Now You See Her – Now You Don’t
It was not the threat of cancer that made me stop dyeing my hair. Sure, I saw those studies, but no, it was nothing that sensible. I would read articles by women proudly going gray and think, You go for it, ladies — not my thing. I was into that conspicuously false display of reproductive fitness we create when we dye our gray hair blonde (see my earlier post, Blonde at 65 or The Tale of the Peacock).
But I paid attention when women wrote that their hair became healthier when they stopped coloring. Increasingly, my hair was everywhere. It clogged the vacuum. I pulled handfuls from my hairbrush. The day finally came when I decided better gray than bald, and told to my partner if he wanted a blonde it was time to trade me in. He is still here, and by now, most of the blonde has landed on the stylist’s floor.
After hearing friends preach the joys of invisibility, it was startling to turn that corner and become part of the woodwork. To fade, quite literally, into the background. To watch the eyes of men glance across me without pausing, as if I were cloaked in magic. There was a sense of loss mixed with glee at escaping the male gaze.
So now I am retraining myself to see us, we gray haired ladies, differently. One weekday I stood in the ladies’ locker room at the gym, surrounded by gray haired women talking about their dogs, and caught myself thinking, How cute they are. I was infantilizing these women just as society does. Then I glanced in the mirror and saw that I was just one more gray-haired lady. We were in bathing suits headed for the pool, where a woman half our age led us in aqua fitness, all of us running clockwise in the water and creating a great current. Then at her direction we all turned and ran against the flow. Fifty women in the pool, joined by just one gray-haired man with glasses.
The instructor knew her audience, and her playlist was Frankie Valle songs and Beatles tunes. It was just before Valentine’s Day and she asked for requests: love songs and breakup songs. We stood in rows, some of us singing along, lunging against the water with the gray-haired man in our midst. Somebody asked for Nancy Sinatra, and when she came on, fifty strong alto voices echoed across the water: “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” The gray-haired man startled like a rabbit, turned his head this way and that, smiled nervously. He was surrounded by a crowd of gray-haired women he suddenly saw as if we were an angry mob. The tables turned for just an instant. Women spend so much of our lives with that nervousness: careful where we walk at night, shining a light into the back seat before we unlock our cars, pulling the living room curtains at dusk. I am not proud to say that I was grimly amused to watch a man worry about women, just for a moment.
Gray haired women act boldly, create brilliantly, sing boisterously. Hair dye did not grant us those traits. To be our same vivid selves, but not look the part, is like flying under radar. But the cloak of invisibility slips sometimes when we wish it would not. A few weeks ago, an older man I know socially began to act differently toward me. He told me, uninvited, about his sex life, got right in my face when he talked with me, took every opportunity to touch my arm, followed me almost through a Ladies’ Room door. It was eerily familiar, the kind of experience I thought I had escaped forever, an echo of the ugliness of youth. Bizarre and unexpected, it evoked vulnerable memories. I had to remind myself that I was safe, and a grownup, as I set new boundaries with this overly entitled man. Here was a reminder that we are free but only conditionally, even as older women.
Invisibility in our older years is a two-edged sword of freedom and loss, but visibility is a two-edged sword as well. Women want to be seen when we want to be seen. We want to exert our sexual agency and not be viewed as prey. We want to walk this world strong and free, with the power to be sexual on our own terms. We should have had that power every day of our lives, but we never came close until now. And it is up to us to do everything we can to safeguard that agency for our daughters and granddaughters, throughout their lives.
To be a sexy older woman is to claim our freedom, to live in our bodies, imperfectly, but as close to perfection as we will know in this lifetime.