How Do You Know When It's Time to Change Your Looks?

There comes a moment in life when many of us realize our outside no longer matches what’s inside. But what we may not expect is that improving how we look—our hair, our fitness, even our smile—can reverberate in profound ways

by Susan Gregory Thomas
woman looking in mirror image
Photograph: Geof Kern

Indeed, mortality may be the most common trigger for life-changing decisions. Time and gravity, only theoretical in our twenties and even into our thirties, become a reality and are now often scary, implacable companions. Demoralized, we may tell ourselves there’s no point in fighting back. We are what we are. But that’s where we’d be wrong. Thanks to better health care, we are living longer—and it begins to dawn on us that, as Zen thinkers have always said, the only constant is change. Tweaking your looks may seem superficial, but in fact it can be the first step in shifting your entire perspective on life.

Some women start by changing their hair. Toloria Allen, a 61-year-old employee of Houston’s Port Authority, is one of them. She had always chemically relaxed her hair and had it professionally dyed the minute any grays came in, paying through-the-nose fees for salon upkeep. Then, in her midfifties, postdivorce, Allen had a revelation: She had always presented herself the way her former husband thought she should look, and that way was not her. Allen decided it was finally time to “do me,” she says, “to become comfortable in my own skin, not to be what others expected of me or what I thought they expected.”

Part of her self-actualization was growing her hair longer, embracing the grays and beginning to style her hair in a two-strand twist (think Lauryn Hill in the 1990s—that gorgeous two-twist bob). It took some getting used to, but now, says Allen, “whether I’m at my job or out in the world or just looking in the mirror, I feel like, This is me—this is who I actually am. And I feel good. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not, this self--conscious person wanting to please everyone. As long as I’m doing a good job at work, I can be myself, be open to new experiences, get to know me.”

Meeting other people’s beauty expectations is a familiar story to Jennifer Russell, 43, who since her twenties had bleached her hair to match her teenage color, a hue she calls Texas blonde. Russell now wonders if all those years of maintaining the image of her younger self might have been tied to the subconscious wish to hang on to naive dreams—some of which were not materializing. “Maybe I somehow held on to this vague notion that staying blonde would keep me young and attractive, that it would help me land a committed relationship or a husband and a family,” says the Austin-based elementary school teacher, whose focus is on helping children with special needs. “But at 40, I woke up and realized that (a) my adult complexion no longer matched the hair color I’d had since my twenties—so staying this blonde was actually aging me, and (b) I was still single and had no kids.”

Russell had to face the prospect of not being able to conceive children, and with the fairy tale refusing to unfold, she was confronted with the big question “Now what?” Having forgotten what her natural hair color looked like, she did a grow-out and discovered she had a thick, glossy auburn mane. And she loved it. She realized she’d been forcing herself into a blonde rut just as she’d been insisting on certain ideas of how her life should be rather than appreciating how it actually was. Freeing herself from that prison allowed her to reflect. “I feel more confident because I now look like a genuine grownup woman—plus, ironically, I think the new color has made me look younger,” she says. Instead of playing understudy for a role in which she may never be cast, she has landed something she feels is far better: an identity as a smart single woman in her forties, with a killer head of hair.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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