After five delicious days at my girlfriend’s family vacation retreat, I was suddenly alone with her father. He and his wife had been tremendous hosts, providing tickets to a hilarious summer stock production of Pan Am, treating me to a magnificent French dinner, broiling up fresh fish on their deck. I had done my part: kibbitzing with their friends, asking their views on politics or the history of Truro.
Now I was packing, and Dr. K heard me drag my suitcase across the hall tiles.
“Come up here,” he called from the living room. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
I had a small jolt of satisfaction. He must have liked the blue ceramic dish I’d bought as a thank you gift. I anticipated hearing that I’d been an easy guest. I hoped to be welcomed again.
I sat opposite the good doctor on a heavy cotton-upholstered sofa. I smiled in anticipation.
He adjusted his glasses and smiled back. “I want to tell you; I don’t think you should let your hair go gray.”
I thought, What? I was a 56-year-old woman, and had stopped coloring my hair six months back. I had a few inches of grey and was starting to like it. Fashion advice was the last thing I wanted from a 79-year-old man. But I didn’t have a chance to argue. He was a doctor, and used to issuing his opinion. Perhaps his opinion was usually right.
He kept at it. “Why do you want to look older? Do you think that you need more respect? You have such a young face; the gray hair just doesn’t match.”
After a few insistent moments, laying out his diagnosis, he paused.
I blinked away my surprise and said, “I like it. I want to see how it looks. It has nothing to do with respect.”
He shook his head no. Clearly, I did not get the point.
“It’s going to make you look 10 years older. Why don’t you want to color it? Is it too much work? Is it the money? It can’t be that much.”
I don’t know why I bothered to answer. But I was his guest. I liked him—I still like him. Plus, I have strong politeness reflexes.
“It is a lot of money,” I said. “One hundred dollars a month or more. It’s a waste of time I don’t have. But that’s not why I’m growing it out. And besides,” I pointed out, “your wife’s hair, it’s completely white. When did she stop coloring it?”
He pouted. I was a bad patient. I wasn’t following his prescription.
“That’s different,” he said. “It fits her. She was at least 50.”
I didn’t point out my age. Maybe he had forgotten that his daughter, my close friend, was well past 50—as was his younger daughter.
“You know that Jayne and Jill color their hair,” I said. “Their hair is probably white.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said. And of course he wouldn’t. Near-sightedness is a blessing of age. You don’t see your partner’s wrinkles in stark relief, nor the white roots on your daughters’ scalps.
But I knew. I knew Jayne had been coloring her hair as long as I had—only had less of a chore, since hers wasn’t as unruly, long and thick as mine. She could do it cheaply, at home, in the shower. Without staining the ceiling, the walls, and the grout.
We were at a stalemate when the crunch of tires on gravel sounded outside. The doctor may have thought his advice was like urging a patient to diet, or fix their teeth. Health, grooming: apparent cousins.
And while I recoiled at his audacity, it wasn’t the first time a man who was not my husband had lobbied me about my hair. Year back, when I was penny-pinching and the gray roots got long, a political colleague scolded me. “Don’t do it,” he said. I couldn’t figure why he cared; he was married to a devoted hair-colorer, a lush blond.
Not long after, in a dark yard at a birthday party, another long-time friend with his own wife and family implored me to keep on coloring. “Do it for the boys,” he said, trying to rally me. He seemed to equate my tresses to banners waving for a soccer team or a battalion of soldiers.
What boys? I had thought. The boys I knew had turned to old men. They were gray or paunchy or bald. Their eyes were rimmed by dark circles.
My boss, who has taken to dying his gray hair dark on the eve of his 67th birthday, complains that I look like George Washington. Maybe I do. But with his moustache growing ever-blacker with a shoe-polish concoction, he looks a bit like Hitler. Washington beats Hitler in my book.
The handyman who finished our basement and has righted countless household wrongs tells me that whenever he sees an attractive women with gray hair, he thinks about how much prettier she’d be in another color.
Apparently, gray hair is more like a pregnant belly than a fat one—people feel entitled to discuss it with you.
My own husband has said, “I don’t think you’re going to like it.” Meaning, of course, that he won’t.
It’s not hard to connect the dots. These men don’t really care how I look. They care about their own reflections in my shiny-white hair. If they can commiserate or joke with or gaze at a youthful woman, they must be younger than their years. They feel shy of 40, not pushing 70. It has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with them.
And the lobbying isn’t confined to men.
Friends say astonishing things. From one, “All these years, I never knew your hair was so gray.” And of course, all those years it wasn’t. Graying takes time. Others seem slightly afraid, as if my hair is a reproach, calling their own into question.
A cousin, a painter and actress eight years my senior warns that the gray is a grave mistake. In a family of early grayers, hers remains mysteriously dark.
But some family beauties have let their hair go white. Another cousin has famously white hair, alluring on book jackets. My lovely younger sister’s gray strands capture attention in L.A., where urban beautification is about bodies, not bodegas. While I’ll never be as pretty as them, I can wish that my gray brings me closer to their kind of beauty.
Now it’s one year after I ignored the doctor’s orders, and my hair is fairly white—at least the part in my mirror. I like it. It’s the closest I’ve been to platinum. Pale hair looks great against a tan. I’m intrigued by the quirky patterns of white against black against gray.
I won’t pretend it hasn’t aged me. Men don’t follow me with their eyes, but that’s not what I want. They don’t flatter me for my hair, but a handful of women do.
But wait, that isn’t true. White men don’t, but black men are quick with compliments. Men in their 20s, men in their 50s. If a man says, “Nice hair” to me these days, he’s a black man. I’ve asked other women who’ve gone gray, and hands down, it’s the black men who like white hair. It would be too much to say they know beauty ain’t skin deep. But either way, they’ve got it over the white boys. So, hey, gringo, about gray hair: get over it. If you want to feel young and dashing, put some lipstick on your own kisser. Suck in that gut.
I won’t pretend I’m not vain. I dawdle in the mirror, tugging the skin back in front of my ear, noting how just a nip and tuck would tighten up the puckering knob of flesh where my cheek meets my mouth. I’ve invested in eye makeup. The corners of my mouth crack at my life-long pout.
Still, there’s pleasure in the transition: from golden toddler locks, to brownish childhood mop, to dark adult curls, to silvery streaks. At my next haircut, the stylist will snip off the last few stray brown ends. And if I decide I don’t like it, I can color it brown or blond or blue.