“Fabulous hair!” That came from a neighbor I barely knew while I was out walking our Airedale Gracie through our neighborhood lined in old live oaks, their bent branches arching the street like the protective arms of old crones. Her hair was short, straight, and unnaturally blonde, and she was a little older than me, with a determined look on her face as she strode past carrying a tall cup of Starbucks. I just shook my head. This had been happening ever since I started letting it go gray.
I do not have fabulous hair. I have unmanageable Jewish hair with waves in all the wrong places that tends to frizz in humid Houston, where I live. A hairbrush or blow dryer just makes it worse, so I resort to getting out of the shower and raking it back with my hands, then letting it fall where it falls, which is often in my face.
I used to dye my hair back when I was a covered Hassidic woman, even though I had to keep it hidden at all times. I would clip it short so it wouldn’t be a nuisance under the scarves and wigs I wore day and night, then I avoided the mirror except when I was wearing my very-expensive wig, as if that way I would only see who I was supposed to be.
I used to take a strand out at either temple and blend it into the wig hair to help make the hairline look more natural, which wasn’t immodest exposure, technically, since you couldn’t tell. This also helped to anchor the wig. But my temples started to gray in my late twenties, so that eventually any hair that crept out, intentional or otherwise, blew the wig disguise and looked pretty obviously exposed against the dark sleek wig. So I dyed my hair. For modesty.
When I finally left the Hassidim after thirty adult years among them, hair was part of my new freedom. Now I could saunter into salons where three people would descend on me at once and surround me with enticing mirrors, expensive hair products wafting in the air. A shampoo meant languorous head massage, hot towels around my shoulders. To allow perfect strangers, even men, to touch me, to indulge without guilt in such beauty, such luxury! I had my hair washed, conditioned, styled, streaked and tamed before I drifted out the door blinking in the sunlight, still unused to the feel of wind on my scalp.
But still no one ever said, “Fabulous hair!”
One night in bed, my new lover was stroking my hair, and I was thinking how it was a good thing the salon blends the dye with moisturizers so it didn’t make my hair brittle. Then, she suggested I stop dying it.
I sat up. I hadn’t seen my natural color in years, but solid white appeared at the roots if I missed an appointment. “You don’t understand how bad it would be!” I said. I put out my hand as if to take in us, our great spontaneous vitality. At forty-eight, I was just starting to live. “I don’t want to look old now!” I said.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “You keep such a natural diet, then you pay people to put harsh chemicals on your head.” She raised herself on her elbow. “What are you afraid of?” Maybe she thought since I’d turned my life upside down to escape a different society’s expectations, the prospect of walking around with unfashionably gray hair in this one wouldn’t be daunting. “Gray isn’t old,” she said. “It’s just gray. Besides, it’s beautiful.”
At first my hair grew out brown with gray and white streaks on the sides, not the solid white I’d expected, except for one pretty dramatic swath that framed half my face. The pattern kept changing, and was unlike anything a stylist could have made with foils and bottles. The girlfriend loved it. Late at night, she stroked my head and described the changes in a whisper as if witness to something vital emerging.
My hair grew thicker, softer. The frizz battle didn’t go away. I started to look like my mother.
Then comments started, a small but steady percentage from Jewish women who had also felt compelled to soften, color, and straighten their hair into a non-“ethnic” age-defying generic norm. “What did you do to your hair?” a perfect stranger would say in the grocery in exactly the same envious tone as, “Where did you get those shoes?”
At first, I was flattered, if a little mystified, but then I saw the flicker of fear in her eyes. This wasn’t about my hair. It was about her. To her, I looked like I had ripped off my safety harness and was jumping right off that cliff called Middle Age with a defiant whoop. It looked like she suddenly realized she’s next in line.
Friends, acquaintances, strangers. Even though there’s now a clear trend toward flaunting the gray (the girlfriend tends to be ahead of the curve) the comments haven’t stopped. Some sidle up and say, “What did you do to it?” or even “How could you?” Others murmur, “I could never…” with the same look of terrified fascination I have when watching people do something like ski jumping, which I’d do in a glorious heartbeat if it were perfectly safe. And if I could do it beautifully.
I love that my answer to “What did you do to it?” is always “Absolutely nothing!” It’s also good that the comments can come when I’m at my scruffiest, a reminder that it really isn’t about me. The proof: every single one of the comments, every time, comes from a middle-aged woman who dyes her hair.