Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fears of Aging Color the Discussion of Gray Hair

I OFTEN think longingly of buying a wig. My newly bought hair would be the little black dress of wigs. It would be my hair, or rather, someone else’s hair, but it would look the way mine did at its best: raven, not too long, not too short, glossy, curly without frizz and easy to wear.

I still have that kind of hair, somewhere in my mind, and somewhere in the vague recesses of eternal hope, I expect it to return, just as I expect that with enough discipline, I will be able to get into shape such that I can again wear that cotton red strapless dress I only wore twice: to my engagement party and to interview Brian Wilson (though that history alone might justify my keeping it). 

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The hair that I now see in the mirror is inconvenient impostor hair. It is still dark, but it has a hint of shellac to it; its color is solid where there should be hints of light, and the tone only varies toward the ends, where, thinned and frizzed, a faintly electric red takes over. 

I dye my hair, and every time I do, my hair dies a little. What age was already doing slowly to its texture, in addition to its color, the dying process is only exacerbating in some sort of vicious death-spiral, like the relationship between global warming and air-conditioning: the more one suffers from the first, the more one needs the second, which only exacerbates the first. 

Here is what burns: Within weeks of the coloring, still there is the creep, the inexorable encroaching of gray at my temples that make me think, with uneasiness, of the word “distinguished.” I see those hints of gray and I think of aging male executives with drooping eyes, I think of Birkenstocks and faded Barnes & Noble canvas bags, and I think I should maybe have my hair colored again. 

But wasn’t I just there? Wasn’t I just in there, politely making small talk with Arnulfo, a kind and talented colorist who asks me questions about how my hair has fared with the concerned, exacting tones of a good internist? Wasn’t I just there, opening my wallet to pay in cash so that my husband, who would not really care, does not know exactly how much I spend to stop that creep of distinguished gray? Wasn’t I just there, my heart rate elevating with every passing wasted minute, waiting out the slathering on, the processing period, the shampoo, the rinse? 

I never think more about buying a wig than I do in those last 10 minutes at the hair salon, itching out of my skin, not only at my scalp. “I’ll just go out with it wet!” I invariably tell Arnolfo toward the end as he goes for a hair dryer. I try to keep the hysteria out of my voice. I am not sure I have succeeded. Arnulfo generally looks at me with that same medical concern, this time concerned more about my mental health than my roots.
The salon where Arnulfo works, Cristiano Cora, offers a seemingly miraculous hair dye that requires only a 15-minute wait, though Arnolfo told me sadly that it is not as short for people with hair as coarse as mine. And there are the temporary fixes: powder sprays and mascara wands for stray graying strands and the like. I have something that looks like a thick lipstick, only it is so dark brown it is almost black. If I suddenly notice I am looking too distinguished, I sometimes apply this magic wand of product furtively to my roots in the office bathroom. It smells faintly cloying, and makes me think of the powder my grandmother used to wear, a beauty trick I knew she used more out of habit than conviction. 

My wand is designed to look like lipstick, but somehow instead of that making it seem less strange, it only reminds me how strange lipstick is, a highly packaged, pigmented formula applied to the face. My ambivalence about one heightens my ambivalence about the other, causing midday existential questions about mortality and identity when I am merely trying to tamp down some self-consciousness about messy-looking roots. 

I am, if nothing, a practical person. I buy black dresses in quantity, ideally ones with three-quarter-length sleeves so that they are flexible for every season. I am not going for noticeably stylish; I am going for the easiest thing that will look the most put-together. I am going for clothing that is a form of invisible, and that is what I would like, in many ways, in my hair. 

But that is the problem with hair once it starts to turn gray: there is no version of invisible. There is always the tell. To dye one’s hair is to confess to caring, to fighting age: it fools no one, although it reveals the effort to do so. It only tells the viewer that I am someone who is unwilling and unready to give in to the physical symbols of aging, which is its own social signaling. But not to dye one’s hair is to make a whole other statement: I am someone who does not care. And I am not ready for that one, either. 

As a child, when I thought determination could trump genes, I aspired to having blond hair like Barbie, or at least like Shelley Hack in that Charlie perfume ad (kind of now, kind of wow). Over time, that obsession faded and I made my peace with having Everywoman hair color, appreciating its globalist chic.

It is only now, as I get older, that I see the real advantage of blond hair: it ages so nicely. Aging with blond hair offers the choice of keeping up those fake honeyed tones that we associate with wealth or glamour — artifice, yes, but artifice that is imbued with its own appeal, that is separate from authenticity, but rewardednonetheless. Artificially dark hair at a certain age has no such luxurious associations; to the contrary, I am afraid. 

I would buy a wig, except that, too, would be its own tell: young hair would contrast with my skin, its color too harsh. I read somewhere that people can guess other people’s age, from behind, from a surprising distance, and with surprising accuracy. It is surely some Darwinian assessment the brain does, below consciousness, to determine mate-worthiness or vulnerability, calculating at lightning speed factors like posture, width and hair color. The most sophisticated hair dyes, I am afraid, do not stand a chance at fooling thousands of years of evolutionary insight. 

It is just hair. But it is one of those reminders of our own limits. Maybe if I really committed to it, I could lose 10 pounds and tone my upper arms, or I could sleep eight hours a night and look generally fresher. None of that might actually be true, but people generally believe that there are some signs of age we can vanquish with virtue and discipline. Clearly, no amount of discipline will turn my hair back to what it was: my one vanity, shiny, natural, unusual, so dark it was dramatic. To battle the encroachment of gray is to battle the exigencies of aging, and one of these days, I will have to make my peace with both. 

I almost look forward to it. 


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