I worked with a woman at a sign company in New York City, and that’s where we made those YOU ARE HERE fire exit maps placed near elevators. Both in our twenties, she went on about how gray hair is sexy on women, and I said, “If you think it’s so sexy, then why don’t you dye your hair gray?” I didn’t think about going gray until I started to go gray, at thirty-eight, just a little bit by the temples. My hairdresser suggested I get a dye job, and I said okay. On my way back from the salon I got into my first car accident. It wasn’t awful and the car was fixed and I ended up knowing the boyfriend of the woman who rammed into me. He drove me to the rent-a-car place and that night I met a woman with whom I would later have a tumultuous relationship—she had guns and liked to drink. Maybe the car accident and screwed up relationship should have been signs not to dye my hair again.
I didn’t, not for a few years, maybe three or four, because my hair didn’t have a lot of gray. Now if I don’t dye it, I’d probably be pretty gray, although I don’t know for sure. I don’t go religiously to the hairdresser like some of my friends, every five or six weeks. Instead, I forget about it and then notice the gray roots sprouting up and I call the hairdresser, who is usually booked for the next three weeks, so I say fuck it, I’ll dye it myself. So I buy that Clairol Basic Instinct stuff and do it myself, but that stuff doesn’t last more than two weeks and, oh, it’s not Basic Instinct, it’s Natural Instinct. Basic Instinct was the movie starring Sharon Stone that came out in the early 90’s. Stone played a bisexual murderous narcissistic psychopath who icepicks her lover to death. No wonder why gay activists criticized the film's portrayal of bisexuals. At the time, in the early 90’s, it seemed that all lesbian characters in movies were portrayed as either drug addicts or murderers. You know, not very good role models for someone coming out at the time, like me. Allie Sheedy in High Art and Gina Gershon in Bound were cute and all. Today we have better role models, but don’t most of them dye their hair? Take a look at Rachel Maddow, or Ellen DeGeneris, or David Sedaris. And then there’s Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt, who doesn’t dye his hair. Maybe he’s too rich and famous to care about dying his hair. Or maybe he’s a man.
Is going bald for men akin to going gray for women? What about Donald Trump’s comb-over? What if he went gray and showed his bald spot? At least men could shave their heads and look kind of hipster with a shaved head and facial hair. So what if Donald Trump looks ridiculous and he’s with a woman, an immigrant, who doesn’t speak perfect English, and he wants to build a wall and keep the immigrants out? Maybe it’s not his comb-over that’s the problem; maybe it’s his attitudes about immigrants and women, how he said he would never change a diaper, that’s what he pays his staff, probably immigrants, to do.
Are gray-haired women in their forties, fifties and sixties, who don’t dye their hair, revolutionaries by default? By accepting their gray? Many have beautiful faces so we can look at them and say, wow, they are gray but they look fantastic.
Women who let their hair go gray are rebels, just as people who aren’t on Facebook: by taking no action, they’re making a statement.
I can see the sexiness in gray, but I also understand why we dye our hair in this age-phobic world. Never mind the cancerous chemicals that might take some years off our lives, or at least that’s what evidence has shown. Yes, opting out of dying your hair is like opting out of Facebook. And we all know that Facebook makes you depressed, almost like watching television, so easy to get sucked in. You know, when you go to check the weather on your phone and forty-five minutes later you’re watching videos of rescued dogs and old women tap-dancing and orange-faced monkeys getting their hair brushed. And then clicking on a link that gives you the twelve signs if you’re dating a narcissist. And two hours later, your eyes are swollen from looking at the tiny screen. And that’s enough to make you go gray. By the way, there is a Facebook page called: “Going Gray, Looking Great.”
If you do get a dye job, you have to sit in the hair salon for two hours, under one of those stupid dryers reading People magazine, yet another article about Prince William and Princess Kate. And isn’t People magazine like Facebook? They both make you feel bad about yourself for not being happy, rich and beautiful, and where are the gray-haired women in People? Women don’t go gray in People magazine, and who the hell cares? They’re certainly not my people.
I have to admit I did care about Princess Diana, maybe because we were from the same era, and she finally found love with the son of an Egyptian millionaire, and then bam, she was killed in a car accident.
Maybe if everyone went gray and got off of Facebook we’d all be happier, because isn’t it about being okay with ourselves and accepting that we’re all going to die? Like my college boyfriend, the anarchist, said, “Life is one long march to the tomb.” And ain’t that the truth. If people actually acknowledged they’re going to die, wouldn’t they be nicer to one another?
I found a few online articles about gray-haired women: “Seventeen Silver Vixens Who Will Have You Canceling Your Next Dye Job,” “Six Reasons Gray Hair Is White Hot Again,” “In case you didn’t get the memo, gray hair is hot. And sexy! Just check out the silver foxes on the Red Carpet—Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Helen Mirren.” But can gray hair represent a stressed out life? According to an old legend—Marie Antoinette’s hair turned grey with stress and fear the night before her execution. She is also the person often attributed with the statement: “Let them eat cake.”
I’ve always been a little uptight about getting older, even at twenty-four and tried out for an all-girls band called the Tomboys. They were twenty-two, and they liked me at first, but when I practiced with them, I couldn’t learn their songs fast enough. They called out the chord progressions and I’m really bad with following directions, even on the box of Basic Instinct hair dye. I leave the dye on for over twenty minutes because I figure it would last longer that way, but it still loses its zing in two weeks, and the longer I leave it on, the more deadly it is for my bloodstream. The irony of it all-- while I try to keep myself looking young, I’m actually killing myself. Or am I just buying into our age- phobic society, the society that says if you’re gray, you’re old and washed up and the next step is death. Is dying our hair to cover up the gray a denial of death, a holding onto our youth? We all want to look good, especially on Facebook, and I make no judgments. Or maybe a little judgment—I dye my hair and I’m on Facebook, and I do think about aging and death, more so now that I’m getting older and realize I don’t have all the time in the world. All the while, I do have the opportunity to be part of a hipper crowd of older women, as the title of a recent news article suggests: “Cougars, Gray Panthers, Silver Foxes: It’s a Jungle Out There,” and soon enough, I’ll probably step into that jungle, a word originating from the Sanskrit word jangala, meaning uncultivated land, a wild land where we could roam without rules, where we could stretch and roar and swing our hips, where we can shake our wild gray manes with our sister cougars and foxes and panthers.
Lori Horvitz' personal essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including The Chattahoochee Review, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, Epiphany and Hotel Amerika. Her book of memoir-essays, The Girls of Usually (Truman State UP), was published in 2015. Horvitz is Professor of English at UNC Asheville.