Last week I met up with a friend who recently cut off all her hair. Although it was done in a spirit of activism and charity, she really likes her new short do, and will probably keep it for a while. Prior to cutting it off, she regularly colored it with henna, having given up chemical treatment a while back, and washed with vinegar and baking soda rather than store-bought shampoos and conditioners.
I’ve been reading about the industry behind birthing babies in the United States, and one of the concerns is unidentified and/or toxic chemicals in the products we take to be safe for baby and for ourselves. Since I plan to have children, this combination of reading and conversation made me start to reconsider my own approach.
My first grey hair appeared when I was 19. This was not entirely unanticipated, as my father had been grey as long as I could recall, and had told me that his first grey hair appeared when he was only 16. At first, I didn’t mind it, as it blended in with lighter hairs and made me feel vaguely distinguished. But as I advanced into my twenties, completing my masters degree and thinking about whether I wanted to start a family, the years went by and my grey overtook the occasional summer blond streak or other stray light hairs. I no longer felt summery or distinguished, merely as though I was aging beyond my years.
During this phase, I was staunchly anti-color, for myself. I was even proud that I had never colored my hair. But by age 32, I had to do something to counter the perception that I had, that other people would look at me and think me old. Not older, not more reliable or professional or sage. Just old. Although I was dating, I hadn’t found anyone serious, and didn’t have a steady boyfriend. It was time.
The first color I requested was blond highlights. This would effectively cover up the grey, and it sure did, more than anticipated, because I went to a beauty school, where they charged less for student work, students who did what they felt I was asking, instead of what was actually requested, and ended up with more than highlights. Now I pay over twice as much to have a trained professional attend to my hair; following the over-highlighting experience, I went to reddish, and darkish, and am now, four years later, back to attempting to maintain my relatively natural brown.
My talk yesterday with my friend, though, made me realize how much external pressure I feel to color. I want to remain sexually relevant, which I associate with attributes such as perky boobs, shiny and vibrant hair, and plump, wrinkle-free cheeks. In other words, the same image that is constantly presented through any and every media outlet.
The other pressure point is looking “professional.” This look can vary depending on context, but in my context, which typically requires a fairly conservative mode of dress, hair is also a concern. My daily routine includes shampoo, conditioner, some sort of styling element, and hair drying, when I’m working regularly in an office setting. Typically this work is overseas, so you may think that I would get a pass, but my environment has made me feel that I need to be that polished shiny person arriving fresh at the office each day. In addition to hair expenses, I have myriad wardrobe maintenance expenses too, involving suits and separates, garments I would never wear by choice on a daily basis.
While I have felt outnumbered in my professional context by men and women older, more degreed, and more experienced than myself, this has not made me inclined to grow out my grey. It has pushed me to be put-together, projecting a persona that inspires confidence.
Now that I’m finally considering conceiving, my concerns regarding exposure to unnamed chemicals is coming to the fore. I am forced to weigh the need to feel sexually relevant and professionally polished with the need to protect my health and the health of my future baby. As much as this seems like a no-brainer, I have not yet changed my routine, and have only begun to talk about how I might go about it. These other pressures are strong, more than I would like to admit, as a public health minded person in my personal and professional spheres, and more than I would like to admit as someone that wishes I could shun societal expectations of women.