I’ve had hundreds of passionate replies before on my blog or updates on Facebook, concerning international Peace Intention Experiments, revolutionary discoveries about the nature of our world, radical new ways to restructure our society, or even contentious issues about the state of modern medicine, but nothing has generated more response than when I announced to the world, via a new photo, that I’d stopped dyeing my hair.
Almost everyone to a man and woman liked the new image more than my dyed former self, but they also liked what it represented. Many saw it as an expression of power, a rebellion against the straitjacket of our current conception of beauty with its tyranny of youthful appearance at all costs.
I had not really thought of it as an act of defiance or me a poster girl for women of a certain age.
I did it because I want to live long enough to be around for grandchildren. I did it because I don’t want to die as my mother did, of a slow and painful cancer.
Several years ago, I began getting sinusitis and a clogged throat. I’d have long periods where I had clear my throat repeatedly before I spoke in person or on the radio. My voice would go after a few hours of workshops unless I kept it open with hot tea. As I partly make my living from speaking around the world, often for hours or days at a time, this was getting to be a big problem. On the road, I was often living on a diet of Fisherman’s Friends, Throat-Ease and Proctor’s Pinelyptus Pastilles, a beloved British institution for seasoned actors.
After consulting one allergy specialist, who concluded that the culprit was our dog, I paid a visit to Dr. Harald Gaier, one of the UK’s foremost alternative practitioners and naturopaths, who took one look at me and said, ‘What do you use to dye your hair?’
He had me tested for my allergic response to PPD (coal tar), the main carcinogen in dark hair dye, and resorcinol. When we got back the results, my allergic response was off the charts.
From the time I’d reluctantly begun covering stray grey hairs, I had always known that my hair-dye days were numbered. Dark hair dye (dark brown, black and red) causes cancer, no doubt about it, primarily leukemias, non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas and the like. My mother had died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As I was armed with this knowledge from my work with WDDTY, it would have been foolhardy of me to risk dying of the same disease. For years I’d even gone through elaborate rituals with my colorists, asking them to use brushes to keep the stuff off my scalp.
But the subtle effects of its slow-motion poisoning on my throat were a red alert to me that I had to stop right now.
For the next two and a half years after Dr. Gaier’s test results, I experimented with numerous henna based dyes, which either didn’t cover my roots, or turned my hair purple, and then opted for a temporary dye, without PPD and resorcinol, which had to be redone every few weeks. When I started getting an itchy head with this supposedly kinder, gentler version, I began to contemplate stopping altogether. I took the plunge after catching myself in the mirror and seeing a reflection of what looked like a man in a really bad toupee.
No role models
The problem was finding role models out there who don’t dye their hair, but still look chic, particularly women in the public eye. There was Joan Baez and Jamie Lee Curtis and Barbara Marx Hubbard and a few 20 year old models who deliberately dye their hair grey. There are almost no women in Hollywood or on television with grey hair. There are no women politicians in the US Congress who don’t use hair dye. Thank the Lord for French IMF head Christine Lagarde.
When I mentioned the very idea to many of my women friends in the consciousness movement, they shuddered. It’s so unfair, they told me. Men look distinguished with grey hair, they said. Women just look old. As one put it to me plaintively, ‘I can’t look old in California.’
I began scouring websites about grey makeovers, and looked at many ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. To my astonishment, every single one of the women who’d elected to stop dyeing looked better in the after picture. I thought of my aunt Evie. Evie had been a great Irish beauty with that amazing Celtic pitch-black hair and piercing blue eyes. She’d dyed her hair well into her fifties, and kept her hair black, pulled tautly into a bun. It was a hard look as she aged.
I didn’t see her for some years, until she was in her mid-60s, when she arrived in Florida for my father’s funeral. My jaw dropped when she arrived. She’d cut it short and it was an astonishing silver. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was luminous. She’d taken years off her age. She was beautiful again – in fact, as stunning as she had been when she was young.
I thought of my aunt Celia, from the Italian side of the family, very handsome and very dark, who’d kept up her hair dyeing until her late 60s and then stopped after her husband died. With her shock of white hair in a short pompadour, the wrinkles on her face disappeared. An Italian Barbara Stanwick had replaced the ageing, careworn face whose dark circles got accentuated against the black.
Nature’s color scheme
I thought of the handful of women I’d met who’d been brave enough to buck the trend and stop dyeing, and every single one of them said that virtually every day, they got compliments about their hair, as though they’ve been discovered as a rare and special find. This now occurs with me. People who haven’t seen me for a while say invariably, ‘What have you done to yourself? You look fabulous.’
The point is – I finally look like I’m supposed to look at my age, and that’s the shock of it. Nature has given my hair a wondrous palette of black and silver and white that works best now with my face. We don’t to see the miraculous subtlety of nature’s palette because we’ve determined that beauty is only about reproducing youth, not celebrating age. We don’t even know what older beauty looks like anymore.
The real point here is that conceptions of beauty are only a norm, a story, like any other story, that can change with the telling, if enough people are willing pass it on. Grey hair only looks old because we’ve decided dangerously, fatally, that it is.
As I’ve discovered with my own experience, grey is one of today’s important female issues for anyone over 40. Letting your hair be grey is refusing to conform to an image of beauty that could kill you.
Forget bra burning or breaking through glass ceilings. The most radical act of feminism you can do right now is just allowing those roots to grow in.