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Friday, May 24, 2013

The Embarrassing Rash on My Head

Apparently, the gray hair on my head is more like an embarrassing rash than hair.

I got a haircut about a month ago. The observant among you may have noted what’s missing from that statement. Just a cut. No color.

I’m 51 years old.

So here’s the thing: Not one person -- NOT ONE -- has mentioned my now-very-apparent gray hair.

Over the years, I’ve changed my hair in sudden and noticeable ways many times. I’ve always enjoyed the startled look on people’s faces when they see me for the first time after going super-short, bright red or platinum blonde. And every single time, some people have commented on the change. Not everyone, but at least some. Even subtle changes are always noted. “Did you change your color?” “Is that a new style?” “I like your hair.”

But this time -- nothing.

The whole thing didn’t start as a social experiment, but it quickly became one when I realized that no one was saying a word about my hair. I kept waiting for someone to say, “Interesting choice,” or, “Wow, that’s different,” or just a straightforward, “Why did you stop coloring your hair?” I wasn’t really expecting to hear, “It looks good,” but I guess I hoped just a little.

Instead -- nothing. Dead silence on the matter of my gray hair.

And it dawned on me slowly: People were ignoring the obvious because they felt they were being tactful, as though I had an embarrassing condition, like a nasty rash or a cold sore. Nothing bad enough to be painful and demand sympathy, like a broken bone or a laceration; just bad enough to be in that awkward gray area (if you’ll pardon the pun) where everyone knows it’s there, but no one feels comfortable drawing attention to it.

I can hardly blame them. I wouldn’t mention it, either. In fact, I didn’t. When an acquaintance recently stopped coloring her hair, I never said a word to her, even though I sincerely thought she looked beautiful. I’d like to think I would have said something if we were better friends, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would. It’s awkward. It seems like any compliment would have the subtext, “I admire your courage in staring steadfastly into the face of your own mortality.” Okay, maybe not quite. But sort of.

My acquaintance was inspiring, but the idea definitely didn’t start with her. I’ve been thinking I should stop coloring my hair for years. Well, since I started, really.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me when I say that I lean toward the old-school feminist when it comes to matters of personal appearance. I think so much that keeps women down can be traced to early socialization that makes us insecure about our appearance and causes us to internalize the belief that it’s more important to look good than to do good -- and when I say do good, I really mean do anything. When I see women suffering absurd levels of discomfort and inconvenience in order to conform to some societal expectation about feminine beauty, it makes me angry. High heels, makeup, Botox, Brazilian waxing -- don’t even get me started on plastic surgery.

Yes, I get that there actually are women who wear heels and makeup to please themselves and not because of societal pressure to conform to an unrealistic ideal of beauty or because they see themselves through the filter of the male gaze. A few. But most women who say that? They have about as much credibility as the heavy drinker swearing she can quit anytime she likes. (Taking a pause here to give the third wave a moment to rant at me. Okay? Moving on.)

Worse than anything else, I always thought, were all the potions and procedures women used because of their deeply rooted terror of aging. I think it’s tragic that we’d rather look young and stupid than old and wise. Yes, stupid. The obsession with youthful appearance goes hand in hand with the camouflaging of intellect by playing dumb. It’s all about infantilization. Men can wear age as a badge of honor. In middle age and beyond, they can look distinguished, dignified, authoritative, even powerful. But middle age women? The best we can hope for is to look younger than we actually are. (Oops, sorry. I think the third wave may need another minute here.)

Which brings me to my hair. I started coloring it when I was in my 20s, and it really was all about having fun, or so I told myself. I had not a trace of gray, and I went through periods where I changed my color wildly on a whim, and then went natural again when I got bored. I was never concerned about whether my dyed hair looked natural -- why should I be? I was absolutely certain I was coloring my hair for my own entertainment. I even made a mental deal with myself: I’d never dye for the primary purpose of covering gray, and when I was 40, I’d stop altogether. This was especially important to me after I had kids. I knew my daughter was growing up in a world that would beat her senseless with messages about youth and beauty, and I wanted to model for her a comfort in my own skin -- my own hair -- that contradicted sexist hype.

Forty came and went, and still I colored. There was less whimsy about it, too. I had a color and I more or less stuck to it, with only slight changes. Some highlights here, some more red there, but nothing major. I began noticing when my roots showed -- salted with gray -- and calling the salon to make an appointment when they did. I pushed the guilt down. What’s the big deal? Everyone does it. I’ll stop when I’m 50.

Fifty came and went. My roots were clearly more than half gray now. It was getting harder and harder to ignore the truth: I didn’t have the courage to show my gray. I told myself I just needed to get through my twin boys’ bar mitzvah pictures. Fifty-one came and went. I told myself I just needed to get through my daughter’s bat mitzvah pictures. Last month, I told myself I just needed to get through my niece’s wedding pictures.

And then I told myself, “Bullshit. You’re a coward.”

So I went into the salon and got a haircut. No color. My stylist did her best to be supportive, but clearly it didn’t come easy. (Well, why should it? My personal grooming choice was going to take a toll on her bottom line.) Because I wear my hair very short (part of the whole easy-is-better ethic), the gray was very obvious at the temples, but I still had plenty of color up top. Still, there it was. Gray hair, out there for all to see.

I have to admit, the first week wasn’t easy. I kept looking in the mirror and thinking, to my own chagrin, “I look old.” I’m not sure if I was more chagrined about looking old or about being embarrassed by it. A little of each, I guess. In public places, I found myself looking around to see if anyone even close to my age was showing any gray. The answer, of course, was no. In the last several weeks, I’ve only spotted a couple of people under 70ish showing their gray -- and not very many more over 70ish. They say 75 percent of American women color their hair. I suspect the other 25 percent are under 30.

It’s getting easier now, even though my hair is growing and I’m getting grayer by the day. I imagine the next haircut will involve some more chagrin. Pretty much all the dye will be gone then. I hope that, a week after that, I’ll have more or less stopped giving a damn about whether I look older. (Note that I said “whether.” I’m sure many will argue that of course I will look older. My hair will be gray. But I'm not convinced dyed hair really looks as much younger as we all like to think it does. I suspect it's a lot like a face lift. It doesn’t really make you look young so much as it makes you look less old, but not in a natural way. It signals that you’re trying. You’re not “letting yourself go.” It’s more a sign of youth than youth itself.)

To everyone who has tactfully avoided mentioning the embarrassing rash on my head: No worries. I truly do appreciate the difficult position you’re in, and I’m grateful you have my feelings at heart. Maybe someday we’ll all get to the point where we look at a gray-haired woman and say, “You look great,” without meaning, “That took courage.” But we’ll never get there as long as there are no gray-haired women around.

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