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.
One of the first people I tell about my decision is Cathy, a childhood friend living in Lawrence, Kansas. She e-mails back, "That’s so funny. Just last week, I had a lot of white highlights put in my hair for the exact same reason! I’m hoping it grows out that beautiful snow color, but I fear it’ll be more like old lady pubes. (But hey, Emmylou rocks! My husband is totally hot for her.) And you’re going to be one of those fabulous-looking white-haired women in great scarves and sweaters over cigarette leg pants. There are few really stylish white-haired women here," she continues. "Most of my friends color. The gray hair tends to be on the college professors: long and unkempt or — ugh — braided. Makeup is critical, I think. Even with my white streaks, I find myself wearing brighter lipstick (which, in my case, is Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer in Raisin). It makes all the difference. Fun!" Cathy’s instant feedback is inspiring. "Cool," I think, "I’m part of a movement!"
I am now consciously assessing my overall look. I begin to realize that having freshly dyed hair has always seduced me into believing I had camouflage for a multitude of sins: the extra 10 pounds around my waist, the out-of-date Polartec leisure clothes. I’ll need to peel off layers of denial. Or maybe to be slightly kinder to myself and abandon a certain inertia. First on the list: Join a gym. Losing the extra weight could boost my confidence and counterbalance the insecurity I may feel as my hair goes gray.
It’s a real struggle. How to reconcile my cheerleader-like enthusiasm for the principle of an authentic self with the reality of my roots growing in? The pep talks do zero to address how crummy my hair actually looks. What if, at the end of this experiment, I’m reborn as an old hag? I obsess about other women’s hair. Super-blonde looks white to me; salt-and-pepper seems drab; all New York City women seem to have that telltale halo of root residue around their faces. But no one else has inch-long roots!
I am in a total funk, mourning the end of my youth even though I haven’t been "young" for some time. My mother and grandmother both colored their hair until the day they died (my mother at almost 70; my grandmother, over 90). I imagine my mother’s response to my going gray: "Why don’t you just perk up your color a bit? You’ll feel so much better about yourself."
Okay, I’m on the emotional high-diving board. Letting my hair go white (which will be the color, of course — no dingy gray for me) isn’t coping with illness or real loss, for Pete’s sake. "It will be fine" is the mantra I repeat to myself. And if it isn’t, I can always dye my hair again, right? I realize that giving up artificial hair color is the last step in my evolution away from corporate executrix. In the 1990s, I was an executive vice president of Nickelodeon, where I often felt like I was wearing someone else’s Armani uniform. Now I’m crafting my individual self: freelance writer and mother, no longer defined by my title and what I wear.
I am not brave enough to go cold turkey. Having a giant skunk streak down the middle of my head, I discover, is a horrifying prospect. So I work with my colorist to soften the transition; she puts in blonde highlights that will blend in with the gray roots as they grow. She puts a toner over the whole thing to blur the edges between colors even further. I’m not so sure about this strategy — I look like I’m trying to go blonde, not white. I trust her to know what she’s doing. I was addicted to color, and if I need the colorist’s equivalent of Nicorettes or methadone to help me break free, so be it.
It’s my 49th birthday, and I’m feeling okay.
I have lunch with a male friend whom I haven’t seen in some time, and he tells me that I look like a movie star. You can’t beat that feedback! Then again, I’m actually ash-blonde right now. So what’s he really commenting on?
Not such good feedback. At a party, a friend remarks, "Oooh, how lovely. You’re going gray — just like a man!"
New Year’s Eve
I feel like backing out. Three months into the process and my hair is now coming in pretty clearly white and gray. There is no doubt in my eyes: I look older. My fantasy — looking like an awesome 40-year-old with snow white hair — probably won’t come true. Everyone I know says they like the "softer" color I have now, but I feel more tentative. I’m sure that when people glance at my horrible roots, they think I have let myself go. To bear their condescending looks of concern or even contempt requires seriously thick skin. If I weren’t writing about this experience, I know I would crumple.
I go back to the colorist. I get more light highlights pulled through to blend the roots into my overall color. This time, the rinse she applies makes me feel really cheap-looking. I hate it, but what can I do? I can’t strip the color out — the processing would make me look like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, with a head of straw. The best thing to do is just let it grow out.
It was the dreariest February, and it feels as if my hair is mirroring the weather and my mood. But at the gym I see I’ve lost six pounds. If going gray is what it takes to get me in shape, that, at least, is a silver lining.
It is taking forever to grow out! I’m neither here nor there.
In a single day, I hear the full range of opinions. As I step outside to pick up my morning newspaper, my vibrant, 84-year-old gray-haired neighbor says, "I love the way the gray is coming in." Coming into the house this afternoon, her sexy, 50-something dyed-blonde daughter blurts out, "Why do you want to go making yourself look older? I’d never do that!"
