My hair started “going gray” at nineteen. Prophetic, you could say, for a college girl whose life was going the same way.
The gray hair began around my temples, curling around my ears like a vine before following my hairline to the forehead and down the spine of my scalp. I remember calling my mother and telling her between tales of new classes and new boys of my new whiskers. “Oh, and mom, you will not believe it. I found a gray hair. What is that?”
Her laugh vibrated though the phone. “That is normal. I went gray at 19. Your father went gray at 19. Your brother has it coming in, too, nowadays.” She added, “Sorry.” But she didn’t sound it.
Whether or not to dye it was moot. I had been coloring my hair since I was twelve and knew the difference between plum brown and auburn sunset. The boxes always said it would wash out after eight, twelve, twenty-four shampoos but I always chose red-hues that stained like spilled wine. I went from burgundy to hazelnut to espresso to skunk orange highlights before I began worrying about phrases like “full gray coverage.”
In high school, my best friend Lia was an olive-skinned beauty with wavy hair that made her look Jewish, which she was. With my pale, freckled-skin, we had little in our beauty arsenal to be the Barbie-like girls prized amongst boys are age. And so we dyed our hair dark, very dark. Our hair said we were going our own way, that we were mature and intense, never mind that we drank flavored Smirnoff.
When I found my gray hairs it became tougher to keep dying my hair the color of crows. The gray was so stark and obvious and harsh. I slowly started going lighter, even blonder, by the time I was a senior in college. I had seen it happen to brunettes like my Grannie Annie who over time became a buttery champagne, my Nanny whose platinum blonde is as crisp as her navy and white stripes, and my mother whose hair is finally as sunny as her disposition. What were we doing? Living out fantasies of being blondes-have-more-fun beauties? Covering up realities of being aging, graying no-longer-girls?
A few months ago, almost a decade since the first whisp of white appeared, I parted my hair down the middle and put my face in front of the mirror.
“Popping a pimple?” my husband asked as he breezed by the bathroom.
“No. I’m just figuring out what color my hair is. I haven’t seen it for half my life.” It surprised me. It was almost copper, almost dark blonde, like nothing and everything I expected. Like meeting my biological child after giving it up for adoption at the bathroom sink of beauty.
These days I’m letting the grays come in more steadily. I still weave in blonde highlights, to keep things interesting, I tell myself. To brighten things up, I think. There are so many body modifications I’ve protested as a feminist in the name of self-acceptance that I am still surprised when I lay down $100 every four months to bathe what my stylist called “my sparklers” in chemicals.
It’s summer now and there’s no good television. I unwind with episode after episode of the TLC mainstay “What Not to Wear.” My favorite part – even my husband’s favorite part – is forty-five minutes into the show when the woman who has been chosen to shop for a brand new wardrobe finally completes her new look with a hair cut and color. Will Nick cut it short with mom-layers again? Will Ted make her get rid of her punky pink dreads? Will the women with gray hair who have been told they let themselves go, cared too much for their kids and not enough about their looks, look twenty years younger?
It really is so satisfying when the gray is gone. The women, like Dottie above, are pretty pictures. There is renewed richness in their hair and rosiness in their cheeks. They look like the women in my magazines, and I feel at ease. Is it so wrong when their esteem is lifted? Is it so harmless when their age is “shaved”?
I don’t know the answers to these things yet, whether or not I am making it harder for other women to love themselves with each foil. After attending a Quaker meeting with a friend once, she commented, “Did you notice? The women were so beautiful and gray without a stitch of makeup. It felt right.” I wondered if my brush streaks and blonde streaks made her feel wronged.
I do know that coloring my hair makes me feel alive and creative and artistic, palates of blonde, copper, and brown blended with a creator’s brush. I do know that letting my natural hair come in makes me feel salty and serene and wily, unkempt like a verdant garden.
I do know that gray is the color of ground and God.