Dying one’s hair is changing one’s appearance. Why would someone do that? Is it as simple a matter as changing one’s shirt? What is really going on when people dye their hair?
When we consider what clothing to wear, we consider practical matters and appearance. On the one hand, we wear more or less clothing depending on the temperature and perhaps a raincoat if it is raining. That’s being practical. On the other hand, we wear particular styles and colors of clothing because we want to appear a certain way, even if it is only to please ourselves. So, you wear a coat because it is cold, and you wear a particular style and color of coat because you want to look good.
Our appearance does matter because, right or wrong, people judge us on our appearance. We learn from an early age that, right or wrong, our clothing reflects on us and affects how people react to us. You don’t show up at a job interview or a wedding in a ratty t-shirt. When you go out on the town you “dress to impress.” You present yourself in certain ways to encourage people to think about you in certain ways.
But of course, your question is about using hair dye. Like clothing, when we think about our hair we consider practical matters and appearance. We may choose a particular hair style for purely practical reasons: to keep it out of eyes or make it easy to take care of it. But our hair color has no practical function—it is purely a matter of appearance. Choosing hair color is different than choosing clothing—you only use hair dye if you are trying to present yourself as appearing a certain way.
Understanding this we can then ask what is someone trying to present when they change their hair color? Why are they trying to change how they are judged by others? It’s certainly possible someone dyes their hair a color they like, but we don’t see our own hair that much, so it’s more likely that someone dyes their hair to get others to think and feel about them a certain way. So that’s the full question here—what is someone wanting to get from others by using hair dye?
Central to social life is the need for recognition. In philosophy we talk about two kinds of recognition. One type is about honors and awards—who are the best at something, The other more common type of recognition is being accepted and included by others. For example, we learn to be polite because we learn that we benefit from the acceptance and inclusion we receive when we are nice to others. Any society has a large set of practices that are considered normal and acceptable. These recognition norms set out what is socially acceptable behavior and how we should think about and respond to others. These norms aren’t always about moral judgments, though many of them are. Think about it, one of the reasons we wear clothing is to receive recognition for being civilized enough to wear clothes! Try going out in public naked and you’ll quickly learn how important is that simple recognition.
You may wonder what recognition norms there are about hair color. Well, remember that recognition norms tell us how we should think about and respond to others. If someone has gray hair, others assume that person is old. The appearance of gray hair triggers people’s preconceptions about old people and how to respond to them. Some will respect older people; some will dismiss older people as frail and less capable. It’s understandable why someone with gray hair might consider dying their hair a darker color. They want to be judged as a younger person, not an older person. They want to get the positive recognition of being young and capable, not the negative recognition of being old and less capable.
What about women who bleach their hair blonde? They are seeking a particular type of recognition related to gender norms of what an attractive woman is supposed to look like. Who invented the notion that a bleached blonde is sexy? No one knows, but how many women bleach their hair because there is a social norm that tells them it makes them sexier? These women want to get the positive recognition of being a blonde.
In both cases—changing from gray or changing to blonde—using hair dye is choosing to conform to recognition norms. These people want to receive particular judgments from others. They want to be seen more favorably by others. One could criticize this use of hair dye by saying these people are conforming to social norms rather than being themselves. Why can’t they accept their gray hair? Why do they think their natural hair color isn’t acceptable? Why would someone try to be something they aren’t?
What about someone who dyes their hair neon red, orange, or green? Certainly they aren’t conforming to social norms, right? Maybe not, or are they conforming to the norms of a counterculture? There are some standard, well-known ways to “rebel” against what is “normal.” Maybe that person with the bright blue hair is just having fun playing with color, or maybe that person is seeking recognition through conformity, just from a different group of people from the “normal.”
It’s wrong to make blanket judgments about people. We shouldn’t judge by appearances but instead recognize that everyone is an individual. Yet, thinking philosophically about dying one’s hair shows how people feel a need and desire to conform. As good philosophers, we look at possible reasons underlying actions and then look at individual cases. Why do people use hair dye? Some just for fun, others to fit into a preconceived idea.