Sunday, April 8, 2012

Still Kicking on the Whiffletree

I was 16 when I got my first grey hair. Or at least, that's when I was told I had grey hair. I wasn’t looking so I probably wouldn’t have noticed but I’m quite short and most people can see the top of my head and they let me know. My high school soccer teammates used to amuse themselves on bus rides to games by plucking out the greys. It wasn’t exactly fun for me but I think I was just glad to be able to ride on a bus without fear after a long period as a school bus Untouchable.

I didn’t start coloring my hair to hide the grey until I was in my mid-30s but I had been coloring my hair for fun for about 10 years (skunking = so much hindsight regret). I hadn’t seen my real hair in so long that the grey didn’t bother me at all right up until it did. I think it was when the grey crossed over the 40% mark and the tell tale stripe at my part started to require more frequent trips to the salon, which meant more listening to my stylist blahblahblah in my ear for 3 hours.

I think my journey to quitting color might have started when I broke up with my long time stylist after the morning when she catalogued her abortions for me. She didn’t know it was over that morning but I did. I floated around after that, but had one marginal experience after another and I was going longer and longer between appointments. I could actually see what things looked like up there. I was really grey. I was not quite 40 but I was more than 50% grey.

On the plus side, it was mostly white and silvery. I started wondering what I would look like if I didn’t color my hair. Then I started to think about how much time I’d be saving. And money. And the germ of an idea was planted.

It was a complete reversal of my hair philosophy to that point. My hair appointments were set in stone and we planned our lives around them. I was rather vain about my very long, very lush brown mane. I’m not really low maintenance when it comes to fashion and beauty. I’m not the first person you would think would decide to embrace her aging and “go natural”. Which is not to say that I’m high maintenance. I don’t have a dermatologist. I’m unapologetically anti-cosmetic surgery. I don’t like the word “anti-aging” because of the suggestion that aging is something to avoid. I’m not the last person you would think would go natural but I’m also not the first.

Over the next couple of months the idea kept pushing its way to the front of my hair thoughts. I floated trial balloons with a few friends. “I’m thinking about letting my hair go grey.” They would react the same they do when I say things like, “I’ll be back. I’m going to go stab the person that put the dressing on the salad when I asked for it on the side.” That means they reacted with some internal eye rolling and changed the subject and immediately forgot I’d said anything.

Except for Thor. Thor was all about me letting my hair grow in. He insists that it wasn’t because of all the money we’d be saving but he bought an iPad 3 shortly after our talk. You do the math.

And one other friend who will remain nameless but might recognize herself here. She said that she could never do it because of her job. That she would not be taken seriously in her position (an impressive one in a male dominated field) as a woman with grey hair. I was stunned. I had never considered that. I was worried that I would lose considerable MILF cred but she had to worry about her career. It would not be exaggerating to say that I wanted to flip the table between us all BillyJoelwedidntstartthefire and rage against the machine about the injustice of her being judged for having grey hair in an industry where it is acceptable to wear sweatpants to the office (yes, computers are involved).

That probably settled it for me. Listen, I am not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a homeschool mom. I have never had a career. I don’t have my own bank account. I don’t even have an ATM card. I ask my husband for money when I need money. I don’t know the state of our finances. I tell my son to quit acting like a little girl when he gets whiny. I think the right shade of lipstick can solve most of life’s problems. I think Rachel Maddow is annoying. I have started questioning Women’s Suffrage ever since I first heard about the Kardashians. (Unless exiling them ever gets put to a national referendum because I want to vote on that.)

I’m not a feminist but I have a very Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner fire that burns in my belly when I hear about stupid prejudices. Like the prejudice against maturity. And it is a prejudice against maturity and not just old age. Anything that isn’t young and sexy and of the moment is rejected as irrelevant.

But I was not old or irrelevant. I was 40. I had run over 1000 miles in 2011. (Not straight.) I was in the best shape of my life. I had my sh---act together. I had young children and I could still have more if I wanted to (but I really, really don’t). And I had grey hair. And so did lots of women just like me. And I wasn’t going to let a bunch of barely socialized turbo-dorks in sweatpants tell me what do with my hair.

So I decided to let the grey come in.

It wasn’t a hard decision to make once all the factors were there. But it wasn’t easy watching it happen. And it got harder as the hair around my face started to get less brown. There’s no way around it. Grey hair makes you look older. I started to question myself and my decision. But I also made myself promise to stick with it long enough to give it a real chance. I could always change my mind later.

