Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gray Matters

I run my fingers through my hair as I stare into the bathroom mirror, and there it is, the gray beneath the dark brown, the truth beneath the lie.  Many people think I look young for 56, but would they say the same thing if they saw the true color of my hair?

This is what my hair looks like when I lift it up. See that gray?

A few weeks ago, I got tired of the lie. I had thoughts of chopping off my two-foot-long hair and going with a pixie cut. Growing out gray is not easy. The infamous skunk stripe lies as much as dyed hair does. Maybe it shouts, “I don’t care about my looks,” or “I’m too cheap to cover my gray,” or “I am sickly,” or “I am old, and it doesn’t matter anymore.” I don’t think it would ever announce, “I’ve taken control of my emotions, and I am not ashamed to be me.”

This is what the world sees.

Ronald and I talked about my hair. We’ve talked about it a lot over the years during complicated, emotionally wrought discussions. How can they not be when each cares so deeply for the wellbeing of the other and yet has needs that also require attention?
Ronald, an artist, has captured me in photos, in oil, in plaster, and in the love letters he sent to me when I had to return to Albany for the first two summers after we met freshman year of college. Most men are visual when it comes to attraction to the opposite sex, but there is an aesthetic that further defines Ronald’s attraction. Flawless skin of certain hues that range from palest white to deepest brown but share a certain luminescence of tone. Large eyes, downturned mouth, and a small chin are other features that speak to him, as do a tiny waist, shapely legs and hips, and small breasts of a certain, perfect shape. I can see a woman with those features and know before he does that his head will track in her direction.
I don’t feel threatened by his looking, but validated.
I’m a feminist. I have been since I can remember. I want equal status. I want a career. I want to earn my own keep and not be someone’s property. I don’t want to be sexually objectified. I want equality in my marriage where I can contribute as an equal partner. My beliefs make my strong feelings about my hair and my tolerance of Ronald’s visual attractions seem out of place. My need for validation seems antithetical.
Yet they exist inside me, clashing and melding at once, seeming like a good mix that lends balance to the whole.
So after we had talked about my hair for the umpteenth time these last few years, I decided definitively to go gray, as if it is a journey to a destination. Part of what made it so definitive is that I’m having surgery at the end of the month on one of my feet, and hope to have the other foot done next month. It’s a huge undertaking that includes breaking and resetting bones. Painful, I’ve heard, but worth it, after bones shift and grow crooked and render one unstable while walking or standing. A welcome life change, so why not clean up all the things that are disabling?
Ronald agreed. I’ve been dyeing my hair since I was in my mid-thirties. He had been against it then. He loved the color of my hair, a mixture of browns, reds, golds, and the occasional grays, so much that he couldn’t imagine changing it. He didn’t think a bottle could ever capture the beauty he saw.
“If you dye a single hair on your head, I’ll know,” he averred.
I dyed it anyway. The hairdresser used a semi-permanent dye, very close to my real color. It took Ronald six months to notice. After that he was good with it. Close enough, I suppose.
Twenty years later, the ruse is tiring.  First it was every 8 weeks, then 5 weeks. Now I go every 4 weeks, and, even then, I feel anxious after week 3. Over the years I’ve gone from semi-permanent, to permanent, to demi-permanent after the permanent hair color nearly ruined my hair with its harsh chemicals.
I used to perm my hair in order to give it the body that fine, straight hair is lacking. Lots of people thought the unnaturally curly hair suited my Italian ethnicity. I guess curly hair is expected on a woman whose maiden name is Liuzzi, but I had to give up the perms in order to color – too many chemicals, my hairdresser up in Syracuse told me. It seemed a grand sacrifice at the time, but I’ve grown to enjoy my fine, straight hair, and I don’t miss the bottled curls.

Ronald and I celebrating our marriage. My hair is permed, not dyed, in this photo taken when I was twenty-six. 

Now I’m wondering if I will miss my “coffee bean” colored hair or if I will soon wonder why I ever stopped nature from taking its course.
I wanted to find out quickly what I thought about my real color. Hence my thought of “chopping it all off.” Hair grows back, after all, and mine grows quite quickly. One daughter, Cara, the one with very short hair, applauded my choice. The other, Mackenzie, the one with hair to the middle of her back, was silent.
I texted my hairdresser: “Don’t bother buying dye. Don’t freak out, but I want you to cut my hair short, a la Cara, as I decided to go gray.” She immediately dialed Cara to see if I had lost my mind.
At the bathroom mirror a week ago, I looked at Ronald using the straight razor to trim his salt and pepper mustache and beard, and I said, as I applied makeup, “Say good-bye to my hair. This time next week, I’m chopping it all off so I can skip the skunk stripe.”
He held the razor poised in the air as my statement sunk in. He said nothing then, but later that evening he said a lot.
“I support you going gray,” he said, “but I don’t understand why you want to cut your hair, too.”
‘The skunk stripe,” I said. It was so obvious to me. I couldn’t believe he didn’t get it.
“How bad can it be? It seems more drastic to do both.” Will he feel that way when his growing bald spot cries out for a total buzz? I’ve promised to let him know when it is time.
I had been so sure. I had photos on my laptop of cuts I thought would look good. Of course, they were on women all 30 years younger than I. When I drudged up a photo of Judi Dench sporting her pixie cut, I shuddered and promptly deleted it.

One of the photos I saved on my laptop so I could show my hairdresser how I wanted my hair cut short.

Here is Judi Dench. I think she is stunning but maybe I am not ready to admit that I look closer to her age than the age of the model above.

The next day I texted my hairdresser again, telling her I needed other suggestions because Ronald was emotional about the thought of short hair and going gray at the same time.  I respect his need to take one step at a time.
We had a text conversation, my hairdresser making suggestions such as highlighting, and I texting to say I’d think about it and finally suggesting I’d like her to cut my hair to the tops of my shoulders.
Yesterday Cara and I showed up for our appointments, and, as I sat in the chair, my hairdresser ran her hands through my hair, and the three of us talked about it.
“You are about 100% gray in front, about 50% at the crown, and a lot less in the back.  You won’t really know what it looks like until you grow it out.”
“I know,” I said.
Cara thought my new cut was adorable even with a luminescent crown of gray around the edge and through the part.
Ronald still hasn’t said a word about it, but sometimes that’s how we communicate in our equal partnership, through silence. It isn’t a condemnation; it’s a slow adjustment to change, not at all out of character. I've stunned him into silence on more than one occasion in our almost 40 years together, oftentimes with a dramatically different hair cut and just once with the announcement that we were having twins. I sit comfortably in the pocket of that silence, knowing that I am validated and he and I will be just fine even when the skunk stripe takes up residence on my head.

Let the skunk stripe begin! More on my journey to gray in future posts.

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