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As I write this I am sitting under a hooded dryer, 10 minutes into a 40 minute process involving 2 steps and 3 chemical mixtures to achieve one result: hide my gray hair. To be a successful magician I have to do this every 4 weeks and I am not alone; I am a hairstylist and all but a handful of the color clients where I work come in to get rid of their grays. In fact according to Professional Consultants and Resources’ 2012 research Americans spend $756 million to color annually—as a beauty professional, I can’t say I mind.
I started coloring my hair when I was 13 and have never thought much of it. In my mid-twenties, my want became a need due to the little crop of silver that had sprouted on the top of my head. Again I didn’t think much of it and went about coloring with the same fun and creativity as I had for over a decade, until about two months ago.
My life started getting pretty hectic at the end of August 2013. Classes started and the summer lull at work came to an end. My mom’s 60th birthday was coming up and my 33rd was 5 days later. I held off coloring my hair until the end of the month because I wanted the color to be fresh for our birthdays. But things got hectic and it never happened. Then I pushed it a little further because I was going on vacation and wanted it to be fresh for that, but things were crazy and I never got a chance. Before I knew it, 2 months had gone by! Looking at the top of my head, I had so much more gray than I realized. And then it hit me: I don’t know what my hair looks like; I don’t know how I look—naturally. That really messed with my head. I toyed with the idea of letting my hair grow out to see what I look like in my natural state. In a way it was kind of exciting. But could I do it? No, obviously not or else I would be sitting somewhere else right now. I thought and thought, constantly checking out other woman’s hair color. I had thoughts like, “She colors, and she doesn’t look too high maintenance,” and “She doesn’t color and she looks really good.” But ultimately, it came down to looking at gray haired people and asking, do I want to look like them. The answer, for me, was no.
Recently, many women have decided to give up coloring their hair—this emboldened my hemming and hawing about my own color. Less chemicals on your skin, less maintenance and an “I’m beautiful, accept me for who I really am” attitude that seems empowering. People have been coloring their hair for millennia; the cult of youth is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians used henna, and American woman began to color their hair late in the first half of the 20th century when hairdressers started working with caustic chemicals. A quick Internet search shows two distinct points of view: tips on how to be a silver fox and tips on the best ways to hide the ugly, wiry truth. It’s great that we have so many choices, but what are the consequences of this choice?
Apart from social pressure, there is professional pressure to look young. Even in my own hair debate I wondered if a hair stylist should have gray hair. Could it be done? In a world where our personal brand is increasingly more important, and people are staying in the workforce longer, both men and woman feel added pressure to artificially turn back the clock. This is an especially important thing to think about for people returning to school as many of us are entering our second careers and will be competing for jobs against traditional students that are a decade or more younger than we are. We need to look hip and contemporary without looking like we raided a Millenial’s closet—a tricky balance.
What I learned from my great hair crisis of 2013, as I now call it, is that what’s truly important is my ability to be confident and comfortable in my own skin. And right now, part that confidence comes in a bottle, and that’s okay.