Don’t go changing to try and please me . . . Don’t change the color of your hair.”
Why would women stretch out on their backs with their hair floating behind them in vats of lye? Apparently, in the 1600s that was the price of beauty for fashionable women in Venice. It was what one did on the Rialto to bleach one’s hair into “golden” locks.
I mention this because my husband and I recently had “the talk.” There are lots of pandemic-fueled talks going on now in America, and while this one started in a jokey kind of way, with a slow burn, it quickly ignited. The accelerant was old-school ageism.
I realized we were talking about identity.
I asked him if he liked my hair, which has been growing in gray since I decided not to risk Covid-19 by going to a hair salon. (As businesses open, I realize this is now my personal choice.)
Yes, it is a loaded question from spouse A to spouse B. Of course, just by asking, I’m making his opinion of my appearance important. And it is. As an older, pretty traditional couple, that has been the way we roll. We tell each other if a sweater looks too worn or pants are too tight. We accept opinions on new shoes or eyeglasses. We have an actual agreement that we don’t say anything negative about each other’s appearance before we go out for the evening, but upon returning, we are allowed to say, “Burn that shirt.”
When I asked about my going gray, he said, “I like your hair dark.” Well, I liked it better when my hair was dark, too, but it can’t get dark unless I go to a salon, or color it at home, which is a project I am not taking on. Besides, why should I? Why was I hitched to a wagon that dragged me to a salon every eight weeks for a “touch-up”?
When I said I didn’t plan to change my hair, he said, “Well, OK, but I like it better the other way.”
“Well, OK,” I said, “I liked it better when you had wavy black curls and rippling muscles in your arms.” The double standard suddenly popped out in high relief. Why is it OK for him to have gray hair and not think that it diminishes him in any way, and I have to dye my hair in order to “improve” my appearance when I start to show signs of aging?
If the pandemic had not struck, confining us to home base and prohibiting socializing, I probably would have continued to color my hair indefinitely. But now? I’m done. Every eight weeks I’ll go to the theater instead, for the same money, should the theaters ever open again. Meanwhile, stuck in the house, I’m getting comfortable with the me in me. I’ve outgrown that woman with highlighted hair and ritualized applications of makeup.
While we’re at it, let’s burn the bra. I see my husband’s eyes scan my upper torso and I know what he’s thinking. I go for it: “I’ve decided not to wear a bra anymore.”
“I noticed,” he says. “Don’t you think your clothes look better when you wear a bra?”
“My clothes would look better on a mannequin with Barbie Doll measurements,” I say, “but I am an imperfect human woman, and bras are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to be pinched and wired into place anymore.” I mean, why don’t fat guys wear Spanx?
I know some men color their hair, but most don’t, whereas some 70 percent of American women color theirs. The self-improvement industry comprising hair coloring, makeup and dieting has been largely aimed at women. We have been all too willing to believe that we aren’t thin enough or pretty enough or sexy enough in our own skins. Especially as we get older, it’s big business to convince women to cover the evidence of aging by dyeing hair, applying more makeup and submitting to surgeries.
This is a very old story, but it has been made new again by the coronavirus, which reminds us what is important in our lives. In the age of masks, it is unmasking us.
When your partner asks what you think of her going without makeup, a bra or hair color, or he asks if he can forgo the haircut, there are only eight acceptable words to utter:
“I love you just the way you are.”
Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.