Why I dye my hair (and why I wish I didn't)

Yesterday I stopped at the Division of Motor Vehicles to get my Washington driver’s license switched over to an Alaska one. When I got to the “hair/eyes” portion of the evening’s festivities, I realized that I had to write “blond/green.” My last driver’s license photo was “brown/green.”

But that was nine years ago, before hairdressers prevailed upon me to star using lighter and lighter dyes. These covered the gray better, they said, especially since the dyes tended to “lift” (or something like that) prematurely from my type of hair.

It’s not that I have anything against blondes. I just don’t see myself as one.

I don’t have anything against gray hair, either – in theory.

As a young woman I always figured I’d just let nature take its course. My mother had hair of such a dark brown it looked black. Silver crept in slowly, and it was very attractive.

Yet when my own lighter-brown locks started to gray, I was surprised at the complicated emotions it caused. I’d seen how society at large wrote off women as they got “old,” i.e., were no longer Sweet Young Things. Remember the case of Christine Craft, the TV reporter who was fired for being “too old, too unattractive and not deferential enough to men”?

We have to be carefully taught

I didn’t want to play into that kind of nonsense. Yet I found I wasn’t ready to be gray, especially in the last five or six years. I think that’s because of an interesting paradox: The older I’ve gotten, the younger I have felt. (Although I do make funny noises when getting out of a deep chair.)

Additionally, the industry in which I’ve fallen is generally a young person’s game. Most of the PF writers listening to my talk at the Financial Blogger Conference were my daughter’s age or younger.

Would I get the same level of inclusion/attention if I were a gray-haired woman? Maybe. I like to think that the PF blogosphere is smart enough to look beyond the book’s binding and into its contents. But even the smartest of us have absorbed messages of women’s appearances determining their worth.

Sometimes the people who post comments on my MSN Money articles don’t agree with what I write. I can live with that. But what makes me head-bangingly furious is the people who criticize not the premise of the essay, not whether I supported my arguments or drew useful conclusions, but rather the photo that accompanies the column. A few examples:

  • “She is so fat and ugly.”
  • “The writer of this is a farm animal that has been in the feed bag a little too long and looks like a pig.”
  • “This writer hates…herself for being so ugly.”
  • “Donna, get a makeover.”

I wonder if these readers would ever think of posting comments like, “You know, people would take that Dave Ramsey guy more seriously if he’d do something about the male pattern baldness and wear just a touch of lipstick”?

I’m betting not.

Don’t give them any ammo

These comments hurt. Yes, they actually hurt my feelings. I know they shouldn’t, but they do. Worse, they remind me that even in the 21st century, the quickest and easiest way to dismiss a woman is to cut down her physical appearance.

Hillary Clinton was jeered at because of her ankles, which apparently don’t look the way some people think ankles should look. Talk-radio pundit Rush Limbaugh suggested that a photo of Nancy Pelosi would be one way to prevent pregnancy.

What does either woman’s physical appearance have to do with her ability or accomplishments? And why can powerful men remain powerful even if they aren’t exactly Adonises?

Limbaugh is a good example: rotund, gray-haired, balding and a former drug addict, he nonetheless has a huge following and had model-pretty lady friends before marrying for the fourth time. Donald Trump is florid and funny-haired, yet is frequently photographed with beautiful women. Plenty of people might consider Henry Kissinger unattractive, yet his leadership was not derided on the grounds that he opted not to have rhinoplasty or to wear contact lenses.

Thus part of me is insecure enough to think, “Don’t give anyone any reason not to dismiss you out of hand.” A potential audience member who looked at my photo could see “gray-haired woman” and interpret it as “someone who has nothing to say to me.”

Escaping the gaze

Is that playing into stereotypes? You bet. But until society changes the way it looks at women and aging – and at aging women – I inhabit an uneasy space. That’s the space between what I think is fair and what I know to be true. Dismayingly, frustratingly, oppressively true.

As I noted in a previous post, “Turning invisibility into stealth”:

“You grow up inside a body that is not your own but instead must be shaped and adorned according to media images. Your feelings don’t belong to you, either; women are trained to be attuned, always, to the desires of others. Your ability to rebel is limited: To buck the system means to risk losing social approval and thus the chance for love, family, advancement at work, the right to exist at all.

“Women have been subjected to the constant gaze for so long that we’ve become the agents of that power as well as the objects of it. We police ourselves. We watch our weight. We watch what we say. We watch TV to see how we’re supposed to look, what drinks we should order, which shoes we should buy, whether our eyelashes are thick enough and our ankles thin enough…

“We also watch what happens to other women when they challenge the status quo.

“By contrast, we’ll likely never watch Rush Limbaugh checking the mirror for flaws, or watch Henry Kissinger confess to Larry King that maybe he should have had his hair straightened.”

Women are still judged, at times harshly, for not meeting social standards of looks or comportment. Our brains and hearts don’t matter. Our abilities and accomplishments don’t truly signify. The families, friends and partners who think we’re swell just the way we are don’t matter as much as that constant fear of not measuring up. Of unworthiness.

At 55, I am weary of the performative nature of being female in the United States. But I find that even as I say, “What does it matter what I look like?” I worry that my rosacea is acting up, that my hair needs re-coloring, that my clothes aren’t flattering. I cannot escape the gaze for very long. Someone is always looking and judging. Sometimes that person is me.

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