I am going to be very honest here. If we do not have honest conversations about these things, how can we truly grow? Speaking of growing, I have these silvery things coming out of my head. I discovered the first one in graduate school. I actually have a picture of it, because I was both proud of and mortified by it. I saw it as a rite of passage.
The grey hairs have continued to grow over the years. At first I embraced them, mainly because there weren’t too many of them. Then they started to really frustrate me. For one thing, grey hairs have the uncanny ability to stick straight up and seem to want to be nowhere near the rest of the hairs on your head. They are quite the attention-seekers.
So, I might lose my gerontologist card for saying this, but I started dying my roots. Just a small area near my temple where the grey hairs were particularly rambunctious. Around the same time, my vision started to change and I was having more trouble seeing things up close. So I didn’t really see the other grey hairs that were popping up all over my head. And then one day, I saw my hair in a certain light, and they were EVERYWHERE.
For some people, this is not a big deal. Clairol to the rescue! But for me, as a gerontologist, this is an existential question. To dye or not to dye.
Ageism is real, and our cultural denial of aging is pervasive. Physical changes of aging are often what we associate with aging, and women especially struggle with aging and embracing these changes. I will not bore you with statistics, but the amount of money we spend on hair color and cosmetic products and procedures to “mask” aging is astounding.
I am an advocate for changing the culture of aging to one of meaning, positivity as well as reality, curiosity of changes with aging, and acceptance rather than denial. I fight ageism on a regular basis. And yet, I want to dye my hair.
Is this terrible? On one hand, there is the position that we should not dye our hair. Let the grey hairs shine! They are beautiful, too, just different. We need to fight this social code that grey hairs = old = bad. And I believe this is all true.
On the other hand, if it makes me feel good, why shouldn’t I? I don’t think it is fair to say that, because I dye my hair, I don’t embrace aging. Could both of these things be true? Maybe changing the culture of aging means honoring the reality that each one of us has a different experience of growing older. It’s not just positive or negative, but complicated. We have complicated relationships with growing older. Do I believe growing older is wondrous and a gift? Yes. Do I want my hair to look nice? Yes. Is nice not having grey hair? No, I just really like my dark hair. Could I be contributing to ageism by not wanting grey hair? I don’t know, but that is not my intention. I don’t want to be ageist; I just want to be me. And right now, me has dark brown hair.
Is it ageist to even focus too much on a physical change like grey hair? Should we be claiming gifts of growing older, like life experience and wisdom, celebrating and honoring them, making these rewards central to the narrative of growing older, rather than what we look like?
While I believe we need to promote acceptance and appreciation of growing older, I think we also have to be careful about the messages we send regarding how we “should” grow older. I think we would agree that it is judgmental to say that an older woman should not wear a particular style of clothing, because it is “too young for her”. Perhaps it is also judgmental to expect that a woman dye or not dye her hair.
How will we handle this as we try to change the way we think about growing older? I think we want people to embrace aging, for its opportunities and challenges, to honor it as an important part of life, and see each other as unique, whole human beings. So, if that is a goal, is it possible to be all these things, and also get Botox, or dye your hair, or use wrinkle cream? Is there room for shades of grey (pun intended)?
I don’t know the answer. But I do know that we need to have open conversations, without judgment. We need to listen to each other. And we definitely need to tell a different narrative about aging. Aging as a part of life, a beautiful part of life. And also a challenging part of life, full of transitions and opportunities for growth. Even if they are grey and coming out of my head.