[EDITORIAL NOTE: While I am away, several excellent elderbloggers agreed to fill in for me as guest bloggers.
Ellen Lee, who blogs at The Pomegranate Tiger, is here today with a story titled The (Not So) Greying of America. Please make her welcome with lots of comments and visit her blog too.]
Some months ago, while in a nostalgic mood, I wrote the following few verses:
My mind says I’m a smooth-skinned babe Turning heads when stars align. Vibrant, fun and full of life. Sometimes silly, giddy, weird.
Blank stares tell me otherwise.
Invisible to all except fellow invisibles
And those who love me or
Knew me when-then.
Amazing how well grey hair
Works as invisibility cloak.
The grey hair and invisibility part of the above is what kept niggling at my brain.
It's evident that Western society encourages us to look young for as long as possible. We’re encouraged to use anti-aging this and anti-aging that; use anti-wrinkle creams for every conceivable body part; and use dyes to colour “stubborn, hard to cover white” hair; not to mention all the nipping, tucking and Botox injecting that goes on.
It doesn’t seem to matter that statistics show the number of seniors is growing at an unprecedented rate bolstered by aging baby-boomers. There's no doubt we're an aging population. It just seems that no one wants to admit to being part of those aging. Just look at stores and fashion magazines to see this age-denial in all its glory.
But back to the grey hair.
I’ve noticed there are fewer and fewer people my age (late fifties) – or even within a decade either side – who allow themselves to have grey or white hair anymore. It’s almost an aberration for someone my age to show their white hair. Those with clearly white hair are usually in their seventies or above. Heaven forbid a forty, fifty or sixty year-old admit to having white hair. Who are they kidding?
I think this is just another example of age-denial; that with enough collagen, botox, nips and tucks, and hair colouring, we can keep age at bay and look thirty- to forty-something indefinitely.
To me, this only adds to the problem of invisibility for elders. It’s bad enough that our youth-obsessed society doesn’t want to see elders – except in stereotyped cute, crotchety or forgetful, dim-wit roles – we elders are making ourselves invisible by trying to look like something other than what we are. If we can’t be comfortable in our own skins, then we’re contributing to the ageism that views growing older as a negative.
The grey-haired have become invisible and it’s our own fault.
A recent trip to the drugstore only reinforced this opinion. I was trying to find a shampoo for white or grey hair. On the advice of my hairdresser, I had been told to get a shampoo specially formulated for white hair. My hair had been taking on a yellowish tint from minerals in our water supply and, she said, a white hair shampoo would fix it.
It wasn’t a small drugstore. It’s a major chain that has an entire double-sided aisle devoted entirely to hair care products. One side of the aisle contained shampoos, conditioners and gels. There were special shampoos for blondes, special shampoos for redheads, special shampoos for brunettes, and special shampoos for people who colour their hair. The other side contained hair colouring products of every colour imaginable - many of them touting their ability to “cover grey”. I didn’t want to cover my grey, darn it. I wanted to let it shine through!
I finally found a shampoo for white hair, but it wasn’t easy. It was tucked away on the bottom shelf. Two lonely bottles.
I can’t blame the store for not stocking more. They respond to market demand and obviously the market doesn’t demand shampoo for the white-haired. Either that, or the white-haired don't speak up.
Maybe I'm just overly-sensitive about this.
My hair started turning white when I was quite young. My first strand of white was discovered by an annoying boy named Leo who sat behind me in second grade. He plucked the offending strand from the back of my head, stood up, and announced to the class in mock horror that I was “OLD”!
I continued to experience these random discoveries by new acquaintances throughout public school and university. “Did you know you have white hair?” they’d say, as if I'd never looked in the mirror. I got quite adept at tossing back, “That’s because I’m really eighty years old.”
By my thirties, I was a pronounced salt and pepper (think Emmy-Lou Harris in the 80s). I traversed this stage of my whiteness with casual indifference. I rebuffed hairdressers who kept offering to cover up the white. It became a part of my identity.
But I don’t want you to think that I completely resisted the allure of hair colouring. At forty-ish, my youngest son – still in elementary school – asked me why I had so many white hairs. His one comment was enough to send me scurrying to the drugstore for some Nice ‘n Easy and the cycle of dying, touch-ups and refreshing.
Thankfully, this period didn’t last long. With my fast-growing hair, I got tired of touch-ups every two weeks; not to mention the necessity of timing those touch-ups with scheduled vacation time to avoid the dreaded "skunk" look while away.
I tell my friends that deciding not to colour my hair was one of the most liberating things I’ve done for myself. I'm now a silvery white and think it looks pretty good. People often compliment me on my striking hair colour. They're probably in shock that someone my age doesn't colour her hair.
It is possible to be grey and still look stylish and attractive. Just look at Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. They look terrific with their silver and grey locks.
During my internet surfing, I did manage to find a "pro" grey article: How to Love Your Gray. It's written by a New York hair stylist who says, "this once-maligned hair hue has become a new style option". Well, hallelujah! Maybe there's hope – but I'm not holding my breath.
I've taken it upon myself to be on a mission to free other women from the tedious treadmill of trying to make naturally white hair any other colour except white. (Funny how men are allowed to be white and "distinguished" rather than old, but that's an entirely different blog.)
It's time to come out of the grey closet and stop being invisible.
In this regard, I think we need role models to help the cause. I’ve already mentioned Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. They prove that you can be grey and still look amazing. I wonder if it's just a coincidence that they're Brits? For North Americans, wouldn’t it be great if a Hilary Clinton or Oprah let themselves become silver and fabulous? Anyone else?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jim Filer tells a tale of games that are played when there’s a new kid on a submarine titled, Never Trust a Sailor.]