Early this May I finally took the grey hair plunge. I cut off all of my bottle-brunette hair down to its vulnerable salt and pepper roots. Not only was it a radical palette change, but the crowning glory that had cascaded wavily past my shoulders was whittled to the shortest of pixie cuts one can have without actually shaving one’s head.
At the age of 30, when hairdressers were beginning to try to convince me to extinguish the growing bursts of silver in my long dark hair, I felt rebellious. “No way!” I said. I had birthed three children by the age of 29, and felt I had earned each one of those greys. They were my badges of wisdom, my commitment to nonconformity. They were political, damn it! But by the time I was 35 and pregnant with my fourth child, I began getting increasingly uncomfortable with how I was feeling an “ageing” woman. An OB had suggested an amniocentesis because of my “advanced maternal age”. Bouncing back to a pre-baby body, which had happened without so much as a thought after my first two kids were born, became an insurmountable task after my third and fourth. I felt that instead of illuminating my hard gleaned maternal wisdom, the grey hair was now a testament to the unconscionable tarnishing of my youth.
Once my fourth baby was born, I switched from doing the occasional dark henna to semi-permanent dyeing. There came a point when the semi-permanent dye was no longer providing enough coverage for my bright, wiery silver strands. Despite the promise I had made to myself to refrain from the monthly “chasing of the white stripe” ritual that millions of women succumb to in the name of maintaining the comfortable front of youthfulness, I bit the bullet and turned to permanent dye. The cheap kind.
I would hear friends in their late 30’s, who had as much grey in their hair as I had had in my 20’s, extolling the badassery of their choice to not dye. It’s easy to love your grey when it’s a cool novelty. “Just wait until people begin thinking you’re older than you are,,” I’d say to myself silently in response to their self-satisfaction. This was admittedly unkind of me, as women can often feel towards each other when internalized youth-favouring beauty standards are triggered and the shame of not living up raises its ugly head.
In 2012, one day after my 43rd birthday, I received the devastating diagnosis of advanced cervical cancer. A hysterectomy wasn’t going to be the cure for me as it often is, luckily, for women whose cervical cancers are not as invasive. Mine was too far gone. I was informed I had to undergo six weeks of daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy as well as some other intense procedures I will refrain from freaking anyone out over.
A friend of mine who’s an OB/GYN happened to be in the hospital on the day of my diagnosis. He walked into the shared room and closed the curtains around us for privacy. One of the first questions I asked him after, “am I going to die?” was NOT, “how will the quality of my life be affected?” nor “can you tell me more about how this crazy fast-tracked menopause is going to go down with all these treatments?” I didn’t even ask him to give me a hug. No. I asked, “am I going to lose my hair?” He smiled and responded as if it never failed to surprise him, “this is among the first questions almost all women ask when faced with the prospect of chemo.” Oh, how vulnerable we are when our identities, so deeply tied in with how we perceive our looks, are threatened.
In preparation for chemo, I decided to cut my near shoulder length mane short. I had been informed that with the type of chemo I was getting hair loss was probably not going to be much of an issue, though it could get thin, brittle, or patchy. I wasn’t interested in thin, brittle, or patchy. Before my treatment began, some of my beloved friends took me to a salon and held my hands while I succumbed to a pixie cut.
It was sad, but I felt braver facing cancer treatments that way. The ritual of cutting my hair off was symbolic of shedding all of the patterns I needed to let go of to heal. Others find different symbols to support their healing journey, of course, but for me the cutting of my hair was not as much about vanity as it was about fostering release, resolve, and courage. Even so, there was indeed a modicum of vanity involved because you can bet that before getting that super short hair cut I dyed my hair to the hilt with no greys showing.
That vanity didn’t last long once the treatments started happening. The intense pain, hours spend in the hospital waiting for and getting treatment daily, complications, sickness, being constantly high on narcotics and 30 pounds of weight loss from my small frame really put things into perspective. Until, of course, I got well and started to care about my looks again. The things that had seemed absolutely pointless to worry about in the face of cancer, pain, and fear of death started beckoning with the gleam of importance again.
