A need for change: The quarantine effect on college hair

By Amelia Keesler

CHAPEL HILL – It was a Friday morning in June. The rising college senior sat in the comfort of her Honda CR-V. She pulled down the sun visor and adjusted the mask that covered the lower half of her face. Her reflection had changed.

Hair above her eyebrows.

A mustache for her forehead.


A socially defined hallmark of self-doubt. A physical manifestation of internal calamity. Or in this case, quarantine boredom.

Across the country, school closures, remote learning, and quarantined isolation have redefined the American college experience. An experience typically marked by self-discovery, experimental whims and newfangled independence. The “best four years of your life,” for many university students, now spent in the depths of childhood bedrooms, forced to find new outlets for self-expression.

For some UNC-Chapel Hill students, this meant getting a new haircut.

“This past week alone, I have had 3 requests for bangs,” Darian Thornton, a hairstylist in Chapel Hill, said. “I think everyone is feeling the quarantine effect.”

The quarantine effect: A desperate attempt to find oneself in isolation by taking scissors to baby hairs, bleach to untouched roots, and pastel dye to virgin locks. A desire for change that is both overwhelming and temporary. An impulse that often finds its source in something more authentic than aesthetics.

“They say they need a change, that they need control,” Thornton said. “Hair is the first thing we go to when we need that sense of autonomy.”

Michelle Li, ‘20: The Vibrant-Tinted 180   

UNC-CH senior, Michelle Li, first dyed her hair a year ago during her semester abroad in Morocco. Her silky black hair was aqua blue, then bleach blonde, then lilac purple. She returned to school last month with a full head of cotton candy pink hair dye.

Li started bleaching her own hair in May after her summer internship was canceled, and she was forced to move back home with her parents in Boca Raton, Florida.

“I was feeling really down, really unmotivated,” Li said.

Before quarantine, Li spent her spare time with her camera, pressed against the front barricade at Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro’s live music venue. She captured artists mid-high note. Snapped silhouettes of packed arenas overflowing with strangers.

Cat’s Cradle closed in March, the same month the university ceased operation. The same month Li moved home.

“When COVID-19 happened, I recognized how much I valued my creativity even more, and I wanted to find an outlet. Dying hair has allowed me to do that.”

Li started posting her transformations on YouTube. Her first video, titled, “I dyed my hair again *I did a full 180* (with good music),” gained traction from her high school friends who started asking for their own product-induced renewal. She introduced a mask-required hair service in the familiarity of her high school bathroom. She hoped to give her friends a similar sensation of self-discovery, even if it came from a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

“In the hair dying process, you learn to love it and love yourself. It’s not about the hair color, it is about the newness, the difference, the feeling.”

Emma James, ‘21: The Mentally-Stable Bang Bob

“I spent all spring and summer in my childhood bedroom getting over health issues,” UNC-CH senior Emma James said. “It felt like the time to chop everything off.”

James medically withdrew from her spring semester due to chronic migraines. She spent the previous semester in Florence, Italy. The last time she was on campus, she was 19.

“When I got back to school, I picked up some kitchen scissors, walked into my bathroom, and walked out with bangs.”

At some undetermined moment in history, bangs, impulsive bangs, became a sign of existential crises: a marker of post-break up reinvention, a hint of crippling loneliness.

James’ scissor impulse spurred from a persistent struggle of physical exhaustion. Headaches that coerced her into the depths of her bedroom until the late afternoon. Pounding sensations that kept her from singing. Light sensitivities that dismissed her exercise routine.

A physical battle manifested into a mental battle, taking the form of curtain bangs. Curtain bangs, which became more than new facial topography. A symbol of growth, an excitement for what’s to come, a clean slate.

“In quarantine, we’ve had to step back and reflect on who we are. Cutting your hair can really be a weight lifted,” James said. “I wanted this year to feel super authentic with myself.”

Luke Collins, ‘22: The Curly Bleached Crisis 

Luke Collins had never altered his hair. No dye, no bleach, no unnatural chemical had ever touched his thick, brown, curly locks. Until a week ago.

“The last three months have been the most terrifying, but also most revelatory times of my life,” Collins said. “I felt like I had lost my sense of self, and my sense of creativity.”

Like so many others, Collins, a rising junior at UNC-CH, was left with the option of moving back to his hometown, into a bedroom he was not allowed to decorate.

He called it his “gay crisis.” An impulse inspired by pop celebrities and social media phenomena. A dramatic change provoked by domineering male presences in his home. A bottle of silver undertone purchased out of a desire for control.

“Something so seemingly small can be such a driving force in how we can relate to the inner parts of ourselves,” Collins said. “When I changed my hair color, I felt like I really had ownership over my body, a feeling I felt I lost as a child. It was like a huge weight lifted off of me, the weight from the last couple of months was being stripped away.”


The rising college senior, nestled in the comfort of her Honda CR-V, folded the sun visor back into place. She picked up her phone to a text that read, “You got bangs, and I feel like I have to ask, are you ok?”

To which I answered, “I feel lighter.”

Edited by Alana Askew