“Those your grandchildren?” asked the crossing guard. We say hello many times a week, but this was the first time we chatted. “Nope,” I responded, trying to be casual, “These are my kids: Seamus is a little over two and Madeline is almost eight months.”
She was so apologetic. I waved it off.
“No big deal,” I said, pointing at my messy mop of gray hair. “I get it all the time.” But when I pass that way later the same day, I consider avoiding her intersection entirely. I do get that all the time, but that doesn’t mean I like it.
Age is a funny thing. I am 40. And, I have gray hair, lots of it. The crossing guard isn’t wrong to assume. I am old enough to be a grandmother without having been a teenage mother. I don’t feel like a grandma, and I don’t think I look like one, but that is what she saw: My hair says “old” to the world.
When I look at her closely — for the first time — after that exchange, I see that she is younger than I am, maybe in her mid-30s. I hadn’t seen her any more than she had seen me. I saw the uniform. I tend to imbue positions of authority with age and wisdom — crossing guards, police officers, principals, dentists, reference librarians — I see them all as agelessly older, even when they are a decade younger than me.
It occurred to me that we are moving so fast sometimes, cruising on autopilot, that we don’t really see each other. We take the short cut. We look for the signifiers — white hair, uniform, whatever — and base our assumptions on that. The crossing guard’s apologetic response reminded me of how people act when they mistake Madeline for a boy. “I am so sorry! I just saw the blue stripes.” She is wearing a little blue dress, but okay.
“I love your hair,” said the woman coming up behind me crossing First Avenue on the Lower East Side in New York. “I wish I could let my hair go natural.” This comment is both more flattering and more problematic than being mistaken for my children’s grandmother.
I wanted to say, “Then go for it, lady. Let your white shine through.” I could have taken the opportunity to launch into a polemic on resisting and overturning the impossible beauty ideals and eternal youth aspirations that our culture imposes on women. I could have lectured on the destructive environmental consequences of all those sexy auburn and sunny blonde and raven black chemicals that wash the gray right out of your hair. I could have issued my declaration of freedom from the salon industrial complex right there on a Manhattan street corner. But I didn’t. Instead, I said something like “thank you” and walked on swinging my hair with just a hint more swagger.
The culture does a number on women. In 2008, the YMCA produced a really important report that should be updated and reissued, called “Beauty At Any Cost: The Consequences of America’s Beauty Obsession on Women and Girls.” Here is a fact worthy of a banner headline: We spent $7 billion a year on cosmetic products, $1,200 a person. It says a lot about who we are as a society, doesn’t it? If we opted out of our monthly mani/pedi and invested that $50 in an IRA instead, we’d have saved $12,000 in 10 years. I am saying “we” even though my last pedicure was a year ago — a very special treat — and I can’t remember my last cosmetic purchase.
Now that I have little kids, my gray hair gets in the way all the time. They pull on it and chew on it and put their food in it for safe-keeping. It sheds all over the place. I am picking my hairs out of their neck folds and from between their toes constantly. My head sheds enough dust-bunnies and tumbleweeds throughout our house to be cozy inner layers of hundreds of birds’ nests. It is gross.
Anne Kreamer, who wrote “Going Gray,” estimated that she spent $65,000 dying her hair before giving it all up for gray. The choice (if that is even the right word for letting nature take its course) is definitely economical. But it is not just about money, right? As the YWCA report observes, “The pressure to achieve unrealistic physical beauty is an undercurrent in the lives of virtually all women in the United States, and its steady drumbeat is wreaking havoc on women.”
And still, I am not immune from all the messages our culture beams at women. I have my vanity even if I don’t do most of the lady things that TV tells us to do. But I don’t want to cut off all my hair like so many mommies and women of a certain age tend to do. Then I would really look like a grandma. I don’t even wash or moisturize my face. Since the kids have come along, I manage to brush my teeth twice a day and floss most nights and (almost always) put on deodorant.
Sometimes I wish I was different. My imaginary version of me is 20 pounds thinner, less splotchy and embodies an effortless elegance. But she still has a big mess of gray hair and she is working hard to see past the signifiers and into the real people in her world.
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