A Long, Hard Look at Myself
In the fall of 2004, a casual glance at a recent photograph — of me and my blonde 16-year-old daughter — changed my life. In that instant, I saw myself for what I truly was: a 48-year-old mother of this young woman, not her faintly hip older friend. It was like a kick in the solar plexus. All my years of careful artifice, attempting to conserve what I considered a youthful look, were ripped away. I saw a schlubby, middle-aged woman with her hair dyed too dark.
I had never thought closely or critically about what the color of my hair was communicating to the world. It was simply what I had done for 25 years, and what I assumed looked good and right. But that snapshot — taken on a road trip with my daughter and two other friends my age — made me start thinking hard about who I was and who I wanted to be. Would I cling to a frozen-in-time vision of myself or make the transition into middle age with some candor? I decided at that instant to move toward authenticity — and, as the first step, to quit dyeing my hair.
Frankly, I was also curious about what I actually looked like.
For years, people had told me I don’t look my age. I’m not fat; I don’t wear matronly clothes. I chose to believe them. To tell the truth, in my mind’s eye, I had even one-upped them: I imagined I looked 35, not 49. Wrong. I mean, really wrong.
When I decided to stop coloring my hair, I had no real idea what I was getting into. I am an impulsive person, and over the years I’ve come to realize that the best way for me to succeed at difficult tasks I have set for myself — quitting smoking, starting a new business, selling a beloved house — is to tell as many people as possible as quickly as possible about my plans. The public knowledge becomes a goad to keep me on track. So when it came to going gray, what could be more public than chronicling for MORE the 18 months that it would take?
It all seemed reasonable. I have never made a career out of my looks. I’m happily married, and no longer work in a corporate environment where I need to fret about my image. My husband, Kurt, who often doesn’t notice major changes in my appearance (except for the time I got my hair cut extremely short and he said I looked like a lady golfer), was game. My elder daughter, Kate, now 17, was supportive. But my younger daughter, Lucy, in eighth grade at the time, said, "Please keep dyeing your hair. I don’t want you to seem old." Suddenly, I was scared. I began to have sleepless nights worrying over the end of my youth. But what was the big deal? Did I really think that overnight I would turn into Barbara Bush or Gertrude Stein?
The no-longer-sexy-to-strangers thing had already happened over the past five years or so. I remember noticing it one day when I was walking down the street in New York’s Flatiron District with both of my teenaged daughters and realized that all the men we passed, young or old, were looking at them, not me. I acknowledged the moment: This was a rite of passage for the middle-aged mother of girls. But somehow I also remained in denial and soldiered on, secure in the knowledge that at least I had no gray hair to tip anybody off. It was as if my dyed brown hair cast some sort of protective, age-defying bubble around me.
As it turned out, letting my hair go gray over this past year and a half has been like an intensive, five-days-a- week-on-the-therapist’s-couch crash course, but without a shrink to guide me. Before, if I was feeling a little depressed or stuck in a rut, I’d simply change my hair color and — voila! — I had a new focus help and could avoid addressing any underlying anxiety. Going slowly gray has been, painfully, the opposite: Since I can’t change the story by changing the way I look, I have to sit with my emotions or spend time actually figuring out what’s going on. There were days when I definitely didn’t welcome the enforced introspection. But it’s also been a revelation: Since my girls were in their early teens, they’ve experimented with hair color =— blue, pink, green, blonde. For them it was about figuring out their identity. In the process of going gray, I would find that, for me, not dyeing my hair is about discovering my true identity. Scary, and exciting.