The return of some vanity was a sign that I was back in the land of the living. I felt good again, and wanted to look as good as I could too. I do believe that caring about our appearance to a reasonable degree is a sign of wellbeing. I grew my hair long again and simply disassociated from the shocking amount of silver that could be seen shining close to my scalp a mere two weeks after a fresh dye job.
About three years after healing from cancer, I started to think, “hmmmm. Maybe it’s time to let my hair be grey.” I’m not sure what precipitated this thought, but I felt on the verge of a major transformation that a head of frosted hair would lend gravitas to. I would still, however, feel quite defensive when people responded, “do it! It’s liberating, it’s flipping the bird to the beauty industry, it’s cheaper, it’s healthier, it’s authentic, smash the patriarchy!” I felt defensive because while cancer and healing from it had been such an insight laden journey of growth for me, there were things I had lost too. Though I had personally never planned on having a baby in my early to mid-forties (as awesome as it is that many people do), the fact that the cessation of my cycles was provoked before its natural schedule put me in the ranks of post-menopausal women.
I was worried that more than usual grey hair for a forty-something year old and menopausal changes would make me present as a prematurely aged woman. Having been through cancer and survived you’d think it wouldn’t have mattered, that facing my own mortality would have given me a pass from the drive to subjugate myself to our weird, culturally generated ideas of what looking good means. But it did matter. Now don’t get me wrong. I see so much beauty in the lines, soft faces, and silvered hair of mature women. I just didn’t want to be one of them yet as I was still young-ish, despite menopause and grey roots. Yet something in me was beginning to whisper that it was time to accept the fact that a type of crone, or at least a baby version of one, was crying to be born and seen.
I began observing the hair of women in their mid 40’s and older. I was generally able to tell who dyed it at home out of a bottle or who likely had time and money to go to a salon. It is AMAZING how many visible grey roots there are out there when you look. Around 75% of North American women who are going grey dye their hair apparently. Because a) it needs to be dyed regularly every few weeks to hide the fact that you’re dyeing and b) many women simply don’t have the time and/or money to do it as regularly as it needs to be done to keep it fresh. the fact that so many of us are trying to cheat the natural softening of age is TOTALLY OBVIOUS! Most people, especially if they’re taller than we and able to look down at our roots, (which in my case is the vast majority of adults) know we’re “fudging” Nature’s designs upon our locks as evidenced by the telltale silver strip at our crowns.
One day, sitting in my stylist’s chair correcting a home dyeing mistake that had left everything about my hair flat black except for two inches of carrot orange at the roots, I began to wonder if it was worth it. The mistake was so drastic that it had to be taken care of, at a great financial and chemical cost, gradually over a few visits. I sat there under the bright lights and caught a glimpse of the the brilliant fairy flecks of silver just beginning to peek out from my hair part, sparkling beguilingly like the precious flashes of fireflies on a summer night. “I am kind of thinking the silver looks pretty,” I said shyly to my thirty year old stylist.
“I am NOT letting you go grey!” she exclaimed with a quick ferocity. “I will tell you when it’s time. It’s not all silver yet. Salt and pepper hair is ugly. Here’s the bottom line: do you want to look like you’re in your 30’s or in your 60’s? Because you WILL look way older than your age if you let your hair be grey.” Now please don’t get me wrong. My stylist is a lovely woman. Truly. We go way back. But as a beauty industry representative who is also in the glorious throes of enjoying luscious silver thread-free locks, she was obviously deeply triggered by my flight of fancy, and felt it was her duty to shield me from being judged as “old”. She had been tending to me as a youngish looking mother of four. She was just trying to protect my image, bless her. Or at least her internalized image of how she thought a woman my age should choose to look if she could.
I began to see how deep and insidious this attachment to image was. When I mentioned I was thinking of going grey I received a wide variety of opinions. “Do it!!!!” was definitely one of them by the women who felt liberated by the end of their own dyeing journeys. Young women who found the idea of chemically torturing their gorgeous hair into the state of “granny grey” I had been trying to cover up for years thought the idea was super cool. However, a lot of responses were, “but Lesley, you are so youthful. I can’t see you with grey hair.” I liked the super honest responses. “You ARE getting older, and the darkness of your hair is starting to make your face look harsh.” It was true. The dark hair was weighing me down.
