Perhaps like many trans and nonbinary survivors who felt dysphoric and triggered in their younger bodies, I grew up hating my long mane of curly hair. One of the first things I did upon leaving the house that haunted me was shave it all off at 3AM with tasteless music blaring, I’m sure missing clumps in the warped and dirty mirror of wherever I found myself that night. It was messy, but in that instant of growling clippers and roaring drums, it suddenly became mine- something no one else had touched or gendered, something I could find power in and even learn to make an identity from.
In the years since that first buzz cut, my hair has been as many colors as this cripplepunk could get their hands on. Experimenting with color became a way for me to bend and play with gender that felt safe, enriching, and expansive long before terms like “agender” felt safe for me because of the company I kept. It allowed me to semi-permanently transform my body image and body messages in a very kinetic, cathartic way. Hair dye lasts long enough for us to sink into trust and steadiness with our chosen reflection, but can always be changed to something that feels even better as our creative desires, seasons, or identities themselves ebb and flow. I embrace hair dye as a healing tool for trans and nonbinary survivors because its processes necessarily bring us back into relationship with our bodies: The smell of the bleach is cloying even through dissociation; needing to use cold water to close hair follicles shocks the system out of panic and reorients it to the present; vibrant colors in the mirror help ones eyes positively meet their own reflection maybe for the first time all week; working color through your hair (or having someone do it) is soothing and methodical, the opposite of post-traumatic urgency, and can be watched in the mirror for a sense of safety and grounding.
The idea of trusting someone to do your hair can be terrifying as a trans or nonbinary survivor. With the support of one of my dear friends, I got to have my first professional hair cut and dye at the tender age of 25 after years of buzzing it off in dim bathrooms or on friends’ decks with the smell of pizza following us outside. I was shaking when I walked in, struggling to get my sticker-covered rollator through the door ahead of me to enter a bright space full of smiling faces who were eager to use my name of use and make everything as accessible and enjoyable as possible. It was a magical, transformative experience to be held in creative safety by a professional stranger who saw value and art in my queercrip, survivor body. We made casual conversation to help me stay present and Erica, my hair stylist, took care to ask for consent before every decision she made even though I gave her creative liberty over my hair. She talked me through what each product was for so I felt comfortable with it being on my body and told me where her scissors were when they were cutting around the back of my head so I could feel safe not being able to see them in the mirror, always casually slipping these things into the flow of conversation so I didn’t feel like a burden.
The most healing part of that experience that cemented Erica as part of my healing crew is that she worked creatively and passionately around the cervical collar that I had to wear for my disability 24/7 while I waited for complicated surgery. My collar coupled with gender dysphoria and trauma as well as cripplepunk pride in surprising, messy ways, so for Erica to treat it with such compassion while she dyed the hair she could get to around its hard shells a cascade of purples was profoundly healing to my whole being as a nonbinary, disabled survivor. It encourages me to believe that hair stylists can bear witness to the messy and challenging body stories that trans and nonbinary survivors, disabled or otherwise, bring to the styling chair and collaborate with us to paint vibrant new narratives of gender euphoria, survivor empowerment, and joyful embodiment. They can become integral parts of our healing work.
Here are some things I’ve found helpful in working with a hair stylist as a queer, disabled survivor. If working with a professional isn’t right for you, all you have to do is grab a box of hair dye and a friend- just try to push yourself to not do it alone because part of this practice is building trust in others to help care for your body:
- Make sure they respect your name and pronouns! It can be challenging to find trans and nonbinary friendly stylists in salons in some cities, so checking online queer groups for independent stylists can be a great way to meet affirming folks. Some will even come to your home.
- Don’t be afraid to ask before everything they do: It’s your body, and no one has a right to touch it or make changes to it without your enthusiastic consent. It’s okay to ask about every product and decision your stylist makes. Because they live and breathe hair, being actively involved in what your stylist is doing will probably excite them, not bother them!
- Make use of the mirrors: If you, like me, don’t like having people behind you, take advantage of the mirrors the stylist is using to track their movements behind you and stay grounded instead of using the time in the chair to daydream or doomscroll Twitter.
- Ground through your body: To the extent that using your senses is accessible and safe, use things like the sharp smell of bleach or the weird cloth feeling and swooshing noises of the hair cutting cape to bring yourself into your body to get to experience this safe, relational, transformative and creative experience that you’re choosing for your good body to bring yourself more euphoria.
- Involve everyone: If you’re interested in getting fantasy colors, this may be a particularly good time to let your inner child have some creative fun that they didn’t get to have when your body was younger! Who better to pick riotous colors than an angsty but innately good thirteen year old?
- Take breaks if you need to: There’s no shame in needing a “bathroom break”- or several!- when getting your hair dyed. This is a big deal as a trans or nonbinary survivor; it can bring up intense feelings, memories, and body sensations, both euphoric and challenging, and it’s commendable for you to recognize when you need to take a break from having someone touching you so you can process.
- Value the healing relationship and skill: Like many survivors, I used to treat every relationship I had (and there weren’t many) as transactional and easily expendable. While it could be tempting to treat your hair stylist the same way — it is a transaction after all — a key for me that I encourage you to explore is finding a stylist you trust that you want to build a long-term relationship with as part of your healing work, even if you don’t see them often. Watching Erica tear up when I came in for the first time after the complex surgery which I’d been fighting for for two years so I wouldn’t have to wear my cervical collar anymore was a priceless moment for me, as was getting my entire head cut and dyed for the first time ever by someone who knew just how much that meant to me as a progressively disabled person. We are hurt in relationships, it’s true, but we’re also healed through them. Every opportunity for relationships that can heal our relationships to ourselves, our bodies, and others is worth taking, and a good hair stylist can facilitate all three with us as trans and nonbinary survivors.
This practice (and I believe trusting others to dye our hair as a collaborative act of creative healing is a practice, so please be patient if distressing symptoms nudge their way through as you work on gaining body joy through hair dying and styling. It will get better.) has allowed me from feeling at war with my hair for most of my life to seeing it as an artistically beautiful, gender euphoric, story-rich part of my life and healing as a nonbinary survivor. While there are plenty of resources on using things like the breath or tapping to bring us into our bodies, I think hair is unique and often overlooked. I encourage you to explore it with the support of another person, whether in a salon or popping open a box of dye with a friend next to your bathroom sink. You can always hit me up on Twitter (@CollagenThief) to tell me how it goes, and don’t forget to follow Erica on Instagram (@hairbyericamazzella) for vibrant, gender-diverse examples!
Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist
Tristen Taggart is an agender antiviolence activist pursuing their Bachelor’s Degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tristen joined FORGE as a Policy and Programming Intern in 2018 and now works as the Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist. Tristen is a queer survivor, community activist, scholar, and direct-support volunteer with an evolving focus on the intersections and divergences of queer survivorship, disability justice, and abolition in the lives of young people. They are thrilled to bring their passion and curiosity to FORGE from their hometown in Richmond, Virginia.