Grey

A few weeks ago, my nine year-old peered intently at me and said, “Wow…Mom…you’ve got a LOT of grey in your hair!”

(Can I just say that even after 18 years of parenthood the painfully close scrutiny and bluntness of children still has the power to make me cringe?)

“Yes, I’m turning into Gandalf,” I joked.

There was a moment of bemused silence, during which my brain back-peddled frantically:  why on earth would the bearded and elderly — and decidedly male! — wizard from The Lord Of The Rings be the first example of greyness to pop into my mind?  (And now, with the clarity of hindsight, I’m hoping against hope it’s not prophetic, that I won’t one day look in the mirror and see a bearded and elderly woman).

“Gandalf-ini,” I amended.  “Or would it be Gandalf-ette?”

Thank goodness for Word Geek.  She’s defused more situations than I can shake a stick at.  Subject railroaded, we turned to the matter of Sam and Frodo, who were currently (in our summer read-aloud) picking their way through the marshes with Gollum.

So yes, Grey.  According to societal standards, I am “letting myself go”.  We’ve heard it all before, so I’m not going to dwell on it — the fact that a greying man is distinguished, while a greying woman is — well — not.  And yes, yes, absolutely yes, it’s an unfair double standard.  In other ground-breaking news, the sky is blue and water is wet.

The grey started sneaking in when I was in my early thirties, announcing its arrival in the midst of my well-behaved dark brown hair like an uninvited and obnoxious guest.  Now, if I had been like the vast majority of women, the situation would have been handled like this:  I would have gone to my hairdresser, bemoaned aging, and simply continued on with whatever dying and highlighting I had already been doing.  The problem?  I had never before dyed my hair.  I had watched, in my younger years, as peers experimented with Sun-In, moved on to highlights, made eye-popping changes from brown to blonde, from blonde to jet black, and it had never — not even once — occurred to me to follow suit.  (I did have a few horrific perms (thanks, Mom!), but that’s another story).  So when the greys showed up, I did the only logical thing I could think of:  I got rid of them.  Each morning, I parked myself in front of the mirror and plucked each. and every. offensive. strand.  This continued for quite some time, until, after repeated warnings from my hairdresser, and before a long-delayed trip back home to see extended family, who would see how much I was aging (because apparently they were all frozen in time /rolls eyes/), I succumbed and booked the appointment.

My hair dresser assured me that the semi-permanent colour would simply fade away in a few weeks, and that it wouldn’t result in a tell-tale streak on the crown, but as I sat there during the long procedure, I have to confess I felt a little sick.  First, mentally, that I was doing this, that I had to spend an as-yet-unknown amount of time and X dollars, and that I wasn’t entirely sure what the finished product would look like.  But secondly, I also felt sick physically:  the fumes of whatever concoction was in those small plastic bottles was NOT agreeing with me, and there was a burning sensation on my scalp.  I could almost feel myself starting to panic (yes, I don’t mind, go ahead and say it:  Wimp!).  I did manage to make it through without embarrassing myself, but when all was said and done and I looked in the mirror, my first reaction wasn’t, Oh, wonderful, it looks great!  No, my first reaction was, Who is that?  My hair was dark and flat, the chosen colour fairly close to my natural hue, but not an exact match; the natural highlights, which I had never before noticed, completely obliterated. I left feeling rather ashamed, feeling like a fraud.  *Everyone* would know that I had dyed my hair.  The fact that I was certain that *every* other woman dyed their hair did little to comfort me, but after a few days I got used to it and felt less self-conscious.  We made our trip back home (where I’m certain everyone noticed, although only one person commented on it), the colour faded as promised, my greys returned, I did more pulling, and then I repeated the whole procedure.  But as I sat in that chair the second time, trying not to feel ill with the fumes and the burning, I wondered if it was more than just nerves; I wondered if I was having an allergic reaction (because, apparently, that’s a real possibility), and I thought, I can’t do this anymore.

