Male teen plumage goes fluorescent

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The Araboolies lived on Liberty Street. They came from "an island far away, where people are born with colorful skin," and they were never the same color from day to day. They had wonderful pets: anteaters, porcupines, elephants, walruses, and sloths; "a wok, a few popalocks and a wild barumpuss!"

They made for wonderful neighbors. We read about them every night in Sam Swope's "The Araboolies of Liberty Street" (Clarkson N. Potter, 1989), and now an Araboolie has moved into our family. Or perhaps it is my son who has moved in with the Araboolies. At any rate, my high-schooler's hair color is never the same from day to day.

Yesterday it was Blue Hawaii, a deep-azure shade similar to the color of Papa Smurf. Today he has opted for Lime Spyder, the color of Gatorade. These are not colors found in nature, although there are certain parrots and cockatiels that come close. And perhaps that's the point. This is, after all, male plumage.

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I drove my son and two cohorts to a movie a few weeks ago, when the color rotation began. David Bowie would be proud: Three teenage males in the back of my car, talking with great zeal about hair color. Not their natural hair color, but their adopted colors. Their manufactured color - "Rock Star hair colors," as it said on the side of one bottle of coloring potion.

Their technical knowledge was impressive. The young men discussed such predicaments as how to dye naturally dark hair fluorescent purple, how to obtain spikes like a wild barumpuss, and how to use gel products to hold linguinilike swirls of naturally curly hair.

Listening to accounts of their washing and dyeing episodes at home made me wonder whether they had equal expertise in returning the family towels to their original color. I imagined Lime Spyder towels at our house.

Chaperoning at a recent school dance for sixth-to-eighth-graders, I continued my observations of the rock-star hair-color phenomenon. Boys from around town traipsed into the school gym with all manner of colors and coiffures, looking outrageous and loving it: platinum, spiked, Appaloosa, gelled, slicked, and sculpted exuberantly paraded, matching their tight, hoppity dancing to the deejay's groove. They even enjoyed being photographed. And this at a developmental stage traditionally characterized by the great bipolar tension between a desire to distinguish oneself and the desire to simply blend in!

I remember this ironic phase - my life as a groovy eighth-grader in the time zone between Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Experimenting with rock-star hair was a great preoccupation. However, back then we boys were severely limited in our grooming options, just as the rock stars were. Pushing the fashion envelope simply meant not grooming - neglecting our hair and fending off dad's pressure to cut it.

Today's trendy boys have tech support: a rainbow of colors (permanent and temporary), sparkles, strong gel, the marvel of their peers, tired parents. We could only grow long hair, which led to some unfortunate yearbook photos from the 1970s. "Dad! You were such a geek!" my daughters inform me, discovering my 12th grade 'fro. Funny, I only recollect being cool.

I do grant that my eighth-grade colleagues and I did not dance with the grace, rhythmic athleticism, and lack of self-consciousness I observed at the dance. We felt fortunate to shift from foot to foot as Led Zeppelin played "Black Dog," much less achieve hairdos like Ziggy Stardust.

In the time before MTV, only the most outrageous rock stars had authorization to push the fashion envelope. Shock-grooming tactics of the current middle-school male - flamboyant, bright coloring worthy of birds of paradise - must be the enactment of an ancient ritual of our species. Every generation must achieve new ways to shock its parents. It's a rite of passage extending back, in my lifetime at least, to Elvis, the first rock star to act as Adolescent-Orc-at-Large in our culture; the first Araboolie.

Could this code de plumage be linked in some way to survival of the species, producing stronger, more capable generations? Does the search for longer-lasting glow-in-the-dark colors, better streaks, and higher and more interesting spikes help to assure the perpetuity of humankind's flamboyance and funky dance steps? Who is to say what this generation may accomplish as purple-haired 40-something males? The dye is cast.

Such fantastic privileges are wasted on the young, who lack the experience to understand the rights and responsibilities of their innovations. It is we mature men of the tribe - alas, too staid now to signify our life force with popalock headdresses - who have the wisdom to grasp its meaning. We must be content to blend.

But we cannot say we didn't have our chance, unaware of the grander design in our grooming outrages. I just hope these young men will endure suitably embarrassing yearbook photos 20 years from now. That, too, is a rite of passage.

Long live Blue Hawaii and Lime Spyder. Araboolies Forever.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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