|me on a portuguese cliff in 1996 |
29 yrs old
When I got home from this two week vacation, I developed my pictures in great anticipation (an all-manual Canon A-1, circa 1970, does not a real-time digital image make).
Anyway...I saw this picture and recoiled. Not because I'm wearing Steve's sweater and it looks like an over-sized and amorphous black hole from which my neck spontaneously emerges, not because my teeth look like I painted them in with white-out, and not because it looks like I'm standing in an oil-spill (the light isn't quite so bad in the analog version). No, I recoiled because I thought I looked old.
Despite using gobs and gobs of sun screen on this trip, I had despaired over soaking up too much southern European sun. Days in the water, on the beach and hiking along dramatic seaside cliffs had left me browner than brown. Between that, and the half-grown-out highlighting job that had crisped up to a sun-whitened frizz on one side of my head, I thought I looked like a leathery old tanning-bed lady who had tried to turn 55 years of age into 25 by bleaching out my hair.
Wew - that is really harsh--and not just on me. Let's get some context. I was, after all, 29--staring 30 down the throat and sitting on the cusp of the inevitable degeneration of things like skin and breasts. Although I can hardly see it now, I looked at this picture and for the first time in my life, recognized something resembling age in my own face. If you add to it that I was just 2 weeks pregnant with Gareth and awash in both new hormones and new ideas about identity that included my fast-waning youthfulness (in a 20-something's sense of the term), then perhaps you can see where I was coming from.
Thinking that my hair no longer matched my face, I decided that I had gotten "too old" for highlights.
How ironic is that?
Now, at the age of 45, I'm feeling pressure that perhaps I've gotten "too old" not to highlight (or color) my hair.
Hair dye has become so pervasive that you can hardly find a person outside the old folks home who sports any amount of silver. I have found varying statistics, but it seems that somewhere between 50-75% of women color their hair in some way.
The lack of gray-haired folk moving amongst us has changed the meaning of gray, don't you think? Gray doesn't mean you're 50 anymore. Gray means you're 80. That's a lot of pressure on a 40-something who's sporting a dish-water brand of no-color such as mine.
Despite that pressure, however, I do not want to color my hair.
For the record, I'm not gray yet--or if I am, you can't tell in my sea of blah. So why not brighten it up?
First, when do you stop? I don't want to wake up in my 60s and recoil at a picture of myself because I feel, as I did at 29, that my face doesn't match my hair anymore. No disrespect to older people, but there's a point at which died hair begins to look like some kind of helmet on the head--one that can make a person look even older rather than younger, if you know what I mean.
Second, gray hair hides thinning hair, doesn't it? When you get old, you start baring quite a bit more scalp. Nothing like a frock of thinning but dark brown curls to set off the white scalp glowing beneath. Silver tresses would mask that, wouldn't they?
Third, will you even live to see your gray? You know I'm no fan of chemicals--especially toxic ones. I don't feel remotely confident that hair dyes aren't super bad for our health. This blog post offers a nice concise list of chemicals to look out for if you're concerned too. No matter how much we might want to hold on to our youthful color, "dying" of cancer doesn't seem like a good way to avoid gray. According to the National Cancer Institute , most studies of hair dye chemicals and cancer are "conflicting." That doesn't surprise me. Nor does it comfort me. It takes a lot of money to conduct a reputable study, and the cosmetic industry can't be in a rush to fund such investigations. Still, in the world I want to live in, you have to prove that products are safe, not the other way around. So if you haven't proved it won't hurt me yet, I don't want it.
And finally, if I dyed my hair, I'd miss my transition to gray. I know I would find myself suddenly sixty wondering how gray I'd gotten, wondering when I should grow out the color, wondering who exactly I'd become while I was busy slapping toxic chemicals on my head for all those years.
Perhaps that sounds ridiculous, but gray signals another life change to me--like puberty, except sort of the opposite.
Which gets us to the crux of all of this, right? AGE. For a population so averse to being old, it's no surprise we don't want to look old. Then we have the double whammy that we're women who are getting and looking old. Nothing spells the end of beauty like a head of silver threads, right? And in our culture, the end of beauty equals, well, the end.
Except I don't buy that.
I won't pretend that some aspects of aging really suck. I have a cracked root in a tooth that will require extraction any day. If I swim too hard, I wreck something in my shoulder that takes months to heal. My toes ache (?!), and my perfect eyesight has suddenly and oh so disappointingly, let me down.
You get the idea.
I suppose all those complaints have changed my vision in other ways too because I see such different things in that picture than I did 16 years ago. While I agree with my old self that my hair looks kind of ridiculous, I disagree that it matters, and I certainly object to the idea that I look old. In fact, I think I look young. And with that, I also look a little naive. I had not yet felt the pain of childbirth, the wonder of parenthood, or the exhilaration of passing my Ph.D oral exams. I had not yet discovered the sound of my voice in my research, in front of a classroom, or on the Internet. I remained a stranger to real loss.
I would never trade my victories, discoveries or scars for the naturally blond hair I had as a teen. Still, I know plenty of people (most people?) would say we can have both.
I'm not here to say other people shouldn't color their hair. Most people that I know do so, and I would never spend one second of any day judging them.
I just want to voice an alternative.
We can embrace a different kind of beauty--one you won't find on the front of Vogue or Cosmo. This beauty grows out of wisdom, and wisdom comes to us through experience, laughter and pain. We can't have that beauty without living and aging--without graying. That is the beauty I want to see in the mirror as I grow older. That way, if I'm lucky enough to see the years go by, I can embrace what time has given me instead of dreading to see what it has taken away.
|my beloved "greggie"|
wise and beautiful
she was about 80 years old when i snapped this