My first gray hair turned up when I was a sophomore in college — twenty years old and full of sass and gumption. No way I was going to let anyone see THAT nonsense. I headed to the salon and promptly covered up my defect with fifty bucks worth of highlights and lowlights, glad I escaped a dangerously close marring of my youthful image.
After a few years of salon visits, the grays were multiplying and my “career” as a student teacher didn’t exactly provide the means to fund my self-preservation project, so off to Walgreen’s I went to find a box of hair color to restore my dark curls at a fraction of the cost of salon color.
In the beginning, I wrapped myself in a color cape every eight weeks or so, humming along to Counting Crows and Pearl Jam in my Marquette apartment, watching the timer tick for thirty minutes before rinsing myself back to the security of 5C Brilliant Brunette.
Ahh. That’s better.
Time passed. I grew older. I got a teaching job. I got married. I had three babies by cesarean and a hip surgery in eight years. I gained and lost hundreds of pounds. The grays were abundant.
When did I stop being young?
What happened to my sass and gumption?
And whose is that mom-bod in the mirror?
I’d never felt so confused, so out of control of my body, my life. I didn’t know how to get rid of the elasticized tummy from carrying three huge babies or the new spots showing up on my skin on the regular. There was no way to hide all my new blemishes and defects, the loss of youthfulness, the deepest insecurities I’d ever known.
But the grays– the grays, I could hide. So box color and box color back-ups lined the top shelf of the bathroom closet like neatly-arranged soldiers. Box color kept me safe.
Until it didn’t anymore. When I was thirty-four, I looked in the mirror and wondered how I would look if I let those grays grow in. Would they have their own curl pattern and texture? Would they be beautifully silver like my grandma Lenore’s? Would I look old, or still like almost-middle-aged me?
I looked at my body with its lumps and bumps and imperfections and promised myself that if I could get to THAT NUMBER on the scale, maybe I’d let myself try on the grays, just for feel.
A few months later, I reached to the back of the top bathroom closet shelf and found it was empty. Had I not replenished my stash?
I looked again at my reflection, at the silver flecks around my crown. I lifted my hair to the top of my head and noticed how much of the gray was concentrated at my temples, just like my dad‘s gray was.
I stared at my body. My full face. The lumps and bumps still there. I knew the dismal number on the scale. I remembered my promise to myself.
And then I broke it.
I closed the bathroom closet, pulled my hair into a high ponytail, and walked out the door.
I’m thirty-seven now. It’s been two years since I visited the box color aisle at Walgreen’s. Two years of silver strands filling in between my dark curls, adding texture and dimension to my hair.
I’ve received a lot of comments about my changing appearance these past years. One friend calls the silver accents my crown. One friend told me she will never be brave enough to try it. One person repeatedly hollers at me, asking why the hell I’d want to look like an old lady.
But I don’t, see. I dont look like an old lady. I look like me. I’m thirty-seven years old, and for the first time in decades, I look like myself.
Yesterday, I visited the salon for my annual pre-Christmas trim. My stylist carefully cut, scrunched and diffused my curls, then swiveled my chair so I faced the mirror.
Finally, I said with assurance.
The longest grays are the full length of my hair. Some of them are indeed strange, wiry curls, adding quirkiness to my appearance. They fit, I think. They fit with the lumps and bumps, the scars on my belly and my hip, my weird knees and angular nose. The whole strange and unique package that is me –that is everyone.
Isn’t this just how it goes?
Pain precedes relief.
Losing precedes finding.
Emptiness precedes fullness. Emptiness of spirit. Emptiness of self. Emptiness of the top shelf. Ultimately, it all led to this day where oh my gosh, it has happened — I am FULL. I am FILLED. I am OKAY.
I am okay with this body. This hair. The things in and the things out of my control.
What I once saw as defects are just accents. I don’t have to hide or change or be influenced by the opinion of any man.
Is this how freedom feels?
Maybe you have a thing, too. A thing in your closet. A box that keeps you fake-safe.
Maybe there’s a voice hollering in your ear that you should be a certain way.
Maybe the voice is your own.
Maybe a promise you made to yourself is asking to be broken.
Maybe today is your day to look in the mirror and claim fullness for yourself.
If so, I hope you see me standing behind you. I’m there, with my lumps and bumps, with silver strands of hair reflecting light.
And I hope you hear me saying, You can.
Maybe even today, you can.