Lilac Hair and Septum Rings: the promises and pitfalls of the “alternative look”

By Madeleine Galvin

Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to dye my hair lilac and pierce my septum with a gold hoop. The piercing has been a long time coming; it was inspired by a girl I saw last summer who wore it so well at this crowded Die Antwood concert where I was high off my ass, jumping when the crowd was still, and rocking back and forth as the ground rolled under my feet. I found the girl on Instagram afterwards* where she proudly posted images of her high-end nostril decor.

The lilac hair came from a house party filled with a ton of people, most of whom I knew, few of whom I liked. Another girl, less entrancing than the first, just a mere distraction rather than a fascination in this case, passed by me as I sat awkwardly with a group of people who probably seemed like my close friends. The lilac haired girl had her purple tresses tied into a knot on the top of her head that formed a salutation to the ceiling. In this moment, I wondered what it might be like to be the girl with purple hair whenever I walked into a room of these in-between people who are not exactly friends, yet not strangers. Maybe they would notice me more, forced to acknowledge my presence simply due to my unconventional hair color.

That very night, a kind stranger took a picture of the people I was with, the ones who outwardly appeared to be my friends. I was in this picture. On the outskirts, yes, but still an active, participating member of the photograph. Days later I saw it on Instagram, a beautiful relic of these girls with whom I had spent my time that night. I was not in the picture. At first, I assumed it was taken before or after I had entered the scene–how ridiculous would it be to crop out an equally youthful and unobtrusive member of the group? Yet upon closer inspection, I realized that in the back of the photograph, which was so perfectly filtered with tints probably called ‘Austin’ or ‘Judith,’ was a flash of my mother’s pearl ring, the exact ring at which I am looking as I type these words. My hand was left as the shadow of my presence; the rest of my appearance had been deemed too damaging on the real friend group to fully enter the scene. It seems that I wasn’t cut out because my appearance stood out from the others, but rather because it didn’t. This leaves me to wonder, would I have been so mercilessly cropped out of the picture had I been lilac-haired and interestingly pierced? Or would my appearance have been considered a worthy contribution to the group, distinct enough to merit my presence in the final edit?

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Art by Annika Bjerke

There are intrinsic flaws with passing judgments on the basis of one’s physical appearance, but this behavior seems to be allowed when it comes to making invitations into a friend group. It is as if having a distinguishing label (and consequently, a distinguishing physical appearance) is a prerequisite for membership in some groups. This may be because people are often attracted to characteristics in others that they feel are missing in themselves, and it makes me wonder if dying my hair purple is actually a necessary step to be included in a friend group, or how others would interpret me differently if my appearance was slightly outside of the accepted norm. In this case, is it worth putting effort into differentiating my appearance if it is just going to lead to friendships based on superficial qualifications? Some may claim that they wear pink lipstick because pink lipstick makes them feel free/beautiful/untouchable, but I think that even if I were totally confident in my looks, I still would have had my head removed from the friends’ picture as quickly as the Red Queen from Wonderland beheaded those around her. That is not to say that one cannot wear pink lipstick to feel confident, even if it does also make them more attractive on a superficial level. I don’t think that being excluded in this case was due to not having enough confidence, or any interior quality really; it seems that social acceptance was merited on the basis of differentiation, on assuming the character of something alternative, which thereby would make someone an enticing addition to a friend group. Issues with this arise when the superficial performance of an alternative stereotype is the reason why others feel more inclined to associate themselves. People tend to prefer this type of association instead of making decisions about friendship on the basis of one’s personality or a genuine interest to get to know someone.

In my experience, people often want to form transient links between themselves and whatever alternative label the so-called “different” person is associated with. It is as if physically distinguishing oneself is a characteristic that can rub off on others; therefore, having a friend with a different look within one friend group can allow for individual members to expand their own network. They can then make introductions upon encountering another admirably different person by saying, “Nice septum ring, my friend has one too,” and the whipping out a photo of the friend group and the friend with the piercing. In this we have a real problem, as many people work hard to overcome stereotypes that they don’t choose to be associated with, and here we have others (myself included) who crave the label of an alternative stereotype just because it can be of use in some uncomfortable social situations. Crazy, huh.

In this way, some friend groups end up being held together by the weak connection of wanting to be considered stylistically diverse and look to outsiders to form these connections. When friendships become based on unsubstantial criteria such as one’s Instagram aesthetic— which really portrays only a fraction of a person, and a rather edited fraction at that—they disregard their interiority and tend to move in the direction of superficiality. Take into consideration that this does not have to extend to all friend groups, and there are many that are based off of genuine compatibility. I simply speak of a growing trend that seems to be amplified by social media usage.

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Art by Annika Bjerke

This is more than the issue of college struggles with friends and those who do not quite make the cut; the need for changing one’s physical appearance can also come from a deep desire to differentiate oneself from those who might also classify their interests as non-mainstream. There is definitely a competitive aspect to this; take, for example, writing, which is considered an alternative passion, especially for those who wish to make it a long-term career option. In this case, one’s physical appearance can play a role and serve as a marker of dedication to this passion. But then what happens when everyone who has chosen this career path decides to differentiate themselves via their physical appearance? Then we just have a situation where to not be alternative becomes the alternative, and all because people are trying to say, “Fuck you, I’m dedicated,” which they do by changing their physical appearance with facial modifications and other signifiers of eccentricity. Maybe the reasons for doing this are pure, but it seems to me that striving to look a particular way because it is “required” by a field of study or a career track is actually just another way of falling prey to stereotypes that feed on an inherent desire for social acceptance. But let me be clear—everyone is looking for social acceptance in some way; I just would like people to reconsider the methods used to reach this feeling.

I am not sure if purple hair is going to bring me further away or closer to demonstrating my diverse interests or increasing my social acceptability in a productive manner, especially since the looks that I have identified as alternative are things that I have seen on other people and therefore would not make me very different. Sure, purple hair and septum rings are cool, but they are definitely representative of a particular type of look that has already existed. Therefore those who seek to associate with this look— either through their friends or through their own physical appearance—may actually be more interested in the implications of these stylistic choices. This is perfectly acceptable, as we have been copying the style of others for two millennia at this point, and inspiration has to come from somewhere. (Don’t we have that saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?) The reason that I strongly encourage people to reconsider making initial judgments based on physical appearance (of which I am also culpable) is due to the fact that there is probably a lot more original content to be found within the person, as opposed to that which is openly displayed on their exterior.

*We have become meticulous in our documentation of events; the in- formation we provide to the world is now so detailed and exacting. No longer is it appropriate to tag a photo with “Upper West Side;” it has to be the Starbucks on West 96th and Broadway, just in case someone was really, really curious. (This is just example of the “extraness” of today’s society, but not necessarily the topic of this article.)

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