So while that particular avenue may have closed, I still wasn’t ready to quietly accept the grey.  Wasn’t I too young for this?  What if someone — horrors! — mistook me for a grandma?!  Unwittingly, I had stepped into the great vicious-cycle-of-a-treadmill that seemingly all women are running through.  We start going grey, we look around, we see that no one else is going grey, we assume we’re the only ones, and we dye our hair.  The only ones not dying their hair are the ones who are “letting themselves go.”  Where’s their sense of pride? we wonder.  And what’s next?  Going to the supermarket in curlers?

Okay, so salon dye wasn’t going to work for me.  Enter Plan B:  Henna.  Our local natural foods grocery store stocked several varieties, and after weeks of hemming and hawing over shade and brand, I worked up the nerve to purchase a box.  I took it home and read the instructions, which, if I recall correctly, went something like this: mix powder with water; apply dye to hair, being careful to avoid contact with skin or clothing as it can stain; wrap head in plastic garbage bag; let sit several hours.  Unconvinced of the ease of all this, and wanting to be certain nothing untoward could possibly happen (remember, I’m a hair dye wimp), I decided to do a Google search.  As it turned out, this was either a big mistake or a life-saver, because what I came up with was a host of henna horror stories:  things going terribly wrong, hair turning violent shades of red, tsk tsk tsking professionals having to be called in to remedy hopeless situations.  Completely daunted by what seemed to be a thoroughly dicey procedure, and knowing there was no throw-caution-to-the-wind soul residing anywhere inside me, I shoved the box to the back of the bathroom cabinet and embarked on Plan C:  acceptance.  I was going grey whether I liked it or not.

Plan C:  Acceptance.  (Also known as Embracing Your Age, Defending Your Right to be Grey, Blaming Your Kids). There was one (one!) mother at my children’s school who did not dye her hair.  (And who was decidedly not letting herself go).  She became my new role model.  This woman looked amazing. She had stunning silver hair, cut into a stylish bob.  She had perfect skin, she was smartly-dressed, she positively oozed self-assurance.  I brushed aside the inconvenient fact that I was neither beautiful nor self-assured, and that I was in no stretch of anybody’s imagination stylish.  Someday, I was sure, I would look like her.  I have a long way to go:  over the years, the grey has moved in, steadily buying up more and more real estate on my scalp, and I’m currently at that awkward stage of grizzled half brown, half grey.  I’ve reluctantly come to accept that this is me.  I look around my nine year-old’s school, knowing I look older than the other mothers, but also thinking — rather defensively — I am older than most of the other mothers.  I had him at 37, after all.  And while I walk him to school, alongside mothers bringing their first-borns to kindergarten, mothers who could possibly be two decades younger than me, I think of our daughter, newly ensconced in her dorm at university.  After 18 years of parenthood, perhaps a few wrinkles and grey hairs are fitting; perhaps I’ve earned them.

So I’d love to end this here, on this positive note.  (And I’ve certainly droned on long enough).  But because I strive to be real, and in the spirit of full-disclosure, I have to fess up:  remember my fear of the dreaded grandma comment?

Sigh…

1)  I was coming out of a store in the month of December, several years ago, a box of Star Wars Lego in my hand (bagless, of course) and the woman manning the Salvation Army bucket commented on what a wonderful present it was, and asked if it was for my…

… wait for it …

GRANDson.  

!!!

(I had been digging for change in my purse, and I came *this* close to simply walking away).

2)  A bizarre conversation, about a year ago, in which a teacher I had never before spoken to stopped me in the hall at school and (referring to my 15 year-old) asked if ______ was my son.  I confirmed that he was, to which she replied, “Oh, yes, I thought so.  And you also walk another little boy to school, don’t you?  I see you every morning, walking a little boy to school, and I think Oh, that’s so kind of her to walk that little neighbour boy to school! 

