exponential growth of the culture industry has set numerous waves of gender expectations via public figures.
These mass-produced images serve as a mirror for people to look and to compare. The process of self comparison with the ideal images in media can be detrimental as it creates a dangerously homogenous society that treats being different as deviant. I do not know if there is way to achieve self-actualization without the perfect images in media nowadays. I do, however, believe there should be a way to take power back from media so that we can obtain the autonomy over what defines us as meaningful independent beings.
 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin, 2003.
 Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud.” In 1965, Critical Theory Since, by Jacques Lacan, 738-756. Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1986.