I started going gray in my early 20s, noticing individual, disobedient hairs poking out between my otherwise dark brown coif. I plucked them back then. There were so few of them that every time I noticed one, I could just pull it out and move on with my day.
But, as they got more frequent, I realized that I’d have to start doing something about them. So, my hairdresser started giving me blonde highlights, strategically placed to cover the gray. I then got blonder and blonder, although never entirely taking the plunge, as the grays became more and more numerous.
After I got married, I cut my hair short, which meant that the colorings had to become more frequent since the outgrowth was more obvious with my new short style. I kept at it right through my first pregnancy, getting regular highlights and cuts to maintain my illusory youthfulness. My hair was gorgeous through that pregnancy, shiny and full…and for the first time in my life, I really liked my hair.
And then our son was born and most of my hair fell out. In fact, my bangs basically disappeared and I had to re-grow them from scratch, much like our son was doing at the time. I was at home with a tiny baby who had some special medical needs, I was working on my Masters degree, and working part-time, so the last thing I had time for was sitting in a stylist’s chair, waiting for my hair color to change. I couldn’t imagine giving up something I enjoyed for something so futile.
So, I stopped cold turkey. My hair grew back just as it was, no artificial color or flavor added. In the first few years, I have kept it short, and because there was less of it, the gray wasn’t that obvious to casual observers. But then I started to grow it out, and as it’s reached down to my shoulders, I’ve begun to appreciate the politics that are attached to women’s beauty decisions in a whole new way.
Men (aside from my husband who thinks my gray hair is sexy) never comment on my hair. Women, on the other hand, comment on it all the time. The comment that I get most often is that I’m “brave.” Brave. For not dying my hair. Brave?
Now, there are things that I do that could be seen as brave, although in a minor way. Converting to Judaism might be one, writing about my personal life might be another. Both of those choices might have negative consequences (anti-Semitism for one, breaking the family taboo of airing the dirty laundry for the other). But if that’s what brave means: doing things in spite of their potentially negative consequences. So, then why is wearing my hair in all of its naturally gray-streaked glory considered brave? What’s the negative consequence?
Do we really think that being seen for the age we actually are is negative? Does the beauty industrial complex really have so much control over our choices that we are willing to keep doing something that we don’t like just to remain within a framework of social acceptability? Often, women who comment that I’m brave also mention wistfully that they’d love to stop coloring their hair but… They usually leave the but hanging. But what?
What’s the worst that could happen? You’d lose your spouse? Your job? Your friends would dump you? I doubt it. I think the “but” is that they’re worried they’d look old, and maybe I do. Maybe I look older than 38. But so what? Really, so what?
These beauty companies only have control of us because we allow them to. We give them the power to shape our perceptions of ourselves; we let them do this to us. Letting my hair go gray is one small, but very public thing I can do for my daughter, sure, but also for myself to push back against the relentless marketing that tells us to poke and product ourselves into submission. It’s a loud no in a chorus of yesses. But brave? I don’t think so.