Wow, there was a lot of gray hair at the Oscars this year. Kidding! Sure, George Clooney’s silver head was in every other cutaway shot. And French best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva looked fabulously un-dyed on this, her 86th birthday. But even Jane Fonda and Shirley Bassey (75 and 76 respectively), do not dare bare their true hair. Barbra Streisand (70), Meryl Streep (63)—no way.
I thought of them all as I sat in a salon chair, 50 or so squares of foil shooting out from my head, flipping through More magazine. Looking like an extra in a low-budget sci-fi film. Feeling morally deficient. I really want to be the kind of woman who can own the gray: Emmy Lou Harris. Jamie Lee Curtis. But I’m not. I’m just not. Not yet.
I tried. I stopped coloring my hair for about two years. I thought I was doing OK with the gradually emerging, real, salt-n-pepper me, until I saw a photo in which I resembled my grandmother. Not my stylish Seattle grandma: no, I resembled my dear, frumpy Finnish-American grandma, whose hair was the same steely gray I now saw on my own head. And what is so wrong with that, you might ask? What’s wrong is that I often work with people 10, 20, even 30 years younger than I am, and I can’t yet afford to frighten them away by resembling their grandmothers. I literally can’t afford it: in the often arbitrary world of self-employed creative professionals, the wrong first impression could cost you the job.
This is what I tell myself. That it’s not about me not accepting my age, it’s about our culture, our society, not accepting my age. But how am I helping if I capitulate and pour expensive chemicals on my head? I’m not helping, not at all. I’m contributing to the never-ending silliness of our age-allergic age. And I know this.
And I know that serious people who I respect will judge me, rightly, for my vanity.
However. There really is a however to this story. It’s about the self-knowledge that you start to bank as you age: about knowing what works for your self-esteem, your ability to get up in the morning and seize the day. And we’re all wired a little differently. For example, it doesn’t bother me that I can’t afford to buy my wardrobe at high-end department stores. I like treasure-hunting at consignment shops. But hair is different. Your hair frames your face, which means when you greet yourself in the mirror at 7am, your hair is part of the package. And when my hair was gray, I looked in the mirror and I felt old. And—this is the interesting part—I think it made me, ever so subtly, act old. Old-er. You know: Oh that achy hip; oh I’m tired; oh let’s not go out. That sort of thing. This might not be true for you, but it was true for me. And it bothered me.
In a lovely, wrenching, Oscar-nominated documentary called Mondays at Racine, women with cancer talked about how losing their hair was one of the hardest things they had to deal with. Because, whether their hair was short and spiky or long and lush, it was the frame around the face they saw in the mirror. Without it, their faces looked as exposed and vulnerable as their cancer made them feel. Many of them learned to own the baldness, to embrace it as part of their new survivor-self. But it was not ever easy.
Men’s hair is, of course, a whole different subject. Barack Obama, George Clooney? No career problems we can pin on their heads. But that unlucky guy who is balding at 30? I bet he can relate to the way women feel about going gray.
Back to Emmy Lou and Jamie Lee: I admire them so much, just as I admire every woman I know who is not hung up, like I am, on hair color. That list includes my sister and sister-in-law, who both look gorgeous and youthful and ought to be an inspiration to me. And they will be, when the time comes. But I’m just not ready yet. Are you? I would love to hear why or why not.
Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.