The Confusion of Going Gray

No, I don’t mean that you become mentally confused when you get older. That’s a topic for a different day. Today I want to discuss the implications of going gray as a female and how society responds.

My sister and I decided to stop dyeing our hair together about two years ago. Speaking for myself, the cost, upkeep and health of my hair were the main reasons why I ditched the hair dye. One of my very wise girlfriends told me when she turned 40, “it was my birthday present to myself, to stop worrying about hiding the gray”. It struck me then that I had placed an exorbitant amount of energy towards covering up those nasty gray hairs. And being predominantly gray, if I missed my hair dye appointment, I looked like a raccoon with a bad hangover. It was no small amount of stress that kept me coloring away my grays. It wasn’t that I was fearful of looking older it was what society might think if I decided to not care anymore as some have said.

I am now 45 and have found that my decision to stop dyeing my hair has turned into an odd social experiment. And I’m in the minority. According to a 2008 study from Clairol, 75% of American women dye their hair. For the majority of women, their hair represents the most defining part of themselves. It reflects their style, their signature look and more importantly, their confidence. We place a lot of pressure on our follicles. They must perform on command! When a curl is askew it turns into a horrendously bad hair day leaving us feeling less than our awesome selves especially when face to face with others. If every hair is in place then we feel like we can conquer the world, no mountain is insurmountable with a perfect head of hair! Hmph.

Back to the social experiment.

I find that men and women react to my choice in not dyeing my hair very differently. First, the men. They are surprised to find that a woman with gray hair can still be sexy. (This is a weird thing for me as I’ve never considered myself to be outwardly sexy or overtly sexual.) It’s like they are surprised to find that their libido doesn’t shrivel up and fall off if they look amorously towards a woman who is clearly past child bearing age. I get everything from, “Wow, I really like your gray,” to “I think it looks really good on you”, to the then, not so pleasant, “you should really dye your hair” and the dreaded, “you look like my mom”; the latter from a man six years my junior. Nice. I find it odd that I get so many comments from men about my gray, more so than I ever got when I dyed my hair. It’s like they have to comment to give me their permission that what I’m doing is acceptable to the male gender and the human race at large! Thank you. I was aiming for that. NOT!

Now for the women. I find their reactions fall into two camps. One camp are the women that look at me longingly as if to say through their eyes, “oh, if only I too could stop dyeing my hair!” I’ve had women offer up numerous, unsolicited excuses for not ditching the dye, as if I’m judging them for continuing to dye, “as soon a I’m retired I will stop dyeing my hair,” or “I would stop dyeing my hair but I’ll look too old”, or some such shenanigans. To all the women out there. I love you. I don’t care what you do to your hair. My decision was just that, mine. I wish you the courage and strength to make whatever decision you want that feels right for you, regardless of how others will perceive you.

Then there’s the other camp. The camp that lurks in the darker corners and comes out only to feed on the weak when they are in need of blood. From this faction I hear  whispers of comments like, “she just doesn’t care about herself anymore,” or similarly, “it’s like she’s given up trying to look good.” And a few that are desperately trying to curb my wayward ways encourage me with “why don’t you dye it blue or purple or something cool like that?” And if you think I’m exaggerating, talk to your silver haired female friends. I’m sure they’ll fill your ears with stories that will make your mouth gape  aghast.

So then the sociologist in me kicks in and asks, why does my gray hair trigger so many visceral reactions in others? Luckily, I’m secure enough in myself and love myself enough to not take these comments personally. Well, except for the “look like my mom” bit, that one stung. But for the most part, I just collect data in my head as I observe people’s utter amazement at seeing a gray haired female in her forties. In collecting the data and processing it for myself, here’s what I learned:

  1. People’s reaction is a direct reflection of themselves: This is true no matter what subject we’re talking about. Gray hair, baseball, politics, diet, clothes, sugar, religion, race, gender, you name it! Whatever you express whether positive, negative or neutral is directly how you feel about yourself or rather, a deep-rooted fear that you have about yourself. “Well if I stopped dyeing my hair, then it’d be like I stopped caring about myself.” “If I let the gray out I won’t be taken seriously at work”. Yes, you might be discriminated against. Yes, you might not be asked out on as many dates (the jury’s still out on that one), yes, you might look at yourself and hate the older face looking back at you.  Are you really going to tell me that you’re life’s happiness or feeling of purpose or direction is dictated by the color of your hair? What kind of sense does that make? Especially when you won’t even see your hair often unless you stare in a mirror all day long.
  2. My personal choices are not here to please others: This is the punk rocker in me. I rarely have cared what others have thought of me and I’m sure as heck not going to start as I stare 50 in the face. No sir. It’s very liberating to be free of other’s opinions. And I know, I’m able to be freer because I’m no longer in the corporate world. I get it, trust me, I get it. I remember being turned down for a much deserved promotion because I didn’t look “professional enough”. I know society is still hellbent on outer appearances. But here’s the key, why should you let it affect you? And if they do discriminate, call them out on it, that’s the only way we can affect change.
  3. Dudes don’t get the same scrutiny: I know this isn’t news. And I know that you know that women are more heavily scrutinized by their outward appearance than men. We all know this. Then why is it still OK? I can’t imagine some of the things said to me being said to a male counterpart. Even the positive compliments, “I like your gray hair, it looks good on you.” I don’t think it even occurs to men or women to look at a gray haired man and say this. Why not? Is it because we value men for something other than their hair color? That their hair color does not define them or tell us about who they are and how much they care or don’t care about themselves? Nonsense. Here’s my advice to both of the sexes, if you wouldn’t say it to a man, you probably shouldn’t say it to a woman and vice versa.

So there you have it. My exploration into the social constructs of being a gray haired female. I would love to hear your stories! Share them in the comments below.

And as always, be gentle with yourself and others. And remember to think before you speak!

Many blessings to you!

Francie

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