In the spring of 2020, I wrote an essay for TIME, “My hair is turning gray during the pandemic. Here’s why I can never color it again.” Publicly, I considered breaking away from decades of dyeing my hair. I recognized that my exploration might have seemed trivial at a time when life and death decisions were being made. Still for me, it was a pivotal decision linked to my professional identity and the expectations of society. I ended the trial with a series of questions including, “Will I see this change or go back to the beauty salon the minute this virus is in the rearview mirror?”
I found an answer, but one that only works for me. “To dye or not to dye” is ultimately a personal question, surrounded by double standards. We are considered vain if we do and lazy if we don’t.
The growth phase was painful. I looked like a lost tabby cat, my fur spotted and streaked with many colorful stripes. Several trusted girlfriends tried to convince me to give up my quest. More than once I was ready to take the shears for my own hair thinking maybe bald would be better. I have worn many hats. Nonetheless, I persisted, working hard to remain patient.
Periodically, I gave myself a trim so I could see my progress. Then one day, nearly two years into this experiment, I happily cut off the tired, bleached, blonde remaining ends. There, on my bathroom floor, I got the last breath of my need to conform to corporate stereotypes and fight the telltale signs of aging.
Now I have a head full of gray hair. Letting go of my commitment to my honey and wheat base with ribbons of “natural” highlights has been liberating. The benefits exceeded my imagination. Here are the things I learned.
First, I saved time and money. I no longer distrust that skunk-shaped white stripe that, more and more frequently, emerged at my roots and sent me running to the living room. While I miss my colorist’s witty banter, I don’t regret the hours spent on multiple processes, head in the sink, hair wrapped in foil and damaged by chemicals. Saying goodbye to it all has been good for my schedule and my budget. It also resulted in healthier hair.
Second, I belong to a new fraternity of gray-haired women. When we pass each other on the street, we nod or smile as if we were members of a private club. I don’t know their names, but I imagine they, too, used the odd time of working from home and social distancing as a time to let their grays have their way. They look sexy and confident.
Then I feel younger. The courage to be myself has been energizing and empowering. In a world dominated by unattainable standards of youth and beauty, I’m amazed at how good it feels to ditch my age-old, stylist-approved hair routine. Last year I turned 60 and I have an extra pound or five around my middle. My neck sags and I constantly correct my posture. I’m taking care of it. Authenticity is a sign of self-esteem. My gray hair, a badge of honor.
Finally, and without a doubt, the pandemic has set us back. The death toll continues to climb and countless smaller and more subtle casualties have accumulated. But in other profound ways, we have advanced. We have entered an era of scientific renaissance and witnessed heroic acts of resilience by healthcare workers and carers. My act of resistance must seem frivolous in comparison.
Yet, as I hoped, those gray locks that first sprang from my temples were, in fact, wings. Now I look in the mirror and see a wild swan.
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