Two years ago, I stopped coloring my hair and realized I had unintentionally done something radical. People assumed my long, gray hair was a statement against our culture’s celebration of youth and our rigid conventions of beauty. Or, conversely, they assumed my hair revealed an inherent laziness on my part.
“I don’t mind gray hair on a woman,” a man told me once over a glass of wine, as if I had forgotten to shower or wear deodorant.
“I could never let my hair go gray,” a friend said to me. “I mean, yours looks OK, but my mother would just die if I let my hair go like that.”
“Good for you!” a stranger screamed across the parking lot at the public library. “Good for you! Don’t you ever let anyone tell you you need to color you hair!”
And while I appreciated this man’s enthusiastic endorsement of my… umm… lifestyle choice, I was not quite sure it was deserved. I got my first gray hairs when I was in my early twenties. Back then, I considered my gray hairs to be purveyors of doom, and so I began what would become years of touching up, dyeing, and highlighting away every gray strand, every indication that I might, one day, be old.
At first, I did my own coloring, and sometimes the resulting colors were shades that actually appeared naturally in other humans. Most of the time, however, I emerged from these hours-long sessions with locks of varying shades of plum and purple, hints of Ronald-McDonald orange and Big-Bird yellow. Once, when my older son was 3, he took one look at my freshly-dyed hair and burst into tears.
“Your hair is purple!” he screamed.
“Honey, it’s not purple,” I said.
But there was too much evidence to the contrary.
“It is! It is!” he sobbed.
By the time I was in my early thirties, I had learned to let a professional do my coloring, and as my hair grew grayer and grayer, I went to the colorist’s at increasingly narrow intervals — every other month, every six weeks, every four weeks. By the time I was 40, I was going every three weeks. The entire procedure — color, shampoo, scalp massage, blow-dry — took about three hours and cost half of what I earned in a week, yet two weeks after this epic coloring session, my hair once again looked like someone had run a white paintbrush over my part.
And so one day a couple of years ago, I just decided that was it. I called my long-time stylist and made an appointment for — gasp — just a cut.
“Wait,” my stylist said when I arrived. “They only put you down for a cut. We’ll need rework the schedule a bit to fit in your color.”
“No,” I explained. “I’m going to stop coloring.”
My hairdresser was my age, heroin-addict skinny with butt-length, carrot-colored hair and a myriad of fading tattoos — a ring around her thin wrist, a rose above her right breast, a branch on her left ankle. She stood behind me and in the reflection in the mirror, her scowl was lopsided and crinkly around the edges.
“You can’t be serious,” she finally said.
I was serious, I told her.
“You’re going to look 10 years older,” she said. “Are you prepared for that?”
I was prepared for that. I was 45 years old, and no amount of hair dye was going to make me look 20. Plus, there were plenty of other women who wore their gray hair beautifully. My mother was one of them.
Back in the seventies, my mother had a jet-black bob like Jackie Kennedy, but she stopped dying her hair some time in the eighties. Now, people constantly told her she looked years younger than she was. Her secret? She always wore vivid colors, and she never went anywhere — the grocery store, hiking, water aerobics — without earrings and plenty of bright lipstick — blazing lava, plum explosion, true red.
Personally, I was a fan of drab colors — browns, blacks, grays — and I knew a splash of colorful lipstick was not suddenly going to transform me into my perky, upbeat mother. It just wasn’t me. Still, while I was growing out my hair, the thin, gray band around my scalp got increasingly wider, as if I were wearing a giant, white headband, and finally, I decided a splash of color here and there couldn’t hurt.
And so I invested in a few brightly-colored scarves, a couple of flashy tops. My daughter also convinced me to buy a long, purple wrap. The wrap became my new go-to item — the thing I wore to every single event I attend for an entire spring and summer and part of the fall. However, every time I put it on, rather than feeling fresh-faced and lively, I was reminded of perhaps the greatest transgression I ever committed against my mother, something far worse than all my teenage shenanigans combined.
I was in my early twenties, and my mother was younger than I am now — in her early forties — when I gave her a book I thought she would like. My daughter was 2 at the time, and I was pregnant with my son, and I saw this as a moment of bonding — a moment when I could say to my mother, “I, too, am a woman, and I understand the difficulty of growing older in a society that honors youth.” The book was When I Grow Old, I Shall Wear Purple, which Thrift Books describes as an “enchanting collection of writings and photographs evokes the beauty, humor and courage of women living in their later years.”
Later years. My mother was the same age I was when I took up mountain biking, the age when I embraced the craft beer movement and began road racing, the age when I was just beginning to be calm in my mind and comfortable in my body, the age that Esquire just praised as the time when women are most alluring. My mother opened the book — a birthday gift — and paused with it in her hands. Her eyes were wide and dark, her lovely, fuchsia lips twitching up and down, searching for words. A sliver of wrapping paper clung to the book’s back cover.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
There was the briefest pause, and then the silence gave way to thank you and how thoughtful, and the moment was gone.
That was over 20 years ago. Now, my mother actually is growing older, and, at 47, I suppose I am too. Today, I no longer balk at the insinuation inherent in my head full of gray hairs — the implication that I am surely and swiftly heading where we are all heading, if we are lucky — to old age. And whenever I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror or in a photo one of my kids snaps on a cell phone, I see a bit of my mother — the red undertones in my skin, the certain way I hold my jaw — and I think of that stranger in the library parking lot, and I simply think, well, yeah. Good for me. Good for me.
*Article originally published on Huffington Post.