Friday, February 22, 2013

dye-ing to stay young

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


  1. I am 27, so I know I'm still on the young side of these issues. However, I have a streak of gray hair that I've had for as long as I can remember (I think it grows through a birthmark or something). When I was in high school, I used to dye it or even try to pull the strands out one by one because I hated the attention it drew. I stopped doing that in college.

    I'm a college teacher, so I see a fresh new set of students every semester, and I always get at least one who asks me about that streak of gray. It's "You don't look old enough to be gray" or "Did you put that in your hair on purpose?" I don't mind, but it does draw attention to how much we reject signs of aging. My own mother has to dye her graying roots every month or so, and she's caught in a cycle where she doesn't want to have two-tone hair in the meantime but would like to stop dyeing it. So what does she do? Dye it gray? It's a funny thing.

    1. my mother has the same dilemma - and i did ask her, "couldn't you "frost" it or something while growing it out?"

      i've always sort of had gray-streak-envy--imagining i'd have been a lot cooler in my youth if i'd had a crazy streak of gray. but i'm sure that's one of those grass is greener things. i'm sorry you felt you had to pull it out. ouch!

  2. I dyed my hair off and on for years - mostly for fun. I stopped when I got married precisely because I didn't want to look back on my pictures and wonder "what was I thinking?!". After the three kids, I did go back to the bottle for a year and then regretted it. I like my hair as is. Gray streaks and all! I have no plans to dye it again and am looking forward to the transition. Of course, I am 39 with only a few streaks, I am not sure how I will feel in ten years. I do find it unnerving though, that it is no longer the norm to be natural. Sometimes I wonder if anyone has their true color :-)! I got lucky though, my mom went completely grey in high school (and has been coloring it ever since) and my sister in her early twenties!

    1. you make a good point about our plans (not to dye) and how we might feel when the reality comes. - i am in the same boat, and was thinking as I was writing this, "will i eat my words in 10 years?"

  3. "there's a point at which died hair begins to look like some kind of helmet on the head" - this made me LOL so thank you for that.

    And having just seen you in person I have to say I think you, and your hair, look great. You have a youthful, energetic soul and it radiates from you!

    Now, me? I love my hair dyed a rich dark brown/black. But I don't do it either - partly because of the chemicals and partly because I think that I will want to start dying it when I'm gray (which, judging by the random, wirey, melanin-free strands I've been seeing lately, might not be far off...). So if I start now that's a lifetime of dying. I better just wait until I reaaallly have to.


    1. "a lifetime of dying" - so interestingly put!

      and you have beautiful hair! so don't change a thing. :)

  4. I coloured my hair frequently over the years, many different colors in the spectrum (born a brunette). Currently, I haven't colored my hair in about 6 months, longer if you consider that the last colour I gave myself was a semi-permanent rinse. I've found that the grey hair I started getting at 19 has increased considerably. I'm 32 now and I really like watching how the grey is coming in. I have a streak near the top of my head I refer to as my "Rogue" streak (I am a comic book enthusiast) and a couple of Bride of Frankensteins on my temples, plus various other streaks and strands.

    At this time I have no plans to go back to colouring (although I miss pink hair!) because I always figured I'd try to grow old gracefully and not fight it.

    1. i agree that it's interesting to see the transition - a streak here, a strand there. maybe once your all gray you could have a streak of pink - that could be cool!

  5. I guess I just have a bad attitude. F--k 'em if they can't take a joke, we're all going to get old anyway--deal with it.
    But I dress to please myself and my husband-- we are not a conventional looking couple anyway, and it's amazing what you can get away with when you assert your right to be comfortable and to claim your public persona as your own domain.
    I enjoy and admire women who express themselves-- whether it's heels and make-up or dreads. But there's danger here, if we stopped feeling inadequate because of how we look we might start thinking about other things or even getting uppity.

    1. i don't think you have a bad attitude - quite the opposite.

      "I enjoy and admire women who express themselves--whether it's heels and make-up or dreads." - yes!

  6. I love your comment, "I would never trade my victories, discoveries or scars for the naturally blond hair I had as a teen." You are forever thought-provoking, and I mean that in a good way.

    Although it sucks that we're socialized to dread getting old, and fully realizing the absurdity of meeting outside expectations, I am still unwilling to go gray. It's almost like trying so desperately to look young in order to still feel young or something. Appearance shouldn't dictate how vibrant someone can be at any age. Hair seems the ultimate female vanity, though. Makeup only does so much, so "BY GOD my hair is going to be what I want it to be."
    My feminist side is greatly disappointed at how I let myself succumb to social norms telling us we "should" look like. And here I sit admitting how I cave to the pressure ... something I definitely how to overcome. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

    1. Hey Katy, I think you can have your feminism and have your hair too! You have to do what makes you happy, right? Letting your hair go gray to make "feminism" happy isn't any better than coloring it to make society happy. But "By god my hair is going to be what I want it to be" sounds like you're doing what makes YOU happy. That's what matters! :) (I think the self-concsiousness about the choice - the awareness, is what makes it feminist, more than the choice itself).

  7. I started going grey at 17 - runs in the family - and I felt self-conscious about it for a while, even dyed it once or twice, but - happily - it's one of those things I just can't be bothered to care that much about. I have enough Body Issues as it is without adding another chore to the never-ending list of Stuff I Have To Do To Look Acceptable, you know?

    So now I've come to love my grey hairs. They sparkle in certain lights. They're like glitter, but for grown ups.