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  • Linda Laino

On Allowing My Hair To Be Gray

What is the real color of my hair? This is the question that I wondered recently after many years of blends and shades not quite my own. Like many women, I have dyed my hair since the first grays began to appear. For me, this was around age 43. As I should have realized then, this process is a slippery slope, one that is hard to reverse -both physically and psychologically- once it is begun.

It is still hard for me to believe that I ever veered onto this path. My nature is and has always leaned toward being more “natural” in my appearance. For the most part, I have never worn very much makeup, prefer clothing made from cotton or wool, and will choose comfort over style every time when it comes to footwear. In short, the quintessential hippie chick.

Given this predilection, I vowed when I was younger, that I would never dye my hair. Not for me, this vain attempt to look younger, or hide any natural process of aging.

With my first box of drugstore dye, this lofty ideal literally went down the drain.

It is amazing what aging does to otherwise intelligent, comfortable-in-their-skin women. From the time we are girls, of course, we are inundated with ads in every direction pointing out our flaws and shortcomings, entertaining thoughts of if only….then we would be deemed acceptable. And it is not just ads, or even the men in our lives that are to blame. We as women can be the worst judges of each other.

When my first silver hairs first began to shimmer, I hadn’t yet taken too much notice, until I saw my older sister for the first time in awhile. Her reaction to my changing tresses? “God, Linda, your hair looks like shit. You should really dye it.” Well, leave it to an older sister to give it to you straight. She had clearly hit a nerve, and I succumbed.

Aside from a regrettable attempt at a cut-it-all-off “hair dare” when I was in my late 20’s, I have always had long, curly dark hair. When I imagined myself as an old woman, it was with this same long hair, only gray. I would own the aging, but not the loss of a certain wildness of youth that the length alluded to. My adult son even encouraged this vision, assuring me that I would look ‘awesome’.

I think though, that I owe this notion more to my Italian grandmother, who sported very long reddish-gray hair into her old age. One of the joys of my girlhood was to watch her unravel her daytime bun like a secret, in order to brush the long beautiful strands before bed. As a child, she seemed to transform before my eyes into something much more ethereal, much younger than her prim, pinned up daytime "do" suggested.

But even this lovely vision of aging gracefully could not make me take the leap. So what was the fear? There was a certain amount of vanity that I needed to admit to be sure. My connection to Buddhist principles suggested it was one more step toward accepting the impermanence of everything. I suppose I reasoned if I did not have to look death in the face everyday, maybe I could keep it at bay? Ultimately, it was the feeling that I was losing something that I would never recover.

Well into my fifties, I kept the wild, curly length, but the process of owning the gray still eluded me. Every time, I got up the nerve, seeing that skunky stripe was enough to send me running for the box once again. It did not help that when I recently moved to Mexico, I found that the way cheaper prices of salon coloring afforded me a more professional, easy fix.

And then one miraculous day, for whatever reason, my nerve finally took hold. I wanted to be who I was.

Part of my decision was the result of the ever-increasing clumps in my shower drain. I decided that I would rather have gray, very healthy hair, than hair made brittle and dry from years of chemicals. Also, my curiosity had reached a peak. Who would this new person look like?

Now that it is almost halfway there, here is what has completely surprised me: since I have been letting the gray come in, I have had more compliments on my hair, from men and women than I can ever remember. Already gray-haired women shout kudos for my acceptance. A female colleague told me that I was giving her courage to face her own grey. One man, inexplicably, went so far as to tell me he was 'fascinated' with my hair. I am slowly getting used to my new look in the mirror as I remind myself that a color is nothing more than that. All the associations we make are just the stories we tell. The same ones we tell ourselves about aging.

As far as the psychology goes, I have decided to view myself as transforming. I am in the process of something. Moving from one idea or version of myself to another. This appeals to the artist that I am. Transformation implies some kind of growth, one that is not without obstacles of course, but certainly where one is assured that in the end there will be a reward for the effort.

Perhaps that reward will be to one day inspire my own granddaughter at bedtime, proudly brushing those long gray, healthy tresses like a badge, earned in the trenches of sheer living.

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