Rejecting Ageism, One Hair at a Time
In fighting ageism wherever we find it, let’s start with ourselves. If we eliminate ageism from our values, thoughts, and behaviors, we can be a powerful example to others and perhaps foment positive change in our larger world.
Discrimination occurs these days in insidious ways. We are judged by our skin color, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, height, occupation, socio-economic bracket, geographic locale, accent, vocabulary, level of education, whom we’ve married or whom we live with, and whether we have a partner at all. We are judged by our health problems and disabilities, our fashion sense, or its absence, by our grooming decisions, and by our age.
We are urged by the media, and perhaps even by people we know, to lift what sags, hold in what bulges, smooth what is wrinkled, cap what is chipped, bleach what is discolored, and fill in what is sparse. Society urges us to have more sex and use medications that carry powerful potential side effects if we can’t or don’t want to. Women are encouraged to wear spiky high heels to look more long-legged and sexy even at the risk of falls, foot damage or throwing our back or hips out of alignment; to get breast implants if less well-endowed; and to get breast reduction surgery if so busty as to appear “matronly.” Men are targeted for breast reduction, too, in the sad event of the dreaded “man-boobs.”
Those of us well over forty know gravity wins out every time. Breasts droop and buttocks fall. Throats tend to sag. Even much-sought thinness can bring problems with age as skin can become crepey and lizard like, especially for sun worshipers and outdoor sports enthusiasts.
Then the cutting and styling followed, and your wallet was lighter to the tune of $60 to $200 or more.
No matter how early it begins, half of us will be at least fifty percent gray by age fifty, according to a March 2009 story in The New York Times, “Unlocking the Secrets of Gray Hair,” by Tara Pope. A few lucky ones get virtually no noticeable gray and are often suspected of coloring theirs, especially men. If you are similar to other women, you began getting a few gray hairs in your teens or twenties and plucked them out until by thirty or so there were too many to pluck, so for most of your adult life, it’s likely you’ve colored it. At first you may have used tinted shampoos and temporary rinses, but finding smudges on pillows and towels was a bummer. Then you bought hair color products in the drug store, made a test patch for allergic response on your arm (once maybe, but doubtfully ever again) and wrestled with plastic gloves and squirt bottles of scary concoctions that could explode if you didn’t discard the unused contents right away, always washed down the drain into the water supply, of course. You were warned on the box that the mixture could discolor metal spoons and containers as well. Perhaps you wore a discolored hairline for days unless you scrubbed your skin raw to remove the stain.
Then many of you began your journey through small-town hairdressers with shops in their homes or pricy colorists in the trendy salons in cities where you worked or lived. As the gray increased, you dark-haired girls abandoned your efforts to keep your hair its natural color and went red or blonde. If that stopped looking natural, you may have opted for the two-process method where your whole head of hair was colored first and highlights added in second. Then the cutting and styling followed, and your wallet was lighter to the tune of $60 to $200 or more.
Why do we color our hair? Usually because we feel “old” if we don’t. The Times article helps disabuse us of the connection between growing old and going gray:
Notably, scientists haven’t found a link between signs of aging in hair and real aging in the body. A major study of 20,000 men and women in Copenhagen looked for any links between heart-disease mortality and physical signs of aging like gray hair, baldness and facial wrinkles. They found none. “People with premature graying of the hair don’t die any sooner than anybody else,” said Dr. Leo M. Cooney, professor and chief of geriatrics at Yale University School of Medicine. “I think the study shows that gray hair has something to with your genetics and very little to do with premature aging.”
We think we’ll look older if we “go gray,” but often this is not the case. Just look at Emmy Lou Harris and Joan Baez to counter that myth. Both singers are intelligent, sexy, poised, strong and amazingly gifted. Consider actors Diane Keaton, Helen Mirren, Toni Morrison, and Sharon Stone, also beautiful, talented, and powerful women. Then there are those older ladies we‘ve all known who opt for garish hair color and strong makeup to match, with darkened and frighteningly pencilled brows and gaudy false lashes. Think of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond from the 1950 classic film, “Sunset Boulevard” and Carol Burnett’s hilarious parody of that role. Get my point?
What causes anyone to make herself into a caricature of youth? The short answer is “ageism” with a healthy dose of “sexism” thrown in. Conventional wisdom says graying men look “distinguished” and “professional” while graying women look “old” and “frumpy.” Many an older woman finds herself divorced while her “distinguished” older ex finds a new, young honey. The other short answer is “denial.” If we subscribe to the belief that youth always trumps maturity, we will fight age tooth and nail (and roots) and go to any lengths to hold the natural aging process at bay. We may fool ourselves that we don’t look a day over thirty-five, but we rarely fool anyone else.
“Ageism,” according to the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, is, “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly.” Ageism says that women must color their gray hair, smooth their skin with expensive creams and treatments to minimize or disguise wrinkles and even subject themselves to expensive, potentially dangerous and frequently unsuccessful or very temporarily effective plastic surgery, including injecting harsh chemicals into their skin. Ageism insists we mustn’t let our true ages show or others will reject us. When we buy into it, ageism causes us to discriminate against ourselves, and others as well.
Eventually some women who’ve colored their gray decide, as I did, to find out what their “real” hair color is after decades of subjecting themselves to brush, foil, squirt bottle, and many a horrid smelling potion and parting with a lot of cash. If your hair is already blonde or light brown with lighter highlights, it isn’t so hard to transition to a short, chic style in gray. With the help of a good stylist, you go longer and longer between colorings, then stop it altogether and gradually over about six months all the colored hair will have disappeared. You can thank your parents for their genetic legacy and your hairdresser for a great cut and introducing you to products that enhance your gray. But let me say now that making such a decision is extremely personal, and you shouldn’t stop coloring your hair if it truly makes you feel better to do so. But for many women and men alike, that regular “must” becomes increasingly onerous, costly, and ineffective. Then we ask ourselves, what might it be like to stop?
Liberation from something as simple as hair coloring, should you decide going gray is right for you, can bring many benefits:
In fighting ageism wherever we find it, let’s start with ourselves. If we eliminate ageism from our values, thoughts, and behaviors, we can be a powerful example to others and perhaps foment positive change in our larger world. Your first step toward self-acceptance and a grounded realism that brings with it new freedoms could be as close as the hair on your head.
- Independence from frequent and expensive salon treatments
- More free time and more money in your pocket
- Protection from strong chemicals and their potential health and environmental impacts
- Reduced exposure to potential allergens
- Acceptance of yourself as you are and making the best of that rather than hiding it
- Assertiveness of yourself as vital and relevant, independent of your appearance
- Joy from letting go of the shallow values of too many of us and embracing life itself
- The ability to control your body more fully all by yourself
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"Rejecting Ageism, One Hair at a Time"
Dr. Shusta-Hochberg is a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in helping seniors with these issues, as well as treating other areas of professional focus including trauma and its aftermath and anxiety problems in people o...