“Let’s dye your hair—it’s much too dark for your pale face.”
My foster mother said this to the hairdresser as if I wasn’t sitting right there—as though I were some specimen, some object to be decided upon and shaped up. She meant well, she really did, but I liked my black, thick, wavy hair. It was one of the only things I had left. Often foster youth are uprooted with nothing but a bag of items—but my hair was mine, natural, something I could link back to my parents. It was like a photograph in a locket. And I wore it with me each day.
But there in the salon chair, I felt a pang of shame somewhere deep in my chest. Was I bad? Did I look bad? Was dark hair bad?
“Well, it is her natural color,” the hairdresser pointed out, fussing with my hair. She threw me a sincere pity smile. She could also hear the almost-bite in my foster mother’s snappy statement.
Still, I ended up getting the damn highlights. It was a week before prom, and for some ungodly reason, I let these people smear caramel streaks all over my head. I’ll just say it: The new hair totally sucked. It washed me out. Against my pale skin, it made me look even more tired. And worse, it took my Mediterranean me-ness away (which my mother always called “striking”). I happened to like looking like Wednesday Addams.
But to my foster mother, the dye job turned the dial from “strange girl with too-dark hair” to “acceptable.”
I couldn’t figure out why she wanted me to change. I think—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—it was because my black hair made me look as dark as I felt inside. Maybe my foster mother just thought I’d feel prettier at my 2005 prom if I looked like a chunky-haired ’90s sitcom character. Perhaps she wanted to physically brighten me up so that I’d emotionally brighten up, too. But the dye just didn’t feel like that to me. It felt like I was being erased.
Don’t lose yourself. It sounds so simple, but for foster kids, it can feel impossible.
Rewind a few years back to when I moved in with these foster parents… I was entering 10th grade for the second time—the first go-round I failed as my family fell apart: my parents with their addictions; the homeless shelters. I was young and lost, and I’d had severe PTSD from all the chaos and lack of family structure. It didn’t help that I ended up with a foster family in a new town, in a new school, and in a new life.
This new high school was totally different for me from my previous one. It was smack-dab in the middle of modern-day Pleasantville. Wealthy families, perfect-looking houses, cars for graduation. And everyone was absolutely obsessed with their looks. I’m talking tanning salons after class, makeup at 7 a.m., intense workout routines, pricey clothes, designer handbags, and nose jobs.
But I had just come from real poverty, from a town where beauty and fashion were completely different. There, people don’t have the money for Prada bags. We don’t wear $75 yoga pants. Suddenly, my black tank top and jeans started to look dumpy. I was supposed to wear boutique outfits and Uggs. I was supposed to blow out my hair and cover my fair skin with department-store foundation.
My look at the time was red lips and black, wavy hair—inspired by Old Hollywood and Italian film stars. But that wasn’t what worked at this school.
Now, I didn’t—and don’t—care what other people do to feel beautiful. It’s important to respect others’ approach to self-care and presentation. But back then, I felt like the only piece without a puzzle. I questioned my own reflection. I even got my ass into a tanning bed once, also right before prom. I felt like such a farce. This wasn’t me! Who was I trying to tan for anyway? Other girls’ acceptance?
All I wanted was to fit in. Today, I think of the 270,000 school-aged foster kids who have to go through it alone, too, sometimes lacking any sort of support at all. Add to that typical high school insecurities. It’s tough.
Not to mention I was keeping my foster care situation a big bad secret. (No foster kid wants to have to answer, “So where are your parents?” or “Do you live in an orphanage?” or—even better—“How come you never bring anyone over to your house?”) All the other girls were so beautiful, so well-primped, so tan, so toned, so normal—and I felt so alone, so invisible, so strange.
There was a major pity party happening inside my head, but below all those feelings, I knew I had to stay strong. In order to do that, I had to stay true to who I was—resist letting myself feel ashamed and becoming one of the rest of them. Don’t lose yourself: It sounds so simple, but for foster kids, it can feel impossible.
So after prom, I decided to dye my hair back to black. I kept my red lips. I kept my eyeliner (which my foster mother also called “too dark”). I wore what I wanted to wear, I refused invitations to the tanning salon, and I followed the trends I liked. I had to accept that becoming part of the hive wouldn’t make me better or enough. I wouldn’t save me from being the new foster kid in town. It would actually make me more invisible.
It’s typical for foster youth to need a personal self-care ritual. It gives you agency and something stable to hold onto in a world that’s constantly changing around you beyond your control.
I wish my 31-year-old self could go back, wrap that young girl up in my arms, and tell her that her story (and her unique look) would become armor, a signifier, a sign of strength. It wasn’t a symbol of badness or otherness or not-good-enough-ness.
As I moved on to college, I experimented more and more with my look. At this point, I’d aged out of foster care and become close with my mother again. It wasn’t an easy time. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I ever will heal from it. But it gave me resilience, grace, and compassion—for others and for myself. The way I treated myself, and the way I made myself up—carefully applying a ’50s winged eye, avoiding the tanning bed, wearing SPF even on cloudy days—became a form of healing. In fact, it’s typical for foster youth to need a personal self-care ritual. It gives you agency and something stable to hold onto, in a world that’s constantly changing around you beyond your control.
It’s important for me to acknowledge the other foster youth (about 500,000 of them per year)—along with kids who were or are neglected, abused, and invisible to their families or society in some way. Most of the time foster youth worry about far greater things than beauty products—like where they’ll live next, who will feed them, if their parents are going to be okay.
Still, it’s key to remember that these kids are going through the school system just like everyone else. And they probably feel invisible, forgotten, or broken. And sometimes, the day-to-day things that help them feel grounded and powerful are things as simple as choosing a lipstick color that makes them feel like themselves.
Every beauty decision I’ve ever made since that time is very consciously my own—these are decisions to be my authentic self, to showcase my looks, and to be unapologetic about it. This is what growing up in foster care taught me: To say I’m not sorry for being different, for being the other, for taking up space, or, simply, for being me.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff… So welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideofBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
Opening Image: Urban Outfitters