In less than three months, I will turn 50. As is often the case with milestone birthdays, I am experiencing some anxiety around moving into a new decade and have been giving a lot of thought to the transition and what it means to me. Although it could be said that it’s just a number and age doesn’t really mean anything, that’s not how I’ve been feeling. I decided to do a few “stream of consciousness” posts leading up to the big day (August 8) to share my thoughts and insights. This first post will focus on issues related to my appearance, specifically around my hair.
But You Don’t Look 50…
I’m often told that I don’t look 50 and I take that as a compliment. It’s nice to look younger, especially since I have not yet availed myself of Botox, fillers, or plastic surgery (save the rhinoplasty I had following a bicycle accident at age 20). But there is one thing I do to stay looking younger, I color my hair. I started to go gray in my mid-thirties, so I’ve been having my hair professionally colored since that time. This really wasn’t a problem for many years, but the interval at which it was necessary kept getting shorter and shorter.
I’m now at least 75% gray and have my roots touched up every four weeks. However, I start to get a gray stripe along my part even before the two week mark rolls around.
Thus, I have to use a color spray from that point on. It does the trick, but it doesn’t look as natural or attractive as I’d like. I refuse to visit a salon more often than monthly, though, and I don’t want to do my own coloring at home (I cringe at the mess and I doubt I would be happy with the result).
On “Hair Prison” and Fighting a Losing Battle
In addition to coloring my hair, I continue to maintain a relatively long style. I love the look of long, straight hair, but my dirty little secret is that my natural hair is not at all straight. It’s unevenly wavy and quite frizzy (likely due to the gray), and the hair that others see is the result of my slaving over a flat-iron on a daily basis. I’m accustomed to doing it and I never used to mind, but now I don’t even get the desired result anymore. Because my hair is more fragile than it used to be, I have to use a very low heat setting on the flat-iron, so it often doesn’t get as straight as I’d like. Plus, a few moments in humidity is all it takes for my hair to puff up and ruin the lovely smooth look I worked so hard to create.
While I was known for years for my pretty hair, the truth is that it’s not very pretty anymore. It’s dry and damaged and I had to have it layered about three years ago because it was breaking off. I’ve been trying to grow out the layers ever since, but my hair keeps breaking and splitting, getting in the way of that goal. I’m sure that my less than ideal health isn’t helping matters there. I often feel like I’m fighting a losing battle, but I don’t know what else to do. Even some stylists have told me that I have “difficult hair” and they would probably do the same thing I’m doing.
Back in November 2014, I wrote about what I’ve termed “hair prison” in one of my most emotionally raw posts to date. After re-reading my words the other day, I realize that I haven’t changed much at all. If anything, I’m worse than I was back then in terms of my vanity and resistance to change. I continue to cling to my old image and identity, of which long straight auburn hair is a big part. In truth, I really don’t know who I am without so-called pretty hair. I’m ashamed to admit that, but I’m doing so in the hopes that “the truth shall set you free” will apply to me and will release me from my self-imposed bondage.
A Price Increase and My Friend’s Story
At my last hair appointment, my stylist told me that she needed to raise the price she was charging me for her services. Because the increase was quite steep, I started to ponder doing something I explored last year but was talked out of when I mentioned it to my stylist. I’m considering stopping the coloring and going gray. Not only would that save me a lot of time and money, it would also be liberating for me as a person. But the question is, can I let go of my vanity enough to do it?
A few months back, a friend of mine made the transition. She’s just four months older than I am and retired from her long-term job last year. Like me, she had fairly long brown hair and had to color her roots every few weeks. She had switched to doing it herself because of the expense of salon coloring, but wasn’t very happy with the fuss or the results. As she approached her 50th birthday, she decided to just stop. After all, she wasn’t going into an office every day anymore and didn’t need to maintain a certain look for professional reasons.
After three months of growing out her gray roots, my friend walked into a salon and asked a stylist to cut her hair off at the line of demarcation. She walked out with extremely short hair, but her transition was done. I saw her a week or so later and was both shocked and impressed by what she had done. I probably annoyed her with my incessant questions and comments, but I truly marveled at her courage. She chose freedom over vanity, which was a choice that I didn’t think I could make. I still don’t know if I can make that choice, although I really wish I could. I think it would be empowering for me and would help me to grow and change in important ways.
