What do you call a demographic that defies logic? A demographic that should, by all rights grow when in fact it is shrinking? I am a Baby Boomer. I encounter men and women of my generation at the store, the bank, the park, and even at my job. But when I look at my peers, I am usually the only gray-haired lady in sight.
Somewhere between the ages of 45 and 50 my hair went gray. It is neither a steel gray nor the beautiful white of my grandmother. My hair is reminiscent of a wild bunny, or perhaps a woodrat. Dusty, yet soft and lovable. Well, that’s how I see it anyway. Teenagers, work, money worries, family troubles—who is to say what wrung the color out of my hair? The point is it happens—to everyone—eventually.
So why am I the only gray haired lady of my generation? This just doesn’t make sense to me. What happened to all the hippies, the natural food freaks, the “live off the land” types? Did they suddenly wake up one day and say, I won’t ingest harmful chemicals in my food. But my hair, now that’s a different story? Pour it on!
I’m so oblivious to my condition that it takes a major event to bring it to my attention. I recently attended a diversity training. Our presenter was an African-American doctoral candidate in a room full of white educators. He challenged us to describe ourselves in terms of race and culture. Several participants described themselves in terms of race, gender, and national origin. Some threw in political beliefs. One lady asked, “Is it significant that I described myself as middle-aged?” From there our presenter embarked on a discussion of age asking questions about the acceptance of gray hair and wrinkles in our society. I quickly scanned the room of 120 participants to discover that among the few gray-haired teachers, I alone, was a woman.
I’m proud of my gray hairs. I earned every one of them! I look upon gray hair as a badge of honor, a visual representation of the wisdom I have gained over the years. But, as our presenter pointed out, ours is a culture of youth and any indicator of age such as gray hair or wrinkles is masked or better yet, eradicated.
In May, I attended a ‘Day of Beauty’ sponsored by The Menkes Clinic with my 86 year-old mother and my 27 year-old daughter. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it sounded like a fun girls’ day out. Mom has always taken care of her skin. Moisturizers, sunblock and floppy hats were staples in Mom’s arsenal against the sun. But 86 years take their toll. I have been a bit more laissez-faire with my skin care routine. At 55 years old, I have laugh lines, crow’s feet, and sagging eyelids. My daughter is a field biologist and spends long hours outdoors. She uses heavy-duty sunblock, covers her hair with a bandana and protects her eyes with polarized sunglasses. But still, hours of sun exposure leave their mark. Three generations of women entered a fantasy world that day, where tight faced representatives with perfectly shaped busts hawked their wares promising plumper lips, smoother faces, and youthful bodies. Those poor salesladies must have been horrified when they saw us walk in the door.
We listened politely to their sales pitches, sampled their dainty hors d’oevres, and afterward marveled that we had naively attended a plastic surgery patient recruitment effort. I have wrinkles, age spots, and gray hair. So what? When did these things become so distasteful that it was necessary to use modern medicine to mask them?
Medicine has morphed from healing the afflicted to afflicting the well-heeled with the desire to drink from the fountain of youth. And hair dye is the gateway drug to an unquenchable lust for youth. People age. Skin sags, hair turns gray, joints creak. Age is a liability in our society.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Remember when elders were sought out for their wisdom; when neighborhoods reflected the age diversity within a community; when elderly neighbors were invited to speak at school to share fascinating tales rooted in history? When did we begin to reject the wisdom of our elders, to closet them away in assisted living facilities? What happened to multigenerational neighborhoods and the friendships they produced?
If you are old enough to remember the ad of a woman running through a field, hair tossed by the wind with the voice over ‘Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure,’ then you are old enough to have gray hair like me. Abbreviate your visits to the hairdresser and let’s celebrate our grayness as a symbol of hard work, wisdom, and a life well-lived.