‘I just want to go back to normality’: how repeated lockdowns changed our hair habits

In 2020, stay-at-home orders prompted colourful experimentation – but this year, it was sales of dye stripper that spiked during Australia’s lockdowns

In the middle of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, I decided I needed to do something about my hair.

With the chances of restrictions easing looking less and less likely, I caved and ordered a tube of toner that my hairdresser promised would stop my blonde highlights turning Simpsons-yellow. As I clumsily slathered the cream on to my split ends, I noticed the name of the shade: “light beige”.

I’m not the only one who has resorted to box dye. Online hair and beauty retailer AMR reported that revenue for hair dye products was up by 240% in August 2021, compared with August 2020. It’s not just hair dye that people were after. Revenue for hair dye remover also increased by 194% this August, compared with last.

At the same time, parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland were facing stay-at-home orders and rising case numbers. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

Something seems different about the way we tackled our hair in 2021. In Sydney’s first lockdown, reassured that no one would see me in public, I dyed my hair an unnatural shade of pink.

Left: Justine’s ‘mauve rose’ hair in 2020; right: back to ‘light beige’ in 2021.
Left: Justine’s ‘mauve rose’ hair in 2020; right: back to ‘light beige’ in 2021. Composite: Justine Landis-Hanley

And I wasn’t alone. Several hairdressers I spoke to at the time said that a surge of clients were opting for bright shades of blue, pink and purple while stuck in isolation, no longer bound by the workplaces’ strict dress codes.

Melbourne hairdresser Paul Sandowsky agreed that his clients were “experimenting more and just mucking around with hair colour”.

“The first lockdown, I had a lot of my clients’ daughters, in their teens, take lots of bleach to their hair … I had a good handful of people come in and I needed to sort of spend five hours fixing what they’d destroyed basically in the first lockdown,” Sandowsky says.

He adds that, at the other end of the spectrum, he saw older clients choosing to grow out their colour and embrace their natural grey hairs. By comparison, during Melbourne’s latest lockdowns, more clients have been asking Sandowsky to mix up their colour and leave it in the mailbox, so they can touch up their roots at home. Many, like me, are playing it safe with colour.

My friend Michael Sun (who is now employed by Guardian Australia) added neon-green streaks to his black hair as Sydney headed into its first lockdown last year. But the streaks have since grown out and been chopped off. Stuck at home since June, Sun says he’s just sat through “many months of my hair getting progressively longer and longer”.

“It just looks extremely moppy right now.”

While last year’s lockdown announcement motivated him to take the plunge and switch up his look, this time around, fatigue has set in. “Last year was bored and hedonistic; this year is bored and fatalistic,” he says.

“We’re used to lockdowns. It’s very much just like, ‘we are in this for the long haul, let’s buckle in’ ... It’s like we don’t have the energy to do anything on top of surviving.”

Left: Michael Sun with green streaks in 2020; right: a ‘moppy’ cut in 2021.
Left: Michael Sun with green streaks in 2020; right: a ‘moppy’ cut in 2021. Composite: Justine Landis-Hanley/Michael Sun

The first lockdown represented a radical shift in our existence. For many it was undeniably a difficult, even scary, time. But there was also a novelty in having to stay at home, and a freedom that came with being out of the public eye.

During much of the last few months, it is life outside of lockdowns that has felt like a novelty for those of us living in Sydney and Melbourne. We spent weeks holding out for the day when we would be able to travel more than 5km from our homes, or eat dinner while seated at a restaurant.

Sandowsky says that, with restrictions lifting in Melbourne for the first time in months, he “cannot believe how many appointments are coming through”.

“I’m busy until the end of November; like 14-hour days. I’m trying to maintain one night free a week. I’m working Sundays. It’s absolutely madness,” he says.

“It’s obviously good for small business, but at the same time there is the physical and mental wellbeing aspect of trying to accommodate everyone who wants to see you and having the mental and physical energy to do that. By the time it comes to December, I would imagine I’ll be ready for lockdown seven.”

He says that ensuring everything is done safely and in compliance with government orders “adds another layer of stress to what is about to be the biggest hair-a-thon”.

Sandowsky predicts that some clients may want to significantly change their look as soon as stay-at-home orders ease, anxious to demarcate the next, hopefully freer, chapter. He says a London-based hairdresser he knows recently experienced this with her clients. “She was saying that people just want change, they want something different. It’s been so long and they just want to … start fresh.”

Sun, though, just wants his pre-pandemic hair back. “It’s going to be a haircut that I had for two years straight,” he says. “I just want to go back to normality.”

With demand for haircuts surging, the earliest appointment he could get for a trim was 12 November: “I’m practically quivering at the thought.”


Justine Landis-Hanley

The GuardianTramp

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