I hate this growing-in phase. I should have just bitten the bullet and cut my hair short at the beginning. But I believe my long hair is sexier and more feminine than short. I am also feeling proud of myself. I’m past the "one day at a time" phase, when I couldn’t stop thinking about my roots, or girding myself not to. Now it’s like watching bulbs peek out from under the winter snow: I begin to sense the new me, light gray around my face and steel gray in back. Most of the time I actually like the two-tone quality, since it reflects precisely my stage in life: neither young nor old, but an intriguing equilibrium.
The whole family is in Los Angeles, looking at colleges for Kate. We’re staying at the Chateau Marmont, the cool Sunset Boulevard hotel, but I find that I can’t bring myself to go for a swim at the pool. The idea of rising up out of the water with my wet head of gray hair is too depressing. I want to shout, "Hey everybody, I’m not any different than I was six months ago — it’s just my hair color!" Everyone in this city seems to be blonde and buff and committed to the artificially pretty. Can all the cliches be true? I haven’t seen a single woman with gray hair.
I love the liberation of not going to the salon every couple of weeks. But my stylist wanted me to grow out my bangs (after 35 years). He thought I’d look more glamorous without them. I’m all for that. But growing out the bangs has added a whole new level of hating-my-hair-ness: I end up clipping them back with little bobby pins, which further emphasizes the gray and makes me look like I’m 12 going on 60. A few months back, my colorist applied toner to the ends of my hair to blend the gray. Now it has turned to an orangey grunge. Frankly, it all sucks.
I succumb. I get four inches cut from my hair. And I am genuinely happy with the results. It feels sleek and light and sophisticated. My bangs are long enough to not look stupid, and if I blow my hair dry, it looks great. It shines in the sun, looking vital and healthy. One thing I’ve noticed lately: The hair of almost any woman over 40 who dyes it looks a little lifeless. There is either too much color, deadening the look, or the color washes out and makes the hair look brittle. I genuinely love the variety of shades and nuance that are part of my natural color. And every year more white will replace the gray and allow me to feel subtly different. I won’t ever need to think about changing it because it will do so naturally. Unanticipated bonus.
By going gray now, I get a sort of Steve Martin effect. I will look older until friends adjust to my new color, but when I’m 55 and 60, I won’t look very different from the way I do now.
In yoga class a woman sets up her mat in front of mine and says, "Your hair looks fantastic. I’ve been watching over the past few months and you’ve given me the courage to think about quitting coloring my own hair." I tell her she’s made my day.
I’m waiting to meet one of my daughters at the movies, and a slightly heavy 20-something guy stops directly in front of me and says, "Hey, beautiful, what are you doing out here all by yourself?" I smile as he walks past and say nothing. He is hitting on old lady me. Not so bad.
Winter 2005/Spring 2006
I turn 50. I don’t do anything big for this birthday — just a fancy dinner out with the family — but I feel whole and happy. The year I turned 40, in some I-want-to-be-a-rock-star fantasy, I had dyed my hair jet black. A comedy-writer friend had quipped, "You look like your evil twin." When I walked into my house with my newly black hair, both of my kids, then 5 and 7, burst into tears. This year I’m not reeking with that getting-old anxiety. I’ve savored (as well as anguished over) this process. It reminds me of the slow food movement: One trains oneself to really savor the full experience of eating. I’ve come to love my real hair and my real age.
On vacation in Florida, I have an epiphany of sorts: My hair is a metaphor for how I’ve lived my life. Growing up, I changed colors all the time, particularly when I needed a pick-me-up or a sense that I had control over my life. I am a total control freak — from how I load the dishwasher to never letting my husband drive when I’m in the car, to my workouts, to wanting my kids to be perfect. (I could go on.) Perfectly dyed hair meant everything was under control. But if I can allow my hair to be its natural color, perhaps I can be just a bit more relaxed in the rest of my life. And trust me, everyone in my life would welcome a more relaxed me.
The metamorphosis is complete. There is no artificial color left in my hair. It is purely, wholly, grayly me. I continue to work out regularly — more, in fact, than I ever did in my young adulthood. I intend to buy new clothes for summer: a new palette and silhouette to go with my new color and sleeker self. My husband likes it (as long as I refrain from tucking it behind my ears); my kids no longer notice it. And, like childbirth, I’ve already forgotten the pain and angst of the transition. I know now that that fleeting, heart-sinking glance at the snapshot of my daughter and me was a gift — one of those rare small catalysts that leads to a new way of looking at oneself and the world.
Anne Kreamer’s book, inspired by this piece, will be published by Little, Brown in Fall 2007.
Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2006.