23: Gray

23: Gray

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Gray

It is not by the gray of the hair that one knows the age of the heart.

~Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

I was walking my dog when a friend pulled up and rolled down her car window. “Oh, my God!” she said. “I’ve wanted to do that for ages! You are so brave!”

It was the first time Elyse had seen me since I let my hair go gray.

I’d been thinking about taking the plunge for a couple of years. I was sick of coloring my hair. Sick of the outlay of time and money. Sick of the seaweed hue the chlorine in the pool turned it only weeks after coloring.

I was also weary of colluding with a culture that saw a sixty-year-old man’s silver-gray crown as “distinguished” but expected women of the same age to have hair that was impossibly golden or brilliantly brunette. I was fed up with the cultural expectation that I look younger than my age.

About twelve weeks elapsed between the day I stopped coloring my short, afro-styled hair and the day I left the last vestiges of my chemically prolonged youth on the salon floor. During those awkward months when the top of my head looked like a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting, I felt like a walking Rorschach test. What did my friends see in this morphing design?

Many women, some good friends and some barely acquaintances, decided that my decision was sufficiently universal that they had to share their thoughts and feelings with me. They voiced many concerns: What would my kids think? Would my spouse like it? When I look in the mirror, would I see my mother? Or worse, my grandmother?

What happens when one defies cultural norms and brazenly courts ageism? I was struck by how many women ended their conversations about my hair with “It’s so great that you’re doing this. Good luck!” They vicariously wished to live the dream but also recognized that, for the granny who suits up to cross skydiving off her bucket list, a little luck couldn’t hurt. Like the canary in the coalmine, they collectively waited to see if I would survive.

Most of them, like Elyse, applauded my courage for having traveled somewhere they were still too timid to go. Still, I was struck by the number of women who ended the conversation by reminding me, “You can always color it again if you don’t like it.” It was a sisterly gesture of unconditional acceptance should my silly experiment turn out to be a bust.

Brave is laudable but not safe. For so many of us, there is something dangerous about not looking young. The pressure to look young drives us to purchase youth-enhancing concoctions so implausible we would never consider buying into such hokum in any other realm of our lives. It drives some into misery, others to the dermatologist for injections, and others under the knife.

Even my older friends who color their hair admit that they’ve been thinking about going gray for years, but feel they just aren’t ready. Ready for what?

As un-PC as it may sound, I think the most honest answer to this question is: not ready to look old. This is particularly true of my women friends who work in corporate settings. They have earned their high-level positions through years of study, sacrifice, and hard work. Still, they are afraid that to look their age would somehow jeopardize their… what? Their credibility? Their value? Their power? Or is it something deeper? Their sense of self-worth?

Although I was (mostly) comfortable with my decision from the start, there were some false starts.

“How old were your parents when they died?” This awkward question was posed to me by a young intake nurse when I changed physicians recently. Before I went gray, the question had always been: “Are your parents still alive?”

I had only been fully gray for a few days and wore my new identity like an aging Peter Pan, full of bravado and uneasy with the range of feelings that could pop up in new circumstances. Reactive and relentless, I shot back, “Did you ask that question like that because I have gray hair?” The poor woman was flustered and mortified, but I would take no prisoners. “Do you assume I’m too old to have living parents just because I have gray hair?” She apologized profusely. I thought she might cry. With my defensiveness on full display, it was my turn to feel mortified.

Empowerment is an inside job. Giving oneself permission and authority to challenge norms is not for the faint of heart, and this gray business is a complicated endeavor. From hour to hour, I am resolved but insecure, freed but self-conscious.

As time passes, I am increasingly comfortable with my decision. Being gray suits the way I live the rest of my life. Simple. Quiet. Counterculture. With this decision not to take action against my body’s natural course, I have given myself permission to look my age, trusting that my esprit de corps will compensate for whatever assumptions onlookers may associate with a silver crown.

Early in my pilgrimage, I was jolted when I passed a mirror and was confronted with my gray-haired reflection. I was caught off guard but was not unhappy. I felt eager to embrace this familiar stranger, knowing that by accepting her, I was one step closer to more fully accepting me.

~Audrey Ades

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