I’m sitting in my living room, oven timer set to 30 minutes, towel in hand, wearing a stained T-shirt and marking a milestone.
No, I’m not celebrating a “big” birthday that ends in an 0, or seeing a child graduate and leave home, or retiring.
As of this May, I have just realized I have been using hair dye for 20 years.
Blame genes, blame stress, or maybe blame nothing at all, but I am a woman who has been graying since the year I turned 18, the year I discovered those first strands of not-brown hair just prior to my high school graduation.
I immediately went to the local pharmacy and bought a box of hair dye-warm chestnut-a color that would not only hide those few barely noticeable strands of gray, I hoped, but a color that would enhance my natural shade, the box promised, a color that would change your look, change your life. Or something like that.
The box of color did what it was supposed to do. It not only covered the gray, but made me feel a little more exciting and definable. And although I still didn’t really need color to cover those few-and-far-between streaks of gray, I used it to change my look every so often, going jet black, red, using streaks of blonde. I was hooked.
Over the last 10 years, though, the color feels not so much the experiment in expression it once was, but rather a necessity, a cover for the strip of white that grows in, rapid and revealing, directly down my part-line. Changing my look isn’t so much fun anymore; it’s just kind of tiring and time consuming.
I’ve felt a little lonely out there for the last decade, the coloring process becoming more and more old hat. Now, though, I’m experiencing a terrible touch of sweetness as some of my friends join me in the ranks of the graying.
Do you have any idea what a pain it is to remember to pick up that box of hair dye, or to find the time to schedule two hours minimum to go and sit in a stylist chair somewhere and have someone wash, rinse and change you?
I nod sympathetically to them. I say, yes. I understand. And do the math, they rant. Do you know how expensive this is? Even if I bought one box of the most inexpensive hair dye every month for the next five years, I’ll have spent tons of money trying to pull off this charade.
Yes, I continue to nod. I know. There are so many reasons, we reason with each other, to just plain stop. There are, of course, the glaringly obvious time and the money factors. There’s the animal testing that goes on at some larger corporations’ hair dye labs that I’m not on board with. And while I’m probably exposed to naturally occurring carcinogens all the time-in food, air, water-I do ask myself with increasing regularity-do I really want to increase that load every month with dozens of unpronounceable chemicals soaking into my scalp with all their possible (as well as those possibly imagined and maybe worse) side effects? Not so much: Given the choice, which I do indeed have, I’d much prefer to minimize my exposure.
I’m overwhelmed by the ads on television where I feel those moments of kinship with celebrities and think-Hey, Sarah Jessica is using Garnier too-it’s all OK! I’m bowled over by the volume of choices on the market; by promises of healthy shine every time and better fragrance and truly natural color. I am bothered by the message sent from the beauty industry-to women, for the most part-that this is just one more necessary product that allows us to stay youthful, to reverse the appearance of aging, to transform.
I want to be comfortable, confident, graceful in the natural aging process, the one determined by my own body. But at the same time, I’m irritated, not amused, with being mistaken for my daughter’s grandmother those few times I have gone the unprocessed route and haven’t colored. And with that, I worry that I, too, am somehow perpetuating the notion that I-that we all-should continue to be replicas of our younger (meaning better?) selves. And maybe I’m most annoyed with myself that I’ve not yet managed to cross a real milestone to somehow get beyond this.
Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.