Why going gray has been a healing part of the aging process for me
While for many, getting older is about taking the lessons you’ve learned and applying them to life, for me, getting older has been about the un-learning a lot of things. I was taught from a very early age that going gray is basically a curse. As a woman, you are meant to be thin, wrinkle-free, and conventionally attractive until the day you die. You’re basically supposed to spend your entire existence female Benjamin Button-ing. It’s exhausting.
One part of that cursed aging process, so I’d been taught, was that going gray is extremely bad. Your once-flowing locks are now spindly, white tendrils meant only for un-sexy little old ladies, witches, or some wretched variation of both. Just look at the female characters in Disney movies with gray or white hair: Ursula, Cruella De Vil, and Cinderella’s evil stepmother, to name a few.
It was all but embedded in me at a young age that not looking like a yellow-haired princess would make you the villain, even in your own story.
I didn’t just learn this from pop culture, though. As early as I can remember, my mother would dye her hair the minute a single gray appeared on her head. There was not a trip to the store that didn’t include picking up a box of Nice n’ Easy that would help her get back to red, once again. I just assumed that was a part of life: go gray, dye your hair, rinse, repeat, until you are once again, worthy of being a woman simply existing out in the world.
But in the past few years that I’ve been going gray, I haven’t ever felt the urge to dye it. At first I chalked it up to laziness; after all, who has the time to dye their own hair every few weeks? More recently, however, I realized that my decision to allow my hair to go gray was part of something bigger: it was a part of a journey towards self-acceptance.
I’ve survived some pretty huge personal traumas over the past decade, including two back-to-back emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically abusive relationships. The men that I aligned myself with all but reinforced everything I hated about myself, especially when it came to every single facet of my body. This included my very curly hair, which I was instructed by my first boyfriend on more than one occasion, to straighten.
Then one September morning, I woke up and thought to myself, “Enough.” After a night of texting a man who treated me poorly for the better part of a decade, I woke up that Saturday and I could feel in my bones that I’d reached my breaking point. I had agonized over him for so long, and suddenly it was clear I could spend the next 50 years of my life letting men like this one call my hair a “nest,” or I could let it go.
I decided from that day forward I would live in this body, not actively rally against it.
Granted, this took place after years of cognitive behavioral therapy, cutting out any and all toxic relationships and learning to let go of my own expectations of what I was “supposed” to be, not just for them, but myself as well. I had spent most of my life as a people-pleaser, far too often at the expense of my own happiness. I’d let people project their own insecurities onto me, so I could absorb it for them.
So to fight back against that, I trained my brain to stop me from doing things like sighing when I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw that day. I stopped reading magazines or looking at websites that I knew would make me feel bad. I even did a boudoir photoshoot to show myself I was not the person that bad boyfriends and the world around me wanted me to see for so long. It took a lot of rewiring to stop self-loathing dead in its tracks.
I long had it in my head that if you looked a certain way, someone’s feelings for you would follow suit. But, the fact of the matter was, I was with people who were always going to find something “wrong” with me and the desperation to simply try and be “enough” for someone grew tiresome. My first boyfriend was big on “if”s, most notable he’d say “you’d be a lot cuter if you were blonde,” or “if you had straight hair.”
If I’d only learned to walk away sooner.
The thing is: that very body that was criticized was the one that would stand tall and walk away from these negative forces. And that includes my gray hair. Those traumas—in addition to just getting older—probably helped turn my hair this color. (In fact, science has all but confirmed that.) So when I look at my hair, I see someone who persevered and has the battle scars to prove it. Trauma paved a road to where I am now and surviving it makes all those insecurities feel like a thing of the past. Dyeing my hair would only feel like erasing what I’ve endured, which would also, in a sense, erase the person I’ve become.
Truthfully, I don’t long for the days of being a perfectly brunette 20-something, because that girl made some terrible decisions. I’d rather spend my time getting to know this 30-something, who finally feels at home in her mind and body, and that includes her grays.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse and need help, you can call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) to speak to a trained counselor.