i see mircales

Lessons in vanity

By LISA GONSALVES
Posted 5/26/21

Over the past year, Americans turned grey en masse. For some, it might have been the stress, for the rest, it was the inconvenience of quarantine-restricted hairdressing. Either way, they were all in …

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i see mircales

Lessons in vanity

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Over the past year, Americans turned grey en masse. For some, it might have been the stress, for the rest, it was the inconvenience of quarantine-restricted hairdressing. Either way, they were all in it together. I, however, made the change the year before on my own private journey of going grey awkwardly. Aging is ongoing, with wisdom its sole reward.

Vanity is relative. Where I come from in Southern California, beauty is only skin deep but intensely scrutinized. New skin is always on sale at your neighborhood medi-spa. I managed to escape Hollywood in time, unscathed by “aesthetic treatment.” Plastic surgery, liposuction and Botox are just the tip of the iceberg in a sea of manufactured beauty. I’m proud my body is authentic. My hair, however, is another story.

I was never a very pretty little girl. As a child, my unruly hair motivated a haircut so short, I was often mistaken for a boy. At 12 years old, I took control of my hair and didn’t cut it for two years when I discovered my first grey hair. I was 14 when the greys multiplied from there. Genetic influence is apparent. I was told my maternal grandmother turned grey early, and my son’s first grey hair sprouted at the same age as mine and in precisely the same place. However, gender differences for premature greying are socially significant. My son gets to enjoy looking more distinguished, mature, maybe a little like George Clooney. Women who get grey hair early enjoy far less grace than our male counterparts. By my mid-20s, my grey was apparent enough that my boyfriend found it amusing to refer to me as his “old lady.” From then on, I died my hair regularly. Although there were times when I managed it myself, professionals make a difference. My brother nailed it when he asked me why I didn’t do it myself. Answering his own question faster than I could, he exclaimed, “Oh I know! Because then it looks like you did it, yourself!”

When I first moved here, it took some time before I could trust someone with my crazy mane. Finally, I witnessed a friend go from a shade of brassy-bottle blonde to Southern-California fantastic, and I knew who. Keeping it simple, I asked my new master hairdresser to match my eyebrows. She continued this ritual to perfection, bi-monthly for nearly two decades. Then she dropped a bomb. She’d be moving away. I needed to find a new hairdresser—or maybe not.

I was curious about my true color and had contemplated the change. My brother had long since encouraged me to allow my natural grey, and my father before him. It was influential that these impressionable men in my life found women with grey hair of any age equally attractive. I decided to take the plunge. I negotiated the time and money I’d be saving, plus the benefits of avoiding unnecessary chemicals. I idealized “going natural” and was enticed to discover a totally unique hair color of my very own. I engaged the expert advice of peers who had gone before me. I joined a Facebook group for going grey gracefully where we all tell each other how amazing we all look, no matter what. Truthfully, to me, everyone looked more beautiful with their beloved silver streaks. I was motivated and ready. I mapped out what I thought was a workable strategy to get from a full head of long dark-dyed locks to purely virgin pale hair.

Spoiler: There is absolutely no glamorous way to go grey. What I discovered is that the best way a woman can transition from the enduring obligation of hair dying into her older self’s purely natural shade of grey is to cultivate/uphold/embrace: patience, humility and a good sense of humor. I had once believed “growing old gracefully” was a real thing. Now I suspect that is sheer sarcasm. From my experience, any truth in the cliché has more to do with asking for divine assistance than it does for beauty and elegance. There is no escaping the obvious when dark-haired women essentially go from black to white—starkly unsubtle. One friend attempted a possible shortcut (not to be confused with a short haircut). What could take a year to grow out, a hairdresser reduced to a few weeks of bleaching her dark-dyed hair to reach a grey she could grow into. It didn’t pan out when her hair ultimately became overcooked and crumbled. What would have been devastating to me was lucky for her. Anyone who looks as fabulous as she does with super short hair should sincerely wear no other hairdo. There are no shortcuts to going grey, unless you have the courage, beauty, or confidence for a very shortcut. My transition was going to take time.

