Go Gray!

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Whether your first gray hairs pop up after 40, or whether your genetics talented you with premature grey, you’re faced with a decision: let it go or cover up? I found my first gray hairs at age sixteen;”Oh, that’s my side of the family,” my mom remarked. Such a color appeared to say,”I am powerful and grown up – take me seriously.” But rather the silver threads were hardly noticeable, except when they stuck out at crazy angles in the rest of my’do.
From the time I was twenty-five, I decided it was time to start coloring. At first I didn’t stray too far from my natural brown, then gradually experimented with auburns, scarlets, one which called itself”midnight ruby”… which turned my hair a deep eggplant. I spent twenty minutes trying to think of what I could wear that might make my hair look less purple, then eventually gave up, put on a purple shirt, and went to work. The oddest part was the surprisingly responses from my co-workers: everybody loved it. Even my manager, whose response I’d worried about, pronounced it”cool.” Maybe this would turn out to be a good thing after all.
My mom wasn’t thrilled with my accidental new color, but didn’t hold me responsible; after all, I’d been going for something entirely different color, more of a dark red than shocking violet. “At least it won’t last,” she advised upon seeing it. Mom has coloured her hair for as long as I can recall, but always a respectable shade of Clairol blonde, mimicking her once-natural color. In his article”True Colors,” Malcolm Gladwell explains the achievement of Clairol’s famous ad campaign (“Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure”) reflected the social politics of hair color among postwar middle class girls. For the first time, it was becoming acceptable for respectable wives and moms to colour their hair – a practice that had previously been associated only with”fast” girls – but just as long as it was not obvious. “The question’Does she or does not she?’ Was not just about how no one could ever really know what you were doing. It was about how no one could ever really know who you were… It really meant,’Is she a contented homemaker or a feminist?'”
For women, hair is more than an accessory: it is an extension of identity, a door to a world of different possibilities and personas. This can be taken at least two ways: women may choose to change the colour or style of the hair in preparation for (or response to) major life changes like getting married or divorced, changing or leaving work, etc.. But there’s also the transformative effect resulting from the hair change itself: you may feel like a different person, and also feel free to behave like one.
Despite being faithful to several of the exact brands of toothpaste and paper towels and laundry detergent which my mother preferred, for fifteen years I always used L’Oreal to achieve my range of brown-reds. Perhaps some degree of my consciousness was responding to L’Oreal’s famous tagline,”Because I’m worth it.” In contrast to the wholesome blonde girl-next-door kinds that Clairol constantly featured, L’Oreal girls were coolly sophisticated brunettes. And, with time, it became more and more apparent that people would use the colour of my hair as a fast and effortless gauge to make assumptions about the sort of person I must be.
By the time I turned 40, I was ready for a change. So on a whim I deviated from L’Oreal for the first time, purchasing a box of punk dye that turned my hair, my bathroom sink, and several floor tiles the color of maraschino cherries. I loved it, my students loved it, I got compliments from my coworkers and strangers at the store. I was proud of doing something adventurous and glimpsing this new side of myself; how many other ways could you get a new facet of your individuality for $10.99? My mom, however, hated it. “You had such a beautiful natural color before.” I reminded her that my lovely, natural colour also came out of a box, which did not seem to make a difference to her. As months went by and my glowing red faded into a brassy orange, mother continued to worry I was risking my job, my relationships, and my public image in a late-blooming act of adolescent rebellion.
Mom’s reaction was more than just the worry typical of a mother, or a gap in personal aesthetics. She was expressing the ingrained attitudes and social conventions of her generation, the baby boomers who had grown up with Doris Day and Kim Novak as ideals of”nice girl” beauty. Though they may be”bottle blondes,” they at least took care to use colors that could pass as natural – unlike the dangerous temptresses like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. It was not so much the colour itself – after all, I teased her, blond has long been associated with promiscuity, from early Greeks prostitutes wearing yellow wigs to Renaissance paintings depicting Eve in the Garden with flowing golden locks. It was the overtness, the public announcement of”Yes I do” in answer to the discreet question posed by Clairol.
Meanwhile, the more it faded, the more I liked it, especially as my salt-and-pepper roots grew out; my hair was now three or four distinct colors, and all those colors appeared to represent a part of my character. Wouldn’t another even-braver step be to quit coloring it altogether, stop spending so much time and money covering up my”naturals” (as my hairstylist diplomatically referred to my glistening roots) and be free?
Since I didn’t have the patience to wait for my own color to grow to shoulder-length, a little bit of internet research and some trips to the beauty-supply store yielded a light ash-blonde, which I shortly toned to a deep violet. And my mother is now quite pleased with my new color, though it’s every bit as artificial as the previous one (and her own); it seems natural, so we’re both satisfied. It’s about to have a nice long rest from any kind of treatment or processing. This is a good resting point for all three of us: my mom, my hair, and me. Mother even wonders aloud about creating her own transition to grey – with a little help from a bottle, of course.

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