I became pretty caught up in the agonizing vacillation about something that seemed on the surface to be so frivolous. I hated feeling so trapped in the game of vanity. My husband was wise enough to refrain from giving too many opinions about it, though I knew he had some concerns about having a suddenly shorn, grey haired, potentially elderly looking wife. It is not that he thinks elderly women are unattractive, but he had unspoken thoughts about how it might feel if I did, indeed, appear more elderly than I actually was. He himself has maybe two whole grey hairs on his head and we’re the same age. My kids became increasingly bored with my “should I or shouldn’t I?” Facebook posts. “It’s just hair!” they exclaimed. “It grows, you can colour it if you don’t like it. It doesn’t mean anything. MUM!! Who cares?”
The decision was made before my conscious mind knew it. I simply continued to put off going to my regular hair trim and root touch up appointments. Frankly my stylist scares me a little. My roots became screamingly obvious. I was afraid she would “tut tut” me for having waited so long to tend to them. And then.. I began to like them. I mean really really like them. At first I wore the “headband of shame” constantly to cover up the evidence of age and imperfection because I thought other people would be ashamed for me. But it didn’t last long. My signature teeny bangs grew out and I flipped them back so my roots showed more. I started feeling quite proud of them. But it is one thing to have nifty roots you flash flirtily and another to cut off a mane of long dark hair that has been part of your identify for years.
But one day I just knew. It had to happen. Before booking the appointment (not with my stylist) I became a bit obsessed with how I was going to dress myself and what colours would look good on me with “cooled” hair. I doubted myself, and thought I had to maybe switch to clear, bright colours I’m not generally fond of, or avoid wearing black like the plague so as not to look sallow and washed out. There is a lot of bullshit on the internet that suggests fair-ish Caucasian women with warm undertones to their skin like I have look the worst with grey hair. Then it hit me: does anyone ever try to feed that crap to men? Did anyone ever tell George Clooney his hair clashed with his face? No! He is upheld as a “silver fox” (rightfully so). I decided I would wear whatever the heck I liked. So I booked my appointment, slathered on bright lipstick, grabbed a friend, and off I went back to the salon that had held me so kindly when I got my pre-chemo shearing five years earlier.
Now here I am, mowed down to the silver quick. The process itself was painless, but there is always that horrible “reveal” moment you must do over and over again when you meet with someone you know who witnesses you looking radically different from how they last saw you. I decided to get most of it over with on Facebook by posting a “before….” and then an “AFTER!” photo.
The weirdest and most unexpected thing happened. I have never in my years on social media received as many “likes” and glowing comments as I did revealing my “after” photo. And I have made some pretty awesome posts in my life (some in which I have looked way cuter, too)! I have done some things I am quite proud of, if I do say so myself. I have trained hundreds of women to be doulas. I have contributed heavily to the pioneering of doula support in my city. I am one of the few doulas in North America who has been invited to guest lecture in the medical program at a major university as part of their curriculum on effective support for birthing families. I get to help shift the difficult parts of our birth and mothering culture from the inside out. I have built a family and a business and a brand. I have birthed four spectacular humans and have been married to my dearest friend for 27 years. I am an ordained interspiritual minister and coach who provides insightful support for extraordinary transformation Even my posts about being a cancer survivor had not been met with such wild enthusiasm.
Does this mean that as a society we’re so very shallow that the silver pixie cut of a woman of a certain age elicits more “Oh my God, you’re awesome!” than “Yay, I have no more cancer!”? No, I don’t think it does. What it makes me think is that it’s NOT “just” about hair. Except for a few close male friends, the hundreds of responses I got were from women telling me I looked fabulous. What I think resonated among the women who commented was a respect, whether they liked the idea of grey hair for themselves or not, for a wee act of rebellion. They saw an act of silver disobedience.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of courage in my life. I’ve been witnessing childbirth for a quarter of a century. I have been with parents taking their baby off life support or having to make very difficult decisions in high risk pregnancies. I have worked with people who are at the end of their lives and are facing death with unfathomable grace. I have witnessed women kicking addictions and getting out of abusive relationships. I am asked to create ceremonies for people confirming their true genders and re-naming themselves to the public. These things take real courage.
