I’ve had the same haircut for my entire life. Mid-length, parted on the left side. It’s a style that’s easy to execute with my straight Goldilocks hair (it’s not too thick, not too thin—it’s just right). So easy that I’ve never even seen one hairdresser consistently—sometimes that means I end up with slight layers, but in general it’s pretty hard to mess up. And day to day, I just shower, go to sleep, and run a straightener through it in the morning. In the winter, I’ll get it lightened once or twice, but other than that, it’s au naturel. It works; I like it.

Or rather, I liked it. A few weeks back, the start of spring meant that everyone around me was doing something differently—going from brunette to blonde or back again, or showing up to work in an unspeakably smart suit on a Wednesday. Beyond switching to iced coffee, I fully expected my spring to be same-old, same-old in the good, habitual company of my side part. But when I went in to get an “easy’ maintenance cut, seeing an unfamiliar stylist backfired—he razored in layers with a heavy hand. My ends looked like I put on the wooliest pair of socks and scooted my feet all over the carpet—standing on end, all the time. It was meant-to-blend-in hair gone bad. Say what you will about the virtues of having a signature hairstyle, but complacency is not a good look. The bad razor job sealed the deal: I needed to change something— anything—about my hair.

They say start small, so I looked to the one thing I thought I could easily change: my part. Hair parted straight down the center takes confidence—both in yourself and in your facial symmetry. Simply put, there’s less to hide behind (unless you’re working with Blake Lively’s cascading waves). That sort of length and body is out of the question for me, so the real task at hand was just moving my part from the side to the middle. I figured it’d require some quick DIY combing after my next shower, and I’d be good to go.

But if it were that easy, there’d be no story here. I ran into problems—plural—the first of which was color. Because my hair lightens up a lot during the summer, and over the years I’ve also gotten highlights, the color in the centermost vicinity of my head was noticeably less blond than the rest of my hair. We’re talking several shades darker. Not quite as bad as obvious roots but bad enough.

The second problem is training. My hair was so accustomed to its side positioning that parting it in any other place brought about one bona fide cowlick. See photo 3 for reference. I wasn’t entirely confident that I’d win against the cowlick when left to my own devices. And I was in desperate need of a better hair appointment experience to cancel out everything that went wrong with my most recent hatchet job. So off I went to the salon (a new one).

Colorist Chelsey Pickthorn’s work has interested me for a while—her salon is down the street from me in Brooklyn, where she mixes dye (mostly Davines) by hand and then paints it onto hair, piece-by-piece, for some of the most natural-looking color I’ve seen. Her credentials don’t disappoint either: she’s worked with Laurie Foley and spent time as Orlando Pita’s first assistant. Unlike your traditional massive salon experience, Pickthorn is quiet and intimate. Going there is a commitment, as it’s a process that takes five-hours minimum. But! There’s an adorable dog to distract, homemade fizzy lemonade across the street, and floor-to-ceiling windows hung with paint-splattered canvas to look out of while they tend to your hair. “I couldn’t imagine going to a bigger place where they’re like, ‘pump ‘em out….” Chelsey told me. “That’s just not how I work.”

Jumping off from a couple inspiration screenshots (Claudia Schiffer in 1992; Caroline Trentini in the early 2000s), Chelsey started lifting my base color one shade and using a warmer tone toward the ends to work with my existing color. Then she added a mid-formula to lighten up a few bits, while still keeping everything on the cooler side since hair grows out in that color range as it works through a keratinization process. The end game here is for everything to grow out well and not require frequent touch-ups. After the five hours (didn’t feel that long, though), my color was brighter but still natural—in the past, I’ve been even blonder thanks to the sun, so I feel like myself. The new thing is the middle part…it’s actually a tiny bit off-center, truth be told. It’s a good tactic for those with less than perfect facial symmetry, like me. Cheat it to one side or the other for a little bit of balance.

Since leaving Pickthorn, it has been a journey though—I’m a couple weeks in, and I’m still training my hair to lay flat. I’m also still figuring out what the change means to me. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Is that waiter being extra friendly and giving you free drinks because he digs your new hair? Or is it your new confidence? Or maybe you’d have ended up with free drinks all along. Eternal questions that are good to have and that I probably won’t solve anytime soon. So the process, which I hope helps anyone else out there sick of their side part, is as follows:

When I get out of the shower and brush everything out, it has a tendency to go back to the left side (same goes for first thing when I wake up in the morning). The best way I’ve gotten it to behave, so far, is by blowdrying it into a center part right after getting out of the shower—air drying should be avoided at all costs. In fact, if it starts to dry, I re-wet my hair and make time to dry it. I use hot air to really get my hair in position and then switch over to cool air to set it. All of which requires a strong heat protector, so I all but drench my hair in Davines’ Natural Tech Living Enzyme Infusion Spray. It smells nice and gives hair a little hold, too. To maintain color and to get plenty of moisture, I’ve been using the new Oribe Bright Blonde Shampoo For Beautiful Color, which is purple and designed to brighten up light shades. Since my hair’s been feeling dry from the dye, I’ve been using a mask almost every day— Christophe Robin’s Baby Blond is a good starting point. After drying, I leave mid- and end-sections of my hair wet and put in plenty of leave-in conditioner— Living Proof’s Perfect Hair Day Night Cap Overnight Perfector formula is good—and go to sleep with it parted down the middle. I sleep on my back to try to keep everything in place, which is a big sacrifice for a diehard stomach sleeper.

But the most important thing besides placement is that little bit of volume that saves your hair from looking limp around the face. Chelsey instructs: “To really try to control it, especially to get through that transition at first, part it where you want it while it’s wet, and then take a blowdryer and blow upward so that you get a little bit of bump to it, and then blow downward so that it creates a draped effect. If you have trouble at first, and you can’t necessarily put it in the place you want to right away, definitely try again because, otherwise, you’ll be fighting it for the rest of the day.” I don’t want to fight with my hair, but after all that side part melancholy, a little drama is satisfying.

—Claire Knebl

Photographed by Tom Newton.