“Um, yeeesss,” I said, completely floored, searching for words.  “That’s…my…other…son.”

When I related this conversation to my friends, they said that rather than assuming the worst, that this teacher had looked at me and surmised from my grey hair that I was too old to have a child that young, I should instead pin the conversation to the obvious:  this particular teacher is simply an — (I’m not going to say what they called her; you can make your own assumptions).

So there it is: Grey.  While I accept it, I do have to say I would love it if I weren’t mostly alone.  Is it selfish of me to wish that others join me?  I sometimes notice my friends’ hair, see their grey roots in the days before they trundle themselves off to the hairdresser.  I don’t say anything, but I wonder if they’d like to get off the mill, if they’d be willing to simply accept their natural colour, to stop spending the money and time, to quell the fear of aging.  I recognize the fact that if they’ve been dying their hair *forever* then that is their hair colour; they wouldn’t feel themselves without it, but … if we all recognize the inherent unfairness surrounding societal expectations and aging, if we all rail against it, then perpetuating the problem does nothing to solve it. If we all did it, if we all stopped colouring our hair, the cycle would end.  Women would be allowed to be real, just as men have always been allowed to be real.

/  types more slowly, stays very quiet, patiently waits, strains ears hoping to hear murmurs of assent, shouts of Hell, yes, enough is enough!  /

*crickets*

Ah well, it was worth a try 😉

6 thoughts on “Grey

  1. As my (97 year old) Grandma likes to tell me, getting old isn’t for wimps! I think this weird in-between stage is tough. We’re losing the perks of youth (that we didn’t even realize were perks until they started going), but we’re not yet fully old enough to be crone-cool. I have said repeatedly that the 40s are a second adolescence, just as awkward as the first one. I think it’s always hard to be some of two different things at the same time, because the ways in which the various parts come together is often awkward. All of which is to say: I’m right there with you.

    I’m not going grey (that same Grandma still doesn’t really have grey hair, and I think I have her hair color genes), but for all my life I was blonde. Then in my 30s I really wasn’t any more, and I got “highlights” (a euphemism I could live with) for quite a few years because being blonde was what I was and it didn’t feel like me to be mousy brown. Like you, though, I got to a place I just couldn’t stomach any of it anymore–the expense, the long appointments I didn’t have time for, the strip of dark hair within weeks of the long, expensive appointment. I wanted to get back to my natural color (whatever it was). I did the same thing to get there–a semi-permanent color that would fade. I HATED it. Flat and so, so dark. I felt like Elvira, and I hated being seen that way.

    It did fade, though. And I like the natural color well enough. It has the highlights they can never really fake. And it’s my real color and I don’t have any more long, expensive, toxic hair appointments. Not too long ago I was given some pictures of me from college (when I was a bona fide blonde), and I could suddenly see (like a punch in the gut) all the ways in which I am no longer that young woman. Physical and otherwise. I know it happened incrementally, over many days and months and years in which I was too busy to think much about how I looked or what my place in the world is. It’s so strange (and kinda cruel) that the realization that both things have changed so dramatically so often comes all at once.

    Grandma’s right: Aging isn’t for wimps! But it sure gives me strength to realize I’m not the only one going through this second awkward age.

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    1. Seeing photos of yourself in college…oh, I can relate to that punch-in-the-gut feeling, that knowledge of seeing how things have changed. I hate looking at photos of myself these days (current ones), and if it weren’t for a very thoughtful blog post I read quite a while ago (in which a mom vowed to be in photos, despite not liking how she looked) I would very happily not be photographed ever again! In many ways it’s easier to be among the youthful parents at my youngest son’s school, because unless I catch a glimpse of myself, it’s almost as if I can pretend I still look like them. It’s when I go to high school events and look around at the other parents (who are more in line with my age) that it hits me. I look around and think, wow, these people are really old. And then of course I realize they’re looking at me and likely thinking the same thing. I guess that’s the great irony (and cruel joke) of aging: we still (mainly) feel the same inside; we just don’t look it 😦

      Thanks Rita, for taking the time to come by, and to leave a comment 🙂

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  2. Maybe you could move to Pittsburgh? Lots of grey-haired women here. I haven’t felt particularly self-conscious about letting my dark hair be decorated by silver strands; I think they’re sort of decorative. But it helps that my face still looks basically the same as in college, thanks to oily skin, I think, and maybe to having quit wearing makeup 10 years ago and thus being able to wash my face more gently.