Getting a haircut down to the natural roots ain’t that brave. And yet it resonates so deeply with so many in spite of all the wild and wonderful things women are capable of. In a world where age tends to be fought tooth and nail as evidenced by all the money and pain we sacrifice upon the altar of the western standards of beauty, we sometimes yearn for a different feeling, a different story from the droves of young women who claim to not want babies because it will “wreck” their bodies, or from the tales of war against the white hair stripe. While the stories will not end until circumstances strip us of the caring about measuring up to “standards” (heck, even my 98 year old Oma doesn’t want to be seen before putting on her green eyeshadow every morning) there are moments we feel tired with the burden of upholding them.
When some random woman decides to bust a move to lay down her fight against the grey “ravages” of the clock because she’s tired of it, sometimes…just sometimes (if there’s not been a major catastrophe in the world that day and there’s nothing good on tv) there’s a breakout standing ovation. And it’s not because she’s “real” brave, like in the fireman brave kind of sense. It’s because for one shining moment she is noticed choosing to release a bit of a falsehood she’s been keeping. She is witnessed claiming an identity she still fears. She is seen embracing that strange phase between “mother” and “crone”, that less talked about time in a woman’s life when she’s not quite elderly yet (when a silver crown seems more acceptable), but is not exactly brimming with youth, either. She is upheld digging down into her audacity, despite her anxiety about getting and looking old, to own it.
So with trembling heart, shining eyes and silver hair, I take up the mantle of this new eldership-without-apology and invite all you women to love yourselves. Right. Fucking. Now. Exactly how you are. Keep on dyeing your hair if that makes you feel sexy. You’ll know when you want to quit if ever, and it’s fine if you never do. You’re gorgeous. Let it be wild and grey if you’d rather. Throw on a crop top and low rise jeans with your crepe-y, stretch marked mama belly and Cesarean scar sticking out proudly. Wear blue eyeshadow up to your un-plucked brows. Let your hair frizz BIG. Get butt cheek implants. Wear loud lipstick you love even if it makes your teeth look yellow. Inject fillers into your naso-labial folds if you like. Let your holy breasts sag to your belly button. Fill your face with holes and weird hardware. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because we KNOW the standards of beauty and the way we participate with them are only illusion. It’s all just made up. It’s a theatre and we’re all just putting on costumes. May you, Beloveds, love the costumes you put your fine selves n. It is the owning of your finery, no matter what it is, that makes you beautiful.
When a whole bunch of women doing different things to achieve their own sense of “damn, I’m fine” stand for another woman to applaud her choice to go grey, or stand for a woman in cancer treatment stepping out in a great wig (or another who chooses to bear her shining scalp), or applaud a friend getting the breast implants that make her feel amazing about herself, or congratulate a sister who gets a Botox injection because it brings ease to her aging anxieties and makes her feel good, or clap for someone who feels like a boss in her mom jeans and oversized sweatshirts with cats on them, wool socks and clogs…something unspeakably wonderful happens: we override the unkindness and competition we’re programmed to feel towards each other in order to feed the beast of beauty capitalism. We jump off the beast for a moment, give it a kick in its horrible underbelly before going back to the game, to celebrate together.
In each ovation we give, we see more deeply into each other as we are in our true magnificence that outer looks do not touch. We connect through the simple act of honouring someone owning her own brand of beauty. We accept and respect each other for personal choice, even if we wouldn’t choose the same thing in a million years.
Even though we go back to living in the illusions of our chosen costumery, whether in support or in rebellion of the beast, we know deep down the impetus for so many women to “like” a Facebook post about grey hair isn’t just about hair. In the kindness shared, we experience the most beautiful beauty of all; the beauty of love and honour unfettered by condition. And we know it is what real freedom feels like.