I have never been a slave to fashion. I’m certain that anyone who knows me personally will attest to that! Growing up as a tomboy with a chunky body, along with braces and freckles, I knew trying to be a fashion symbol was a losing battle even when I was young. So instead of striving for a body image I could never fulfill, I mostly focused on my mind and imagination. Even more fortunate, I later found a man who loved me for who I was—not just how I looked or dressed.
So, I’ve pretty much considered myself beyond the shaming that so many women receive for not conforming to cultural or peer standards about beauty. But that has changed some lately. The current discredit seems to be coming from other pro-aging women who imply that if you are still coloring your hair then you are denying your age and afraid to get older. They also imply that unless you embrace your natural-gray-colored-hair you are contributing to the ageism problem in the world. Sorry? I don’t agree. From where I stand hair color has little to do with how a woman feels about getting older. I happen to believe, like with so many issues, it is actually our internal self-acceptance and attitude about ourselves (and about aging) that makes the real difference.
Of course, society has been doing its best to contain women and tell us how we should look, dress and act for thousands of years. That pressure to conform to outside ideals comes from our culture, from men, and yes, even other women. Everything from what women should wear, the amount of makeup we should or shouldn’t use, cosmetic surgery to change our facial features, size increases or decreases of certain parts of our bodies, and acceptable hair color, all fall within those guidelines. However, what we seldom consciously remember is that nearly all those ideals are put upon all of us by outsides sources. Even when we think we are being unique and rebellious by getting that tattoo, we are often just unconsciously conforming to a peer group, celebrity or media influence in order to be accepted.
When you think about it, most us in Western cultures claim to be horrified at how women and girls are subjected to barbaric body modification practices. Processes like foot binding in China (which was commonly practiced for over 1,000 years), neck stretching and even breast ironing to flatten the chests of young girls sounds repulsive. Even worse is a report done in 2014 by UNICEF that reports female circumcision is currently being practiced in 29 different countries in Africa and the Middle East.
But lest we think we are immune in western cultures to dramatic body modification, a thesis written by Jacqueline Steinberg in 2015 states, “Over 11.4 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the United States (in 2013), more than any other country and comprising almost half of the world total (American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery [ASAPS], 2013, p. 4). The most common cosmetic surgical procedure around the world and in the United States is breast augmentation.” Going further, the report says, “Cosmetic procedures on women have increased more than 471% since 1997 in the United States costing 12.4 billion dollars in 2013.” That’s a lot of money going towards living up to an externalized concept of beauty.
So what does going gray have to do with conforming to other people’s ideas of what makes us feel beautiful? When I first started reading reports from women who chose to let their gray hair grow out naturally, I was in complete support. Whenever anyone does something that they dislike and resent in order to live up to someone else’s standards, it is worth celebrating when they finally decide to say, “No more.” But just because that action might be highly beneficial for them, that doesn’t mean they now get to decide what works for everyone else.
Gray hair runs in my family. It is a mostly genetic expression of my DNA. If I had decided to never color my hair it would have been mostly silver by the time I was forty. The thing is, I don’t really care for that color. My skin color is rosy (remember the freckles?) and my color preferences lean toward earth and autumn colors. While I do own a few things that are black, most of my wardrobe is a mix of bright colors.
On the other hand, I know women who wear almost exclusively black with a touch of white. They are obviously drawn to that color and who am I to say they need to brighten it up? If or when they let their hair grow gray it fits them perfectly and often looks gorgeous. Suggesting they color their hair when it looks good to them would be as arrogant as them telling me what I should do with my hair color.
I also have the advantage of easily coloring my hair myself every couple of months. I don’t’ spend lots of money on any of my hair care (you might have noticed) and if it wasn’t also rather simple and uncomplicated, I might feel differently. It’s similar to getting a manicure and pedicure. If it starts getting complicated and too expensive, I will stop. But as long as it pleases me when I look in the mirror, and it fits within my lifestyle, why not? I’m not doing it (or not not doing it) for anyone else but myself.
But how does that fit with positive aging and am I contributing to ageism? I agree that ageism is a big problem in our country. No one should be denied a job or opportunities due to their age and be forced into looking younger against their will. Yet, isn’t the bigger issue one where all women (and some men too) are being forced to conform to a standard of youth and beauty by marketing companies (and other people) trying to sell us more and more products? As long as we allow outside influences to manipulate us by telling us what we need to do to be relevant, we will be chasing an unattainable solution for our entire lives.
Plus let us also consider how we perpetuate that unattainable image to those younger than us. The more we focus on exterior beauty—be it body image, clothing, or accessories—the more we pressure our children and young adults into believing they will only have worth, love, and value if they too “look good.” Doing that condemns them to a lifestyle where they will never, ever be enough.
In fact, maybe one of the best ways to counteract some of the prejudice and discrimination that people face as they age is for us to all stop focusing on external cues in the first place. How about we celebrate people who are happy, active and still contributing regardless of their age? How about we start valuing each other for the wisdom a person can share with the world, rather than how well they look for their age? How about we all start celebrating getting older instead of striving to meet the expectations of others? I don’t know about you but one of the best benefits of aging is the fact that I don’t need to satisfy other people’s needs about how I should look or behave—so why would we ever tie gray or colored hair to that equation?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all become slobs. I believe most of us want to look our best regardless of our age and do what we can with what we have. But I’d bet that the external judgments of others are a big part of the reason that so many people struggle with the thought of getting older. The SMART perspective is to celebrate and enjoy the journey of aging—no matter what color we choose for our hair, clothing, getting a tattoo, or even our toenails.
Okay, your turn. Do you color your hair or have you gone gray? Do you do either one because YOU want to or because you’ve felt pressure from the world around you? Do you ever feel the same pressure by how you dress? What would happen if you dressed or colored your hair any way you wanted to? Please share your thoughts on this in the comments below.