Whether your first grey hairs pop up after 40, or whether your genetics gifted you with premature grey, you’re faced with a decision: let it go or cover up? I discovered my first grey hairs at age sixteen; “Oh, that is my side of the family,” my mom remarked. Although I complained about it on the time, secretly I was pleased and hoped it might turn an elegant silver, like Lauren Bacall’s. Such a color seemed to say, “I’m powerful and grown up – take me seriously.” But instead the silver threads were barely noticeable, except when they stuck out at crazy angles from the rest of my ‘do.
By the point I used to be twenty-five, I decided it was time to start coloring. At first I did not stray too far from my natural brown, then gradually experimented with auburns, scarlets, even one which called itself “midnight ruby”… which turned my hair a deep eggplant. I spent twenty minutes trying to consider what I could wear that may make my hair look less purple, then finally gave up, put on a purple shirt, and went to work. The oddest part was the surprisingly reactions from my co-workers: everyone loved it. Even my manager, whose response I’d worried about, pronounced it “cool.” Maybe this is able to transform a superb thing after all.
My mom wasn’t thrilled with my accidental new color, but did not hold me responsible; in any case, I might been going for something completely different color, more of a dark red than shocking violet. “Not less than it will not last,” she counseled upon seeing it. Mom has colored her hair for as long as I can remember, but always a respectable shade of Clairol blonde, mimicking her once-natural color. In his essay “True Colors,” Malcolm Gladwell explains that the success of Clairol’s famous ad campaign (“Does she or does not she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure”) reflected the social politics of hair color among postwar middle class women. For the primary time, it was becoming acceptable for respectable wives and mothers to color their hair – a practice that had previously been associated only with “fast” women – but only as long as it wasn’t obvious. “The question ‘Does she or does not she?’ wasn’t nearly how no one could ever really know what you were doing. It was about how nobody 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 doorway to a world of different possibilities and personas. As Miss Coco herself famously said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to alter her life.” This can be taken at the very least two ways: women may choose to alter the color or style of their hair in preparation for (or response to) major life changes reminiscent of getting married or divorced, changing or leaving a job, etc. But there’s also the transformative effect brought on by the hair change itself: you may feel like a different person, and even be happy to act like one.
Despite being loyal to lots of the same brands of toothpaste and paper towels and laundry detergent that my mom favored, for fifteen years I always used L’Oreal to realize my range of brown-reds. Perhaps some level 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 types that Clairol always featured, L’Oreal women were coolly sophisticated brunettes. And, over time, it became an increasing number of apparent that individuals would use the color of my hair as a quick and simple gauge to make assumptions about the type of person I have to 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, buying a box of punk dye that turned my hair, my bathroom sink, and several other 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 pleased with doing something adventurous and glimpsing this new side of myself; how many other ways could you purchase a new side of your identity for $10.99? My mother, however, hated it.
“I don’t know why you would do this,” she lamented on seeing my cherry-red head for the primary time. “You had such an attractive natural color before.” I reminded her that my beautiful, natural color also came out of a box, which did not seem to make a difference to her. As months went by and my bright red faded to a brassy orange, mom continued to fret that I used to be risking my job, my relationships, and my public image in a late-blooming act of teenage rebellion.
Mom’s reaction was more than just the worry typical of a mother, or a difference in personal aesthetics. She was voicing 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 the very least took care to make use of shades that would pass as natural – unlike the dangerous temptresses like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. It wasn’t so much the color itself – in any case, I teased her, blonde has long been related to promiscuity, from ancient 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 different colors, and every of those colors seemed to represent part of my personality. My own natural silver, though, was lovelier than I remembered it being when I was 25. Wouldn’t the next even-braver step be to stop coloring it altogether, stop spending a lot time and money covering up my “naturals” (as my hairstylist diplomatically referred to my shiny roots) and be free?
Since I did not have the patience to look forward to my own color to grow to shoulder-length, a little bit of internet research and a few trips to the beauty-supply store yielded a light ash-blonde, which I soon toned to a deep violet. It was cool, sophisticated, striking, yet still plausible as my very own. And my mother is now quite pleased with my new color, although it is every bit as artificial because the previous one (and her own); it looks natural, so we’re both satisfied. Now when my roots begin to grow out, they blend with the remainder of my hair – which incidentally is pretty fried by now. It’s about to have a pleasant long rest from any sort of processing or treatment. This is a good resting point for all three of us: my mom, my hair, and me. Mom even wonders aloud about making her own transition to grey – with a little help from a bottle, after all.