The transformational strategy I established began with few different styles that might camouflage things in the early stages, like pulling it back or up, partly, or fully. Reimagining my Spanish heritage, I affectionately named the transitional look “Aging Gypsy.” Meanwhile, beloved family members compared me to the bride of Frankenstein, Cruella de Vil, Lilly Munster and Sophia from “The Golden Girls.” Jokes aside, these character comparisons were delivered with the best of encouraging intentions. I was hoping more for Cher in the movie “Moonstruck.” Worse were those staunchly opposed to the crossover. The occasional naysayer will ask why on earth would you choose to do such a thing, out loud and in public.

When it came time for the drastic cut, I softened the blow with a charitable donation of nearly a foot of my hair to Locks of Love. Having combed several volumes of hairstyle resources over the years, I felt confident having long since identified the perfect not-too-short hairdo amenable to my curly hair. We plan, God laughs (she’s a riot, by the way). I factored in the curl with the length but in my calculation overlooked the thickness of my hair. Mine looked nothing like the curly hair of the photo model. Mine did not lie down, it curled up! It seemed to defy gravity. I looked more like Lucille Ball. Believing I could improve upon that and still win at my game, I took out my ace in the hole: hats! I look good in hats and I have many. I had options! Ironically, my solution was sadly shot down when I realized a hat only made me look like Lucille Ball doing her impersonation of Harpo Marx. No exaggeration.

Allowing Mother Nature her last laugh at my expense made me feel proud of my tenacity. I felt like I had passed some test. I believed I had proven my patience, humility and humor. Yet there were times in this character-building experiment that felt somewhat jarring or unnerving. Now and then when passing a mirror, a double-take could catch this unfamiliar light-haired and short-haired person trying to recognize herself. Occasionally a reintroduction was warranted.

Although I embraced my new true color and looked forward to its growth, something unfortunate occurred: I had aged! And it had extremely little to do with hair color. As if overnight, life experience was showing up in deeper lines and darker sunspots. Wasn’t I just turning 50? Looking still like I was 35? How is it that I’m 54 years old now and look 50? What’s to blame for this inequitable ratio? COVID? Politics? Social unrest? I blame stress! Perhaps I only imagined I had looked 35 years old at 50 because I was living a lie in my phony hair color. Now was time to get real. I wasn’t a kid anymore.

Suddenly, it became painful to view myself in the mirror. The smallest blemish appeared outrageously magnified. Having believed I was not very vain, I couldn’t understand why I was so critical of myself. When I see peers my age or older, I can’t even see their aging. I don’t see wrinkles, but the twinkle in their eyes and the sparkle in their smiles. I feel the warmth in their character and the heart in their stories. These people are ever beautiful to me. My dad taught me that chronological age is just a number. We are only as old as we feel. I wasn’t feeling old at all, but I couldn’t help feeling like I looked old. So, I colored my hair purple. It wasn’t strategy. It was spontaneity. Possibly rebellion.

I was curious to try this mostly natural temporary coloring conditioner that I could do myself. It washes out over time, but I’ve become attached to my new hue, so I reapply it regularly. I added blue to create a color uniquely my own. My hair is softer than ever, but the truth is, I appreciate that it hasn’t fallen out. I don’t pretend purple hair does anything to make me look younger, unless by distraction. I just figured looking like a cute clown was more fun than looking like an old lady. I will continue to challenge aging on behalf of my fitness and am learning to accept my fading physical beauty. My confidence is anchored in knowing I can always be interesting! I may continue to decorate myself with tattoos. The advantage in doing this as we get older is tattoos are fresh whenever you get them. Plus, I realize a person can be adorable at any age. And if I can’t manage to “rock” adorable, at least I’ve learned to see beyond my wrinkles. Now when I look into the mirror, I gaze more deeply into my own eyes than I have ever done before. And there I am. Healthy, happy and simply grateful to be here.

vanity, hair, gray

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