But every week that stripe on the top of my head got wider and greyer. And now I had two-toned hair. I was still going to the salon but walking out looking like I desperately need to get to one. It bothered me. It looked careless and disheveled and no shade of lipstick in the world could fix it. Unless it was brown lipstick applied directly to the roots. But I only just thought of that right this second. Darn it.

I’d been reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs was, well, an ass. But his design philosophy was solid. I developed a real appreciation for his work and his commitment to simplicity. Simplicity is something I had been trying to incorporate into all areas of my life for about a year since reading an unassuming little book called Organized Simplicity. Check that out if you get a chance.

I was reading the Jobs bio and huffing my way through an interval work-out on the elliptical at my gym when I realized that there was really only one workable solution to the hair problem. I had to cut it all off and start over. There was no way I could live with bicolored hair for the 6 months to a year that it would take to grow the old color out. At my next appointment I was going to have my G.I. Jane moment.

Here I was taking a stand against a bunch of imaginary tech nerds by following the example of their king.

I had about 4 weeks to mull it (mullet?) over. I got more and more certain as the weeks went by and then about 3 days before the appointment I started to panic. Not really panic-panic but not really not panic. I had never had REALLY short hair. I hadn’t even had kind of short hair in 20 years. Up until the past year I’d had long, wavy mermaid hair. And now it would be short and grey. That’s not a look I had ever, ever liked. In no way did that fit my image of myself. And in no way did it sound pretty.

And I was really clinging to pretty.

The kind that looks a little wind blown and tousled even when the wind isn’t blowing.

Whether or not that image had anything to do with reality doesn’t matter. So let’s not discuss it. Just let me have that.

I had a lot of mirror talks with myself over the three days. Talks that centered around letting go of pretty. Accepting a new kind of status. Not waiting until there was no choice but to accept it, but actually rushing up to it, tackling it unawares and making it my bitc…own.

But, it wasn’t easy. And I can’t help thinking that it should have been. That’s a contradiction that I’m still working through. The answer is more complicated than ‘facing your own mortality’. I’ve already done that. That’s not it.

The act of cutting wasn’t dramatic. My new stylist is unflappable. When I handed her the picture of Jean Seberg she looked up at me and asked, “Are you sure?” I said, “No. But let’s do it anyway.” And then less than an hour later everything I thought I knew about how I looked changed. So, you see, no drama.

My face, as it turns out, is not as round as I thought. The hair that isn’t grey isn’t brown anymore. It is nearly black. And there isn’t a lot of that. My ears don’t stick out. And I look…older. But also, something else. My oldest daughter said, “Professional”. I think she meant, “professorial”. I really think she was being diplomatic but let’s go with professorial. I loved my new hair. For the whole rest of the day.

Then I woke up in the morning looking like an angry hedgehog. I went and ran 8 miles just to prove to myself that I still could. That it wasn’t a Samson thing. That helped a little but I scared the living hell out of myself every time I passed a mirror. I had to change my lipstick to something brighter. I had daymares of old ladies with bright pink lips and splotches of unevenly applied rouge. By evening I was awash with remorse. I cursed the memory of Steve Jobs. I started thinking about running to the drugstore.

But by the next morning I was okay again. I was already getting used to that angry hedgehog in my mirror. She looked older but she didn’t look old. She looked like she knew stuff. And, the maintenance? Forget about it. Ladies, want to know why men are still getting paid more than you? Because it take them 2 minutes to do their hair. That makes them 40 minutes more productive than you every damn day. Also, they are smarter and can lift heavier things.

A whole new generation of women are heading into middle age. We aren’t part of the early feminist revolution. We actually have more options than that generation told us we have. But we have to exercise them. And we aren’t. And that’s, as the kids say, not cool.

They still say that, right? What? Never mind. I don’t have to care about that anymore. Plus, Murder She Wrote is starting and I need to soak my bunion. Only one of those things isn’t true.


  1. Just to prove that middle-aged ladies can be cool, I'll venture that your hair looks "sick". Or "totes presh". In reality, I'm thinking, "A gamine Audrey Hepburn!", which is what we old folks used to call cute, short pixie-cuts. But just to assure your under-40 readers that a maturing woman can be hep, I'll perhaps go with "fly". Which just sealed my uncool status.

  2. Fabulous. Somehow, I still haven't had a grey hair show up (because the one on my chin doesn't count,) but I know it's coming any time now. I've been wondering for a few years what I would do when it happens and you've given me the final nudge to just embrace it.

  3. Your old, high-maintenance hair was lovely, but so is this new look!

  4. Love your posts, Z! XO

    Jenny from the block (Benjamin);)