I remember being little and sitting in the doorway of the bathroom watching as chunks of my mom’s hair fell into the sink, clumping in puddles of her tears. I was 7. She’d just gotten another haircut from another hairdresser and, like the last one she’d gone to, this one was awful at her job. The cut wasn’t what she wanted at all. The color was faded at the roots because of her grays.
She hated her grays. Mom moved closer to the mirror, craning her neck to see the back of her head. She pinched a section of hair between her index and middle fingers. “There’s no way I can go in public like this.”
I don’t remember my first haircut, but I remember the first time I dyed my hair. I was 14 and in high school. No longer were our bodies acceptable just the way they were. They needed to be manipulated ― made more beautiful. Makeup. High heels. Expensive clothing. Hair dye. I begged mom to color my hair; it was so boring, a stupid brown. She agreed to highlights with some hesitation, admitting they would be cute framing my face. We couldn’t afford a salon, so I bought a highlighting kit at Walmart. Mom helped me pull my hair through a plastic cap and gently coated each strand in bleach. When we were done, my hair was no longer boring. It sparkled in the sun like tinsel. I thought of all the friends I would make. All the boys who would ask me out.
The reality was that no matter how many highlights I put in my hair, no matter how thin I got, no matter how perfect my makeup was, someone didn’t approve. The more disapproval I got, the more I tried to fix my flaws. I got a tan. I adjusted my weight. I got braces. I bleached my hair totally blonde. I watched TV shows like ”What Not to Wear” and ”Extreme Makeover” and fantasized about all the expensive clothes I would be able to afford one day, all the plastic surgery I’d finally be able to get.
The reality I found was no matter how many highlights I put in my hair, no matter how thin I got, no matter how perfect my makeup was, someone didn’t approve.
I was 18 when I discovered my first gray hair, and I was mortified. I hadn’t even made it to 20, and there it was ― a symbol of death growing right out of the top of my head. When I told my mom what I’d found, she told me she had a gray streak in college. “Sorry, honey. Looks like you got the bad genes.” I decided I would never let my natural hair grow out. No one but my mom could know my secret. I dyed dark. I dyed it more and more until, eventually, it was black. People said it made my eyes pop. I was exotic and sexy and looked so young for my age.
By the time I was in my twenties, my looks had become my identity. They had become my worth. In my mind, if people did not approve of my appearance, I was not approved of as a human being. When I try to pinpoint the moment I started believing my looks were so important, it mostly feels like I was born knowing it. But I don’t believe that. Maybe it began with my mother, or her mother, or her mother. Seeing my mom in that mirror stuck to me. If beauty was that important to her, then it should be to me.
Maybe it was the makeover shows we watched as a family. Or maybe it was all the boys who paid more attention to my body than to my thoughts. Maybe it was commercials. Maybe it was the girls who “discovered” me in high school, who took me on as a “project,” over-plucking my eyebrows, straightening my dyed hair and painting my mouth with thick, brown lipstick. I can’t say where it began, but by the time I was 32, I was exhausted. I had been dying my hair religiously to hide my grays, and I was generally sick of being in battle with my own body.
I decided to fight back. I knew that the intense emotions I attached to my looks were irrational even if they were very real, and I was determined to beat them into submission. I knew it would be difficult for me, so I started by making small changes. I wore less makeup and let myself gain some weight. I stopped using anti-aging cream and stopped wearing heels. Each time I made a change to my appearance that felt like a big deal, I realized it really wasn’t. In retrospect, it all seemed so silly.
I knew that the intense emotions I attached to my looks were irrational even if they were very real, and I was determined to beat them into submission.
But I was still dying my hair. Hair was the one thing on my body I had some control over. No cream would ever prevent me from getting wrinkles, and no amount of exercise would make my body look like it did when I was 18. But if I dyed and styled my hair, it looked just as good as it ever did. If I let it go, people might think I let myself go. Worse, they would find me less attractive because I would look older. They would know that I’d gotten the bad genes. But why did I care what everyone else thought? It was my last battle, and I was ready to fight it.
When I decided to make the hair appointment, part of me was apprehensive and unsure. Another part was ready to get it over with, ready to prove that my fear was irrational. My hairdresser was beautiful with long, blonde hair and contoured cheeks. When I told her I wanted to shave the sides of my head and cut the rest of my hair to my cheekbones, she raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”
I looked at myself in the mirror. My dark hair fell in waves at my shoulders, as it had for so many years. So shiny. So feminine. “Cut it off,” I said. I wanted it gone. As long chunks of hair fell to my lap, I was afraid, but also felt powerful because I wasn’t letting that irrational fear rule me anymore. When she was finished, I got out of the chair and examined myself in the mirror. I craned my neck to see the back of my head. The top would take a while before all the color grew out because I wasn’t interested in shaving my entire head. The bottom half, however, had no dye for the first time in 18 years. The gray was more like silver, like highlights, like tinsel. I loved it.
It seems silly, maybe, that hair can be so important to someone. But it was never about the hair itself for me. It was about being accepted and valued. We live in a society that tells women they are only valuable ― are only acceptable― if they are youthful. We live in a society that spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on anti-aging products. We live in a society that not only has a large gender divide in media representation but an even larger age divide.
Hair is one of the most obvious visual signs of aging, and I hid mine because I wanted to remain visible.
And it’s not just media. We tuck the elderly away in nursing homes, we are too uncomfortable to openly talk about death and I’ve seen an alarming number of obituaries in the local newspaper with pictures of the deceased that were taken 50-plus years ago. We don’t want to see aging bodies and are actively trying to hide them. Hair is one of the most obvious visual signs of aging, and I hid mine because I wanted to remain visible.
It’s been a year since I first cut my hair off, and I am finally totally gray. The biggest surprise? I’ve never gotten more compliments. People think it’s cool, their reactions much stronger than it ever was when it was black or brown. The bigger surprise? I’ve never felt more confident. In fact, I love what I see in the mirror. It isn’t that I feel more beautiful, necessarily. I feel just as pretty as I did before. It’s that beauty isn’t the source of my confidence anymore.
Rather, I’m finding it in the bravery it took for me to give such a ridiculous beauty standard the middle finger, even though I suspected I might be judged or rejected. As someone who has fought so long to fit in, it was so freeing to decide to end it. In a way, my gray hair is a reclamation. It is me owning my aging body and giving it space to exist in the world without shame. That makes me feel really powerful.
I’m also happy to report that mom has embraced her gray hair, too. She was part of my inspiration. She went gray a few years before me, and she looks gorgeous. She is too cool with her buzzed head, white hair and thick-rimmed, colorful glasses, and she knows it.
I figured if my mom can do it, I can, too. The best part: People say we look alike all the time now. Both of us take it as a huge compliment.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.