    Having recently given birth to my second child shortly before turning 41, though, I wince at the expectation of eventually being mistaken for her grandmother. I’ll try to remember, though, that it doesn’t necessarily mean I look especially old. Back when I was only 28, I bought an Eminem CD at Kmart just before Christmas, and the cashier (who was about 16) asked, “Is it for your son or daughter?” I told her I didn’t have kids yet, but the oldest child I could possibly have would not be old enough to listen to Eminem, in my opinion!

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    1. I got a laugh out of your Eminem story 🙂 And you’re absolutely right – being mistaken for a grandmother doesn’t necessarily mean you look old – it may simply indicate the person has pre-conceived and erroneous notions of the things one does (or in your case, listens to) at certain ages. This is a point well worth remembering.

      I think being around other women who are going grey naturally definitely eases the transition. Before moving here three years ago we lived near a fairly progressive small city in Minnesota, and when I went there to shop (notably at the aforementioned natural foods grocery store) I frequently saw other women who were “not hiding their grey”. On the one hand, it’s nice to not feel conspicuous; on the other hand, being conspicuous can sometimes make you feel strong. I’ve often bolstered myself by thinking, “well, someone has to stand up for “real”; why not me?” And then I feel like I’m standing up for something I believe in, which is a good feeling 🙂

      And once again, I have to apologize…I have all the settings correct, my email is correct, I should be receiving notifications when I get comments (and you, having a previously approved comment, shouldn’t even have to be moderated)…and I’m still having problems. I’m not sure I believe The Minimalists’ claim that it’s easy to set up a blog 😦

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  3. I find this hard to comment on but here goes. I WILL get my colored and I DO feel better when it is done! I DO think that it is great that you like the grey and have accepted it too though. I never colored my hair as a teenager and I have never done it myself. My hairdresser is absolutely wonderful and I love what she does and I really do feel better when it is done. You and I are the same age and our circumstances are very different, but I FEEL 25 when the hair gets done! To each there own and acceptance of self is seriously underrated!!

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    1. I think you hit my point exactly with your last sentence: acceptance of self is seriously underrated! To be clear, it was never my intention to tell other women that they shouldn’t dye their hair, and although I thought I had managed to write the piece without coming off as though I was, perhaps I didn’t quite succeed. It was, however, my intention to talk about aging and societal expectations and sexism. There have been many campaigns in recent years that have attempted to show young girls (especially) what “real” actually is: the Dove Real Beauty campaign, the videos showing how models’ photos are airbrushed to contour their faces and bodies. My daughter recently told me about a site she happened upon which showed the reality of what a person’s body looks like following a massive loss of weight…and it’s nothing like what you see on the covers of supermarket check-out magazines where a woman with a flawless abdomen is stretching out her former waistline! To get back to the idea of acceptance of self – it is much easier, I think, to accept oneself when you’re on a level playing field. If “everyone” around you is getting Botox and you are the only one with wrinkles and saggy skin, you are likely going to have a much harder time accepting your own wrinkles! I know our circumstances are very different, but here’s a question for you: do you have any male counterparts at work – of our approximate age – doing the same job you do? Do they dye their hair and use make-up? And what do you think would happen if you came to work with grey hair and no make-up? Would your boss pull you aside and tell you to fix yourself up? Why are men allowed grey hair and wrinkles and natural eyes and complexions and women are not?

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