I’ve always known that it was might fate—I would go gray young. Growing up, no one ever officially came down with the sentence, I gathered the evidence from my mother’s coloring rituals: a robe spattered with ammonium drips, the brown paste at her crown as she defrosted dinner, the basement bathroom dedicated to the activity.
My future in black in white. It came across as a decree, rather than an option, in the furtive way female family members would admit it, away from their husbands: “Once you start, you can’t go back” “I prefer to call it ‘frosting’, makes me feel like a cake!” These asides, cagey, coy, or earnest, bespeak some communal knowledge: 1.) many women do color their hair—“color” not “dye” because no one wants to be “dead,” and 2.) the trompe l’oeil is permanent. Fudging your age with color means you are “of a certain age” and you can’t go back.
But does gray mean you are “of a certain age’? Since we do not collectively gray, at say, 35, gray does not communicate that we have moved past a fixed age: gray does not betray a number. Rather, it does convey that one has started the process of aging earlier: you are the bruised peach in the bunch, you have passed ripe, you’ve begun to sour sooner.
As forecasted, the fog rolled in around my sixteenth birthday. Further defined and fuller in volume since then, others began to notice the streak around 23. I know how many of them there are (21 last count), I know how to style my hair to hide them (or did until recently). I can project when the contrast level will shift from gray to white (32).
Going gray early forces you to address aging, and then the cultural forces at work in making you feel older, far sooner than actual middle-age. As the sage (and obviously, gray) Sontag noticed, aging is “mainly an ordeal of the imagination—a moral disease, a pathology” in Western society, especially for women. Case in point: Gabrielle Union’s recent commercial trying to sell my demographic wrinkle cream. In a show of hands, most of my female friends already use some sort of anti-aging product.
Apart from the biological wear-and-tear we will all address, melanin’s cruel abandonment of hair follicles pushes you into a maelstrom of tensions: Will I be a crusader by not coloring my hair? Could I justify coloring it until others around me begin to gray? Is the anxiety from aging itself, or the unmerited quality of the graying—I am only 24. If I do color my hair, at what point would I begin?
Folks, it’s not just a sensitive subject because of the anxieties gray will signify, namely age, but also the gray-ee may not have resolved how they want to express the gray—as pride, as denial, as fashion, or as I have plainly tried to play it, as Sontag devotee-ism.
For your convenience: The Double-Standard of Aging.