When a woman grows out her grey hair, she most likely falls into one of two camps. The first is the woman who simply accepts the grey hair as it appears on her head, strand by strand. She likely lives her life with a natural, casual contentedness. She has realistic expectations about aging and accepts the grey as it comes. The second is the woman who has a devoted relationship with her colourist or L'Oreal #4, but has doubts about the time, energy and money she puts into covering her grey. She needs a solid reason to stop colouring her hair. When she does, the grey hair comes in from the roots, inch by inch.
I was the latter type of woman who, for over a decade, had the monthly appointment to cover my grey, but felt a low-level guilt every time I did. At 40, by all standards I had at least another 20 years before I even started to think about going grey. But I began to pay attention to why I felt the need to colour my hair and considered whether I might make a change.
There is a proverb that goes, "Grey hair is a crown of honour, earned by living the right kind of life." When I read this, it resonated with my lurking restlessness. If grey hair has value (a "crown" no less!), why was I covering it up -- and at great expense -- every four weeks? I decided to conduct a two-year experiment to grow out my grey hair. I planned to discover what this proverb meant through the experience of living life in grey hair. My hypothesis was that there is something to be gained -- not lost -- by going grey.
I thought it would be helpful to announce my decision to friends, family and Facebook. Inch-by-inchers generally take this step because this "sudden" (1/2 an inch per month) change in appearance can elicit the concern of others. Those close to me might have thought I was "letting myself go," as is so often associated with going grey. I didn't want them to worry, but I also didn't anticipate their reactions.
Some friends protested outright. I admired their honesty, but hoped this experiment would challenge their ideas, too. Some suggested that I was setting myself up to be unemployable (which is a strange way to perpetuate ageism -- to anticipate it and acquiesce). The most supportive response was, "You're so brave." My experiment prompted other women to re-evaluate why they colour their hair. Many, however, renewed their vows with their hair colour. "Till death do us part."
For the first time - and this was a monumental shift - I was excited to see my roots coming in.
The one response that gave me pause was from my youngest daughter who was worried that she would no longer be able to relate to me and would just think of me as old. It was disheartening to think that she would anticipate a widening generation gap and that hair colour could potentially change the dynamic of our relationship. I decided to risk it and hopefully discover another way to bridge the gap.
I tracked my "progress" month by month: the length of my roots, how I was feeling, the reactions of others and whether/how going grey changed my perception of the world around me.
There was, of course, the initial honeymoon phase. For the first time -- and this was a monumental shift -- I was excited to see my roots coming in. I was also seeing grey-haired people everywhere and felt a kinship with them.
I hit a lull from months six to nine. It sucked, to put it concisely. My roots were three or four inches long, and the colour hanging onto my hair was dull. It was also mid-winter. I looked bedraggled and I felt frustrated that I couldn't just "fix" it with a quick trip to the hair salon. In hindsight, that was a turning point, where I had to let go of the objective of looking young, which was a key goal of my "upkeep" up to that point.
It is, after all, what is marketed to women continually via the cosmetics industry. "Anti-aging" is so ingrained in us, that when we start to age, we think our body is betraying us instead of doing what is natural. I had to embrace the idea of looking older for no other reason than an expectancy of what might be gained. It was then that I started paying attention to the data in a new and positive way.
When we accept and appreciate aging, our eyes become attuned to a new depth of beauty.
At the end of the first year, I had a good idea of how grey my hair actually was. It was different than I imagined -- it turns out, roots don't tell the whole story. I have very white temples and a 20 per cent mix of grey in my natural colour of light brown. My white-haired friend, Pat, calls it a "smoky mist."
It was in the latter part of the experiment that the surface-level change started to have a soul-level effect. I confronted a question that kept coming up as a result of the experiment: How do we age? Women, in particular, seem to wrestle with this question. My best friend and I have had a 10-plus year lament, "Do we fight it or do we give up?" As we have been trained to see aging as the enemy, many of us do not make room to consider the benefits of aging.
Looking at my greying hair at least once a day, I stopped seeing it like I used to -- as a sign of defeat -- but more like acquiring a loyalty to my age. I started to accept the mantle of middle-aged maturity toward which this "crown" motivated me. It showed up mostly (surprisingly) in my relationships with other women. I became less inclined toward competitiveness. I had a new respect for the elderly and a sense of duty and compassion toward the young. It became a joy to let the young be young and to cheer them in their youthfulness rather than envy it, which is a much more effective way of relating to them than with hair colour.
Perhaps not everyone needs to go grey to experience this chrysalis, but I did. I found a new freedom, which I believe is a clue to the "right living" the proverb talked about -- the freedom to love others. I now look for ways to connect with others beyond appearance and am grateful for those who do the same with me. When we accept and appreciate aging, our eyes become attuned to a new depth of beauty.
The experiment is now complete. I have lived for just over two years with grey hair and have decided to keep it that way. I am delighted to say that I haven't just accepted this "crown," I'm proud of it as the symbol of freedom and the wisdom of aging. And my youngest daughter still hangs out with me! By uncovering my grey hair inch by inch, I made room for new and liberating discoveries. I have a feeling the lessons don't end here, as the grey hair keeps coming in, now strand by strand.
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