The thing you need to know about me to follow this post is that my hair is mostly (70%? 75%?) gray. The part that hasn’t turned gray is on the back of my head, so honestly I just feel like I’m 95% gray. According to family history and mythology, my father went totally gray at 27.
I saw my first gray hairs at 22. By my late 20s I had good chunks of gray; by my late 30s I was at that golden 75% or so… I think. The truth is, I don’t know when I got to this current stage of grayfulness because I had been dying my hair for most of my adult life. First with boxes, when I was younger and poorer, then at the salon, when I had some disposable income. Oh, and I remember the exact turning point. I spent a year in Madrid, Spain when I was 31. Walking through that city, all I could think was, “woah, these women are super put together!” And I started flirting with beauty work: different sorts of clothes, getting my legs waxed (!), getting my hair colored and highlighted. After that intense year of feeling like my hair was this fabulous cared-for piece of art, it was hard to go back into gray. More money, more color, more roots, and the cycle didn’t end.
A little less than two years ago I decided to stop dying my hair; I can’t remember how I got to this point of being able to let go of my dark, dark, brown hair that no longer existed. The power of the “used-to-be” me was strong. But my exhaustion of that beauty work was overriding. I told my very trusted hairstylist that I needed a new, edgy cut that would allow me to feel more comfortable as the gray grew in. She gave me an asymmetrical cut (which over the months has gotten even more asymmetrical) and some blonde highlights and, well, after a year, all the gray was in and brilliantly on display.
Walking around with this cut and this color sometimes makes me feel like a living Rorschach test. There are the people who do the (incredibly flattering) double take and “omg I love your hair!” (I’ve gotten that from dear ones and total strangers.) There are the people who say things like, “you’re so very brave!” (Apparently acknowledging your aging is a very brave thing to do. Ok, so sometimes I do feel brave, but mostly I love my look.) Then there are the ones–the ones who trouble me the most–who will say something like, “I would love to stop dying my hair, but my husband won’t let me.”
I once dated someone who decided to show me a side of themselves when we crossed a street, crossing paths with a woman who had significant gray roots showing in her otherwise dark, long hair. “Why doesn’t she take care of herself,” he grumbled. I said something… I don’t remember what, exactly… reminding him that I had gray hair that I could easily be that woman with the gray roots and that hey that doesn’t mean I’m not taking care of myself or not loving who I am and how I am.
Don’t get me wrong; I dated him for a little while after that. At the time I knew it was a red flag that he said that, but was it really a big enough red flag to end a relationship? So he didn’t like gray hair. At the time, neither did I. At least on my head.
Walking, talking Rorschach test that I am, then, I feel like no matter what people say to me about my hair, it’s much much less about my own hair and my comfort with it and much much more about what it means to them. That they can’t imagine doing it; that partners would hate it; that they would hate it; that they can imagine themselves into gray hair; that they can imagine themselves into a different kind of aging than the one that’s offered to us by the mainstream media, where (for women) hairs remain originally colored and skin develops only the lightest of wrinkles and we’re all still on view for others and never for ourselves.