Dyeing my gray hair feels complicated – and it should.
This morning, I looked for the gray hairs. That’s the stage they’re at – sometimes I have to look for them, but other times, if the light is right and I’m particularly intent on seeing them, I can spot them right away at my hairline.
The mother of a friend of mine has spectacular, shiny, long, silver hair. She’ll never dye it, my friend told me, and at the time, I thought that sounded great and powerful. Of course she should never dye it just because that’s what we’re told to do — groom ourselves within an inch of our lives, pluck, shave, burn, so we never appear old or hairy or bumpy or like a human. I didn’t vow never to dye my hair in that moment, but I hoped that I would never want to.
I was in my 20s then, and now I’m 38, and here are the grays. There aren’t a lot, like I said, but there are enough to notice, and to make me wonder if other people notice them, and to feel anxious about that. I don’t feel this way about the hair on my legs, which I quit shaving more than ten years ago because I was tired of accidentally cutting myself, of fulfilling the expectation that men had that I would be hairless and smooth, of feeling like I couldn’t wear shorts or skirts unless I shaved. I no longer think about whether or not people notice my leg hair, but my gray hair is different.
I know what it’s about – I’m not ready to be read as old. I don’t feel old, whatever that means. I don’t think I’m old, but I’m not ready for the signs that point to aging. That feels uncomplicated and genuine, the resistance to aging, and when I think about getting rid of my gray hairs, the ones I have and the ones that are waiting to sprout, I realize that dyeing is just a disguise, I’ll know they’re there. I can’t reverse time, I can just make people think I have.
To be clear: I don’t think it’s either dye my hair or be a feminist. I don’t believe that abstaining from shaving or bleaching or wearing makeup makes a person a feminist. I wear lipstick every day, and not wearing it makes me feel washed out, sparse, and blank. (This I blame on my mother and grandmother, who constantly said to me and to one another, “You’re not leaving the house without lipstick, are you?”) But as a feminist, I know that we don’t make decisions in a clean, pure, space. There is no such thing. Dyeing my hair means I’m doing something that will make my life easier, because of the way we treat and perceive women who do not look young. I’d be making a choice to opt out of that, as much as would be possible.
Not dyeing my hair means I’m confronting getting older in a different way. I’m not sharing my reality with other people, I’m keeping it under something, literally. It means that other women with gray hairs, whether many or few, can’t find me. We can’t connect over it, unless we speak, and even then, unless we decide to talk about it.
Sometimes, on the subway, I’ll look for women with gray hair like mine, the way I used to look for wedding rings on people when I first moved to New York more than ten years ago. I couldn’t believe I was old enough to know people who were married, so I’d search for fingers with diamonds or bands and try to imagine that we could have anything in common. This is a different search. This is hoping that in the five minutes or twenty minutes we have together in this moving box, in which we don’t talk or even look at one another, this person with the gray hair will help me figure out what to do about mine.
A small part of me thought I’d know what to do about my hair at the end of this essay, that I’d surprise myself by summoning an answer from somewhere inside. I still know what I knew at the beginning, which is that decision is complicated, and I want it to stay complicated, instead of pretending that changing the way I look, altering myself so I can feel like the self I am right now, the one who can’t imagine herself not young, isn’t loaded with personal, and therefore political, implications. I could dye it, let it grow back, dye it again, feel ancient, feel free, feel like my mother, who never dyed her hair, let it be salt and pepper elegant. I could pretend it’s a simple decision, although it is not, at least for me, even if I end up following the instructions on the box correctly.
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