Embracing My Gray Self

The Community Chronicle, May 2020

By the time I hit 45 I was about 60% gray. No one could tell because I colored my hair with the religious fervor of a zealot. Everyone I knew also colored their hair to mask those stubborn grays, so it felt more like the right thing to do rather than an act of deception.

Fast forward 10 years into my fifties -- it became a real chore to keep my gray hidden from the world, but I had to, or so I thought. I was still working and for some strange reason thought that I needed to pretend that I was younger, to stay competitive in my field. Well, there was a reason. My Mama kept telling me that I had to look good or I might lose my job. She encouraged me to have some “work done” and to color my hair. Though I told her that the norms of the 1940s when she was working no longer applied to today’s society; she didn’t buy it, and kept encouraging me to use every beauty tool available to give the appearance that I was as youthful as I felt. For several years coloring my hair achieved trompe-l'œil results, a deception of the eye. The only problem was that I grew weary of playing the charade. My hair grew about two inches a month, which required me to touch up my roots every 10 days. It was a real pain.

My hairdresser suggested I wear a hairstyle with a “poof” on top instead of a style where my hair lay flat, which made the grays all the more obvious. We looked at a lot of photos in beauty magazines. She kept pointing to 1960s style hairdos and telling me that the 1960s are all the rage and that I’ll look quite stylish. (Think the TV show – Mad Men.) Only problem was that I already did that in the 1960s and I wasn’t about to repeat those styles. In short, been there, done that. I resolved to keep coloring my hair to carry out the deception.

Then, something wonderful happened. I left my job to freelance online from home. Since I wouldn’t have to actually see anyone, I decided to take the big leap and give up coloring my hair and go “au natural.” Had my Mama still been alive she would have driven like a madwoman over to my home and tried to shake some sense into me. Not color my hair? It was akin to beauty desecration. My mind was made up – I was going to do it!

I visited my hairdresser again, told her that I planned to “go gray” and that a short cut would make the growing out period a little less obvious. She realized that I wasn’t going to go with the poof on top of my head and gave me a cute, pixie-like cut. Then the waiting began, which didn’t take long. My little gray hairs began peeking out like daffodils in the spring. A month later, I went back to my hairdresser and asked her to shorten it again. After my third cut, only a wee bit of my previous color remained. I liked how it blended with my salt and pepper locks. When Marcela finished cutting, she stepped back and said, “You look like that actress, hmmm, what’s her name? Jamie somebody.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, my jaw ajar. “You mean Jamie Lee Curtis?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” she nodded with a grin.

I was flattered. Who wouldn’t want to be told she looks like the gorgeous Jamie Lee Curtis who early on embraced her gray with sophisticated confidence and aplomb? 

Jamie Lee aside, something else began happening. I liken it to going Full Monty, in a way. The simple decision to stop coloring my hair for the sake of image allowed my inner self to shine in ways I did not imagine and certainly didn’t anticipate. There is something emancipating about being intensely comfortable with the self, and brushing off societal expectations. By giving up the pretense that coloring my hair would somehow make me look or feel younger, I swept away the guise of being anyone other than who I am. Since the moment I decided to stop with the charade, it’s allowed me to embrace the wiser, older me, instead of wasting energy pretending to be younger. I never fathomed that revolting against a societal norm that encourages women to look younger because God forbid, they look their age, would result in such profound happiness.  I only wish that I’d known this 20 years ago, I would have saved a lot of money on hair color.