So suddenly I want to color my hair.
My natural hair color is a dark chocolate brown, which I always liked very much, especially because it's unusual when combined with light-colored eyes (mine are slate blue). I've been going gray since I was 21, which is close to 17 years now; currently I have streaks of nearly white hair at both temples, plus an all-over sparse (but thickening) mix of silver threads among the dark. My hair is baby-fine, and, in the tropics, wavy almost to the point of curl. Grown long, it is flyaway and insubstantial, but with the right short cut it has body and life. With the white at the temples, it has a certain amount of dash, in fact.
I've never colored my hair before, for a variety of reasons, foremost among which, it must be admitted, are laziness and thrift: I never wanted to be bothered keeping it up, nor spend the money it costs to maintain artificial hair color.
Rex's position is that I shouldn't dye it for the same reasons he shouldn't wear a toupee to cover his bald spot: because it's silly to feel badly about what is real and natural. This is a position I largely endorse. For one thing, he is sexy as hell, and I've never known him with hair. For another, like him, I am not amused by jokes about the tragedy of turning 30 (or 40, or whatever), nor am I very sympathetic to midlife crises that result from the widening of the gap between long-held fantasy and progressive reality, especially since the fantasy, in such cases, probably wasn't all that sustainable to begin with. The inability to understand how a person who isn't 21 can be attractive (or how a person who isn't at the pinnacle of their earning power, or their career, can be successful), isn't a tragedy of passing time; it's a failure of imagination.
And there's this other thing, too, the feminist angle. I remember being very surprised, in high school (I went to boarding school), to meet girls from the South, whose mothers had taught them to apply makeup, and who wouldn't go out without it, because nice girls always took the trouble. As the daughter of a mother who never used a lot of makeup, but more, growing up in a small and remote New England logging town, I always understood that nice girls didn't, or if they did, they didn't much. Later there was an increasingly feminist undertone to the idea: the thought that wearing makeup (and shaving one's legs, underarms, etc.) was un-feminist, because it meant pretending to be someone you were not. There's more to this, and it lies in the transition from elementary school to junior high: the moment when everything changes, for girls at least.
Flashback 1982. I was not especially attuned to fashion, boys, etc. My best friend and I spent a lot of our time in the woods, identifying edible plants and building elaborate fantasy worlds based on the novels we read. We played a lot of D&D. My mother, to her eternal credit, never pushed me to model more conventionally feminine behavior. I think she was more interested in us being who we were.
But gradually I noticed things: pegged pants, denim blazers, skinny neckties. Girls in gym class ridiculed me for not wearing a bra. I started wearing one. They mocked me for not shaving my body hair. I started shaving, badly. They ridiculed me for wearing "high-water pants," which I didn't understand. I cut my waist-length hair into a short, feathered hairstyle over the summer of 1984. On the first day of eighth grade in the fall, a small knot of girls backed me against the lockers and accused me of trying to imitate the two Vickis (the Heathers of our school, both dark-haired like me). They told me they'd make sure that nobody was fooled. It was garden-variety harassment - junior high is a painful experience for any thinking person - but it stung, and in particular, it left me with a strong sense that I shouldn't try to be like other people, that I shouldn't try to make myself attractive, because I would only fail, and fail in a way that would be publicly ridiculous. I remember going to the seventh grade dance (before I cut my hair) in a white oxford-cloth button-down shirt with a skinny necktie in turquoise and black, with my long hair in a ponytail on the side of my head, wearing a white newsboy cap, big dangly white earrings, acid-washed, pleated-front jeans, legwarmers, and ballet flats. I spent most of the evening in the bathroom weeping, unable to bear what I thought must be the ridicule of everyone who saw me, but wanting so badly to be part of what I thought everyone else was part of that I couldn't bring myself to leave.
Looking back, I am radically pissed off about this, not so much for what I went through at the time, which, as I say, was pretty much par for the course of junior high, but rather for what it caused me to miss out on over the years that followed. I became so convinced that it was impossible for me to be part of any normal social group that I talked myself out of all the kinds of experimentation that you're supposed to do in high school: experimentation with identity, experimentation with relationships and emotion. It didn't help that I went to prep school, where they kept us too busy to experiment much anyway, and where there was a pretty big gap of experience and social class between me and some of my classmates. When I think back on the friendships I didn't follow up on, the outings I didn't enjoy, the life I chose not to fully live, it makes me furious. And it's still a residual problem to this day. The voice of instinct - you do not belong; this is not for you to enjoy - still echoes in my head. And it's been such a fucking waste.
I have a picture of myself taken on Cape Cod in the summer of 1984, in the backyard of Aunt M's house in Brewster, when we were visiting my cousins. AtlanticMo and her sisters were fascinated to discover that I'd never worn eye shadow or mascara, and didn't know how to apply them. So they made me up, with blue eye shadow (1984, remember?) and raccoon-style eyeliner, curled lashes and mascara. In the picture, I'm holding my cousin C, who's nearly two, and smiling shyly, showing my braces. I remember seeing this picture and thinking it was dangerous. It seemed important never to let anyone see me like that.
It's not a dangerous picture, of course: it shows a dark-haired thirteen-year-old in '80s-style glasses, wearing too much makeup, a little shy and awkward, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and hefting a curly-haired toddler. In the picture, I look like exactly who I am, or who I was at the time. And, looking back, I realize what I should have done. I should have let Mo and the others, who were fond of their eccentric rural cousins, teach me how to make myself up. I should have taken them up more often on trips to the mall and pizza at Sbarro's (Coming from such a small town, it had never occurred to me that you could go to the mall, or to a restaurant, without your parents). They were willing to make room for me in their normality: I should have let them.
Which brings us back to the feminist angle: because although of course there is a feminist argument to be made against cosmetics and body modification, against changing ourselves to please others, there is also a feminist argument in favor of doing what pleases us with our bodies. And at this point in time, I think the argument for pleasing myself has more power than the argument for letting the gray hairs fly free, as it were. It's not that I don't like the gray; it's striking, interesting even. It's that under all the other reasons for not coloring my hair before this (laziness, thrift, feminism), the voice that says this isn't for you: other women can do it, but you stay away is still hiding. And I'd like to give it the metaphorical finger.
What if I hate it?
It's only hair, right?