Monday, April 11, 2011

Going White

by Zinta Aistars

When I was young, very young, I tossed my long, dark curls with disdain and declared: When I am an older woman, I shall go white as nature declares. No dipping in dyes for me!

Easy to say, when you are young, very young, and you can still toss about long, dark curls.

Going salt and pepper, then white, no doubt has something to do with genetics. My father's father was snow white by age 40. I was working on my white top in my mid 30s. That's when I first began to notice those giveaway gray hairs, kinking up from my dark tresses, steely and with the uncanny ability to boing, boing, unwilling to lie peaceably with the rest.

For the first couple years, I plucked. Wound the gray strand around my index finger and give it a quick tug. Gone.

Somehow, with the passing of time that I didn't quite notice, too busy to notice, they accumulated to too many to pluck. But I was still so young ...

Other women in my family dip and dye. Why not me? Would it really be a betrayal of my feminist fiber?

High school senior
Perhaps not. Feminism is more about having choices than limiting them. It means that a woman can express herself, be herself, however she pleases to do so.

There's the key. Note, and read it twice, or thrice, until it sinks in: ... however she pleases. She. Not her family. Not her friends. Not the community. Not the workplace. Not the media. Not her husband or boyfriend or lover. Not her best bud or enemy. How SHE pleases.

Honestly, I'm not sure most of us know anymore what pleases us. Do we? Really? How do we peel ourselves away from all the magazine ads and photo layouts? How do we ignore the constant barrage of movie and television images? How do we ignore the pressures of the marketplace, whether we are on the "meat market" of dating or selling ourselves to an employer?

America is the land of ageism. We worship youth here. To the point of obsession. No, beyond that point. We are willing to die for it. We subject ourselves to eating disorders, lie down beneath the scalpel in hopes that it may carve away years, we baste ourselves in anti-aging creams and lotions. We dip and we dye. We hide the signs of age as if it were a shameful disease. To the point of mental disorder.

First book published ...
Why? Why this resistance to what is but the natural cycle of life? Why should any age have it over any other age? Each age has its own glory. Beauty comes in so very many forms. Why can we recognize only one narrow and shallow form and deny all others?

It's not that I think it is un-feminist to dip and dye away the gray. It is against feminism to conform ourselves to the expectations of others, to the mental disorder of an entire nation, to an unhealthy bias, a type of voluntary blindness. That isn't only unfeminist ... it is anti human. Anti life. Anti age, when you stop and think about it, means cutting life short.

When I moved past plucking, I did the dip. I gave in. A quick rinse, what's the harm. And then, when the ever more white roots grew in, who wants to wear a skunk stripe?

My mother tells me that when I was born, my hair was thick and black. In my youth, my hair was a deep, dark brown. Not once did I wish to be a blond. Or any other color. I loved my long, dark hair, even when it was unruly, and it often was. When it was too much in my way, I quickly braided it and let it hang down my back.

A lighter middle-age Z
In my heart of hearts, I knew that the hair dye was a personal betrayal. I was giving in out of fear ... that I might not get the job at the interview, that the man I was dating might cheat again if I showed my years (even if he was silver haired himself), that life would pick up speed and go by even faster if I let the gray grow in.

But I got the great job based on my many years of experience. The man I was dating had an addiction that had nothing to do with me; he couldn't stop cheating no matter how many somersaults I turned. Life was gathering speed, racing by, making me giddy, and I could not stop it, could not slow it down.

Then it occurred to me. I was missing big chunks of my life. If I kept trying to stop my 40s from zipping by, I might never experience my 50s. If I was 43 for 10 years running, how would I ever find out what it was like to be me at 44? 47? 50? 53? and all those secret years awaiting me yet.

For all our efforts, none of us have made time stand still.

Why do we want to? Why live our lives in constant fear of reaching the end? By living in fear, we aren't really living at all. I want to be free of all that.

Wash that color right out of my hair ...
After all, being bi-cultural, I had spent enough time in Europe to know that not all cultures are so youth-obsessed. Elsewhere, the elderly lived with respect surrounding them. Why not here?

Why not begin with me... and the woman in the mirror. If I was dipping and dying for the right reasons, fine, but not because I wanted to pretend I am something I am not. My secret was that I was enjoying stepping into my 50s. In so many ways, this was turning out to be the best time in my life. My children are grown. My work has reached a higher ground than I would have thought possible. My artistic passions are blossoming into new directions, unexpected and tantalizing. I am stronger than I ever thought I would be, and in so many ways. I have dreams and I am realizing them.

The truth: my younger years were not such a happy time. There was a great deal of turmoil then, keen suffering, and struggle. I do not ever want to be young again. It was too hard. I like better the hard-won confidence I enjoy now. I am much wiser now, and I like who I am becoming. I like learning, evolving, unwrapping my life like a series of gifts, each one more precious than the one before.

A lighter day
Came that moment when I told my stylist: let's stop this. This is not who I am. Not anymore.

We started on a gradual process of letting the color go. A little more, a little more. My deep brown gained a few blond streaks. The streaks widened, and then the brown was gone. My hair was lighter and still lighter, and when the white began to show, I gazed at it in the mirror in wonder.

I have been utterly fascinated by this process, coming in phases. It hasn't always been easy. I have wondered at times if I shouldn't turn it back. For a moment, I would miss ... that other me. The me I knew so well, since earliest memory. Who is this now? She of nearly white tresses? She with fine lines around her eyes? I see history in her face, and she is me.

I feel a sudden tenderness. This place is new for me. I have resisted this, but now I gradually embrace it. There is a freedom in it. I begin to realize how often what I did, how I was, how I moved, how I danced through life was for the pleasure of others and not myself. Who am I when I dance for myself alone?

I'm not yet sure, but I am a bit afraid and a lot exhilarated. I know all about me, then. I know so little about me, now, and tomorrow, and decades into the future. I want to experience my life fully, as deep and as wide and as high as it will take me. I don't want to miss any of it. Any of me.

It's like walking into all new territory, and I motion to the stylist, no more. We are there now. I am cutting the last thread. Who knew it would be such an experience, this simple act so complex, so riddled with emotional tangents?

I'm glad I've decided to be present for it. Even if it is a little scary sometimes ... letting go of silly old fears.


  1. Grey is one of my favorite colors. Perhaps it's because my eyes are grey. Grey hair never looks grey to me, not like the grey in a 20% screen in printing or the grey on my color-selection menu.

    Now, my hair is whatever color it has become: brown and white, white and brown, though from a distance, potentially grey. I feel the same regardless of the color. That's what it comes down to.


  2. I've always been drawn to gray, too, Malcolm. Color of soft, color of comfort. With a thousand other subtle and nuanced shades within it.