I saw my friend again a few weeks ago and her hair had grown in nicely. It now has more of a style to it and the color (mostly grey but with some dark patches in the front) looks good with her skin tone. She looks attractive and seems more relaxed and at peace with herself. She plans to grow hair out to bob length and see how she feels and whether or not she wants to go longer. She really only had to go through six months or so of an awkward period, first with growing out the roots and then with having extremely short hair. She was able to see the big picture and make a choice that would be better for her in the long run.
What Matters More to Me?
My decision to let go of hair color is not just about what I look like; it’s also about my health. There are a lot of toxic chemicals in hair dye, even some of the ones that are supposed to be more natural. When a person gets their hair colored as often as I do, it’s an important consideration, especially when I already know that I’m chemically sensitive and have a lot of health issues that I haven’t been able to overcome. Surely, my health needs to be more important than my vanity. I have investigated an organic hair color option, but even if I go that route, my roots will still need to be touched up quite often, so the expense and hassle will be much the same as they have been.
Inspired by my friend’s story, I recently joined a Facebook group for women who are transitioning or have transitioned to their natural gray hair. There I read stories of women who feel better about themselves now that they have broken free from the slavery of coloring their hair every few weeks. I also saw pictures of many attractive women with lovely silver locks. Not all of them opted for a pixie cut like my friend did; some sported two-tone hair as they grew out their natural hair color. Some women use highlights to soften the harsh “skunk stripe,” but that really isn’t an option for me given the poor condition of my hair. It would surely break off if it were ever to come into contact with bleach. I could use grey clip-in extensions to make things look more natural, but no matter what I will have to face looking less than my best for a period of time if I decide to get off the color train.
Then there is also the matter of my hair texture. While it’s possible that stopping color could improve my hair’s condition and texture, I may still have to give up on having long, straight hair. I have a hard time envisioning that I could ever look attractive with an alternate style, but there has to be a chance of that. Strangely, I am less afraid of facing the gray than I am of either cutting my hair short or trying to manage my natural texture somehow. But I cannot fully express how tired I am of living in “hair prison,” so I have to find a way out somehow. It’s simply not sustainable to keep living the way I am, not if I want to continue to grow and evolve. There has to be more to my self-worth than the way I look and especially more to it than just my hair!
I Don’t Have the Answers
I don’t have the answers yet and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m mostly just thinking aloud here and sharing my thoughts. I know that you don’t have the answers for me, either, but perhaps some of you can relate to my struggle. I realize that what I’m talking about are “first world problems.” I know that many women around the world don’t have the luxury to think about whether their hair is auburn or gray or straight or frizzy. I also know that thousands of women lose their hair every day from chemotherapy. That was the case for a friend of mine a few years ago and now she has made peace with both her natural color and texture. Surviving was far more important to her than grappling with her hair woes. In fact, when she first started to lose her hair, she asked her son to shave her head and didn’t even cry when he did it.
People have often praised my courage for writing this blog, but I have never considered myself to be a very brave person. I’m actually ashamed at how obsessed I am with my appearance and how I cling to my youthful image so fearfully. I let fear stop me in so many areas of life and I’m tired of that. I want to be free, but I don’t know how to make it happen. If outing myself and my intense vanity will help me to break free – or if it might inspire someone else out there to break the chains of their self-imposed bondage, it’s worth my embarrassment in writing this post.
I don’t know what my 50’s will be like, but I do know that I have at least some control over how they will shape up for me. I know that I don’t want more of the same. My hair issues are just the tip of the iceberg. I also want to change and break free in other important areas, some of which I have written about previously and others which I will address in future posts. The last thing I want is to look back two, three, or five years from now (or even one) and see more of the same. I don’t want to continue to feel like a broken record in terms of my complaints. I may feel helpless and powerless to change, but I know I’m really not. I may not be able to overcome all of my health issues (although I will certainly keep trying), but there are some things I can change. It may be silly to get so worked up about my hair, but perhaps that’s where my metamorphosis will begin…