Embracing the gray

In the post title, I don’t just mean that I’m embracing the shades of gray that represent life’s ambiguities. I’m actually realizing that there are fewer things that I’m ambiguous about as I get older.

Instead, the gray I’ve decided to embrace is in my hair.

True story: I was born with a gray hair. I vaguely remember stories (that I now am not sure if they were true or just my imagination) that said my gray hair at birth meant I was a “born worrier.” I’m trying really hard to change that perception I have of myself because it has been self-fulfilling.

I don’t usually dye my hair, maybe once or twice a year if I feel like it. When I do, I usually do it myself rather than going to a salon just because I find salons to be unnecessarily expensive, especially once you add tip. (Don’t I have anything better to spend $100 or more on every two months or so? Yes, yes I do.)

But I am awfully self-conscious about the sprinklings of gray hair that have popped up over my head in increasing numbers in the past few years. I pluck random ones that stick up and bug me, which inevitably ensures that they do the exact same thing when they grow back in. The cycle repeats.

The last time I saw a hairstylist was in May before I started my ill-fated job. At that time, the stylist said I really didn’t have much gray hair at all but it was still enough that I didn’t like it. I decided to color it myself again yesterday, feeling self-conscious about an upcoming visit back home to see my family for the first time in almost five years. I debated with myself about whether or not to color over the gray hair, but finally decided I should try to “look my best.” Even though I’m five years older and sicker than when I left, I still wish I could impress everyone with how great I look.

Then I read this article in the NY Times today, which was all about one woman’s decision to stop dyeing her hair. So much of it really resonated with me and made me think that I don’t want to keep covering up my hair color after all.

Truth is that I’ve never had a woman in my life who let her hair go gray (other than a few online friends, which I don’t really count because face-to-face relationships influence us more.)

Even my late grandmother dyed her hair dark brown and wore makeup until the day she died. I was never close to her, but I can’t help but think that example of aging still affected me on some level.

If no women I know in my daily life have any gray hair, what kind of messages have I gotten from that?

I also know that hair dye (particularly dark colors) is believed to be carcinogenic. I have enough health risks as it is and I want to get more serious about avoiding the ones I can control. How screwed up is it that women are supposed to put all these cancer-causing products on our hair and faces to try to make us look more attractive?

There’s also the fact that I’m becoming more secure in myself and am more inclined to embrace my natural appearance. I’m not a celebrity or a wannabe Instagram/YouTube influencer and I’m not a big fan of taking lots of selfies. Although I don’t want to become a complete slob and stop making any effort to be presentable, I also increasingly don’t see the need to be fake. And it feels like things like hair dye and a lot of makeup are fake, for sure.

My grandma’s dark brown hair well into her 80s and her bright Revlon lipstick that left prints on your cheek that were hard to wash off were definitely fake. They never once made me mistake her for a much younger woman. And truth be told, I did think it was kind of an unflattering look.

I see a handful of single women I know on Instagram who are my age, regularly posting selfies in low-cut dresses and high heels, trying to show off how they’ve “still got it.” And to me that just seems like you never get to rest, like there’s never a break from the pressure on women to be sex objects.

I’m not passing judgment on people who do these things because they truly enjoy them and it makes them feel good about themselves. But I know that for me, the more I try to cover up what I really look like, the more I try to hide the visible signs of my real age, the worse it makes me feel about my real self.

Why are women in particular so afraid of showing their real age? Why do we say that men look more distinguished with some gray hair at their temples or in their facial hair, while we have so many negative beliefs and stereotypes about women with gray hair?

Just because I haven’t seen many women my age with gray in their hair doesn’t mean women my age aren’t getting gray hair. It’s just that we’re all being told by the culture that gray hair on women looks old, sexless, matronly, frumpy. So we cover it up, further creating the false impression that women in middle age don’t have gray hair.

I’m really tired of the fact that the beauty standard for women is that we’re never supposed to look older than 25. A common compliment my friends with teenage daughters hear is that mother and daughter look more like sisters. I know that’s intended as a compliment by the people who say it.

But when you really think about it, it’s not actually a nice thing. Saying that a woman in her 40s or 50s looks like a teenager makes the teenager the more desirable standard by default. We’re supposed to be flattered by being told that we look like we haven’t had the life experiences that we have. The peak achievement is to look frozen in time, when we had the least power and wisdom but looked the prettiest.

The same definitely doesn’t apply to men. It’s inherently kind of demeaning to compare full-grown adults to teenagers and say it’s a “compliment.” But I think it’s so subconscious and automatic that people don’t realize the meaning of what they’re saying.

When was the last term you heard anyone tell a man that he and his teenage son looked more like brothers? Why do you think that’s so rare?

I want to be told I look healthy (which I hope to achieve, but I’m not there yet) and that I look happy. But when it comes to the life goals and achievements I want to be remembered for, none of them have to do with my appearance.

If the main thing people can say about me at the end of my life has to do with how young or how good I looked, I will feel that my life was a tremendous waste.

But I still have to consciously work on unlearning those tapes in my head, the ones that associate visible signs of age with being unattractive and haggard. Especially since we as a society don’t have those views toward men, it’s really disturbing that we have them about women. It’s like we approve of women based solely on how long they look fuckable, which of course equals “under 25.”

If we associate age with wisdom in men, why would it be so undesirable for women to look comparably wise? Maybe because we’re a threat if we look too wise or powerful?

I already know my husband accepts how I look and finds me beautiful no matter what I do. He truly doesn’t think I need to color my hair or wear makeup. I know that I value my mind and my skills far more than my appearance. Now I just have to keep reiterating over and over to myself that I don’t accept society’s beauty standards. That it’s okay to look my age.

Maybe I’ll start a trend, though probably not because I don’t like to stand out or draw attention to myself. But maybe I can be the kind of woman who shows younger women that it’s okay to look like you’re over 40 when you are, in fact, over 40. That will necessitate a two-pronged attack: both looking my actual age and also being respected enough that other qualities define my value more than my looks.

Maybe even other women will do the same and someday it won’t be so unusual to see women looking more natural.

The one thing I learned from my grandma, trying to recapture the looks she had at 25 until the day she died, is that it’s essentially just putting a mask on over your real age and it’s not especially convincing.

When you’re 45 and you’re trying to dress like you’re 25, you’re not really fooling anyone. You just look like you’re 45 doing cosplay of a 25-year-old. The discrepancy between your real age and the age you’re trying to appear just grows more obvious the older you get.

Instead of being 75 and looking like you’re wearing a costume of a 25-year-old, why not just look like a real 75-year-old? When is it acceptable to take off the mask and just be yourself?

I didn’t fight this hard to live this long to want to look like I’m denying the things I’ve gained along the way — even if that includes gray hair and a few extra pounds.

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