EDITORIAL NOTE: I needed a day off from writing yesterday, so here's a vintage TGB for you today from October 2009. The Elder Storytelling Place story is new, linked as always at the bottom of this post.
Forty-seven-year-old TGB reader, Peggy Race, emailed recently asking about old women and long hair.
“I'm getting subtle pressure to cut my long hair,” she wrote. “It is down past my shoulders at the moment and there seems to be some sort of law that states only young women can have long hair.”
Peggy's right that in general, the advice for women older than (even) 35 is to cut their hair short, and long hair, especially long gray hair is cause for comment, usually negative. The reasons given depend on the source:
- Women's magazines: Short hair is more manageable.
- Salon owners: Long hair makes women past 35 look older than they are.
- Bigots: Old women look stupid trying to appear younger.
None of these reasons is valid. Short hair takes a lot of work starting with frequent visits to the hair cutter. Unless you are blessed with the kind of hair you can run your fingers through and look great, keeping short hair neat can involve curlers or straighteners or curling irons and mousse or gels or whatever else keeps it in place.
My hair has grown nearly down to my waist now. I trim off the dead ends now and then, wash it every other day, let it air dry – it takes only an hour – and brush it. How simple is that. I pull it back in a clip for a low pony tail or pin it up in a bun. Either way takes only a couple of minutes. Marian Van Eyk McCain of elderwomanblog (pictured), wears her long, gray hair in a single braid.
It is conventional wisdom that long hair on older women calls attention to wrinkles and sags and makes them look older. Older than what? This reason presupposes that looking one's age is a bad thing which I've spent nearly six years arguing against on this blog. Plus, salon owners have a vested interest in short hair to keep women coming back for a cut every few weeks, so don't listen to them.
As to the last reason, unless a 50-plus woman is walking around in a miniskirt, bare midriff and too much makeup with her long, gray hair, I don't understand the objection. And even if she does wear all those things, who am I – or you – to judge her.
Nearly 40 years ago while walking across West 57th Street in New York City, I noticed a woman in front of me with long, straight hair hanging nearly to her waist. No big deal; many women wore long hair then, but not gray hair, as this woman had.
I'd had a friend who had gone completely gray in our mid-20s, so I was curious to know how old this woman was. I sped up and reached her at the next corner. Hoping for subtlety as we waited for the light, I took a peek at her face. She was not, like my friend, prematurely gray. She was, I was guessing, in her mid- to late fifties and she looked fabulous. Of course, she was also tall, slender, had cheekbones and a smooth jawline, four things nature left out of my anatomy.
Even so, I determined then and there that when I got old, I would wear my gray hair long. Part of the reason for the decision, even at age 35 or so, was that I disliked every moment and resented every dollar I spent at the hair shop. I thought it was necessary then for – well, what did I think? I'm not sure now; it probably had something to do with men.
Long hair is problematic in old age if it is thinning. Mine is and I'm still vain enough to not want to show off my balding spots. That's where the bun comes in; it covers the thin area on my crown quite nicely.
Given the prevalence of age discrimination in the workplace, it's probably a bad idea, if you're not retired, to stop coloring your hair and wear it long or in an old-fashioned bun – although in the past few years, young professional women have increasingly worn buns. But I'm pretty sure the same style in an older woman would be seen as “letting herself go.”
If, however, employment is not a concern and it pleases you to have long hair, gray or not, I say go for it, Peggy. The people who are who are pressuring you to cut it are out of line.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: We Hold These Truths