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On being cis-haired*

Fern Hickson discusses the cis-haired phenomenon - a person whose visible hair colour aligns with their biological hair colour.

Names have been changed to protect identities.

I must start with a disclaimer, which is almost mandatory these days: I state categorically that I am not hairist and have nothing against people of any hair colour. Some of my best friends are red-haired. I myself am cis-haired but don’t rush to judge me. You may be cis-haired too. 

*cis-haired = a person whose visible hair colour aligns with their biological hair colour. 

I only discovered my new hair status recently. My neighbour and her daughter, Petra, were over for New Year drinks and I was shocked to see her gorgeous red curls were now straight and dyed jet black. As I’ve already stated, I like all types of hair, whether straight or curly, dyed or natural, and think colouring hair is an individual choice. But Petra’s new hair took me by surprise because she had so often said how much she loved being a redhead. I have known Petra since she was a baby and burst out with regret at the loss of her beautiful and distinctive red hair. Instead of consoling me, Petra objected:

“Red-haired is not who I am! On the inside, I’ve always been black-haired and I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t be hairist.” That didn’t sound like a nice thing to be, so I asked what on earth she was talking about. 

Petra informed me that there is a new way of experiencing hair. Some people don’t feel their hair colour is right for them and it makes them very unhappy. Fortunately, they can change their hair colour any time they like to become the person they truly are. And there’s a whole new language that clarifies the hair-volution. 

People who say you can be your authentic self without dyeing your hair are hairphobic. If they notice that a blonde or brunette is really a redhead, they are mishairing. Worse is deadhairing, where people cruelly insist on mentioning a person’s former hair colour. If someone stops colouring their hair and reverts to their natural hair colour, they become a traitor to the transhair cause. 

People like me, who are comfortable with their natural hair colour, are cishaired. But that may not be a good thing. Apparently being cis can be quite staid and boring. Colouring your hair is much more unique and sparkling!

Petra said it’s mean and unscientific to point out that no-one can actually change their natural hair colour. I wanted to tell her that even while she is dyeing her hair black, inside her body the hair follicles will keep on pumping out her lovely biological red hair. She’ll be paying out for hair colouring for the rest of her life. But I kept my thoughts to myself. Who wants to be hairphobic? 

Petra was all excitement and enthusiasm. Like many other sparkling new blondes and brunettes, she wants to be able to self-identify her hair colour and hide that she was ever a redhead.  She thinks that everyone else should agree wholeheartedly that her visible hair colour is exactly like natural hair. Otherwise they are bigots and not worth knowing.   

Hang on a minute, I thought. Haven’t we humans always had a spectrum of hair colours ranging from black to blonde, with a small percentage of redheads? Some of the redheads preferred to be blonde, some black-haired, and some chose non-binary brunette. No-one minded too much because we could usually still see their roots. 

True, the redheads did quite often get picked on, which is why we marched in the street fifty years ago, demanding equal rights for all hair colours. We wanted an end to the stereotypes associated with different hair colours – blonde bimbo, simmering brunette, volatile redhead. A lot of progress was made towards acceptance of every shade of hair colour. We even managed to win equal status for curly hair and straight hair. 

According to Petra, that is all being overturned. Natural hair colour equality is being renounced. Redheads are declaring they genuinely belonged to one of the hair stereotypes all along. Other people, dismayed by being branded phobic, are agreeing that it’s okay to deny reality. It’s okay to pretend we all can’t see the roots. Even some cis-haired people are joining the trend because, well, it’s trendy. 

But this trend is not harmless. Some parents are now raising their children hair-neutral and don’t refer to their child’s hair colour for fear of forcing them into a hair role they haven’t chosen. Schools are teaching children to wonder if they might have been born into the wrong hair colour. Most disturbing of all, there are suggestions that minors with the ‘wrong’ hair colour could be offered irreversible and disfiguring hair follicle transplants. 

When Petra described her own deep desire for a hair follicle transplant, I knew I had to speak up. I asked Petra to love the hair she was born with. I said:

“Don’t judge yourself by your hair colour. Dye your hair if you want to, but don’t claim your dyed hair is the same as a natural colour. You don’t need to transform your body to be accepted. And don’t expect everyone else to change their language to suit you.”

Alas, my wise words fell on deaf ears. Petra was over the fence in no time, shouting that I am a horrible hairphobe. I was cut off. 

Petra’s mother and I fervently hope Petra has a change of heart and mind by next New Year. We want the unique and sparkling red-haired Petra back. She doesn’t need to comply with a hair stereotype to be someone special. 

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. I won’t be joining the hair-volution. I will not accept the restrictive stereotypes, the damage to healthy young bodies, or the distortion of our language. Next time someone calls me cis-haired, I will be correcting them. Because that is not who I am. 

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Fern Hickson

Fern Hickson is a writer and resource developer on educational, social, and women's issues. Her background is in teaching and curriculum development and she lives in New Zealand.

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