Campus Life

QUARKINESS Colorful strands

The art of hair dyeing at MIT

3894 hairdye
Katherine R. Rudolph ’14 dyed her hair ends for the first time — she dyed the tips of her hair pink last fall.
Minh Phan—The Tech
3895 hairdye 1
Cathy Wu ’12 is a big fan of the purple look. This is the first time she’s dyed her hair.
Minh Phan—The Tech
3896 hairdye 2
Benjamin S. Weissmann ’14 dyed his hair purple and blue and is looking at orange for next time.
Minh Phan—The Tech
3897 hairdye 3
Gillian Guertin ’13 has had her hair dyed purple for the past year and a half.
Minh Phan—The Tech

It’s kind of a thing at MIT to dye your hair unusual colors. Okay, I clarify: the colors are unusual by outside world standards, but not by MIT standards. Many people at the Institute have their hair dyed in an interesting assortment of colors, including hot pink, fire-truck red, construction-sign orange, Lady Gaga yellow, neon green, bright blue, deep purple, and ultraviolet (kidding about this one … I think) — it’s enough to make a rainbow, maybe even a double rainbow.

Before I applied to MIT, I recall someone saying at some info session that you couldn’t really judge MIT people by their appearances — the speaker had a perfectly wonderful advisor with blue hair. I went through seven semesters of MIT without seeing any advisor-like figures with blue hair, but then I returned from spring break this year and, wow, one of my instructors came back from vacation with vivid blue hair! Dyed hair at MIT is not just a student thing, as it turns out.

This weekend, we’ll probably see a spike in the number of people on campus with dyed hair. East Campus, the Phoenix group, and Pika are all running hair-dyeing CPW events (with permanent and temporary options). Jessie C. Agatstein ’12 from East Campus is a seasoned hair-dyer for such festivities. “There’s nothing quite like sitting out in the courtyard on a patch of dirt that grass has long ago forsaken … breathing in the fresh scent of bleach burning your hands,” she said.

Ah, one of the catches of hair-dyeing. The first question of hair-dyeing is whether to bleach it. Many people bleach their hair before dyeing it. Bleach reacts with hair by irreversibly removing hair pigments, leaving behind only keratin, the structural protein of hair, which has a natural color of yellow. As a result, bleaching usually turns hair blonde, or at least blondish. For more stubbornly dark hair (ahem, mine), an insufficient dose of bleach will remove less pigment and leave hair red. Bleach’s role in dyeing is twofold: first, it lightens hair through depigmentation, making it easier to see the dye (no hair dye is going to show up on really dark hair); second, it opens up the outermost part of the hair, allowing the dye to seep into the inner shaft and deposit color. Bleach makes color pop and stick, and it also makes your skin sting.

The second question of hair-dyeing is of style. Which parts of your hair are you going to dye? All your hair? Tips? Streaks? One streak? Bangs?

The third question is of color. At hair-dyeing events, Agatstein usually says, “Sure — I can do any color you want. Well, I’m not a huge fan of green. And orange is gross. And red fades to orange. And purple fades to pink. And I just ran out of blue. So sit down, strap up, and get some pink in your hair.”

And then there’s color arrangement, and a lot of people get creative about that. I’ve seen a girl who had a rainbow (literally) assortment of colors streaked through her hair. I’ve seen a couple of people who somehow managed to tie-dye their hair. One of my friends once dyed his hair in a pattern corresponding to the four lobes of the cerebral cortex. In reaction to all of the unusual hair dyeing, which seemed especially in vogue at the beginning of this school year, somebody said in jest, “In order to stand out, you can’t just have dyed hair. You’ve got to do a crazy color pattern with it.”

Crazy pattern or not, dyed hair is pretty commonplace at MIT. It’s a happy reminder that our community here is colorful, both literally and figuratively.