When I am an Old Woman I Shall Dye My Hair Purple

Stella Fosse

Stella Fosse

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When I am an Old Woman I Shall Dye My Hair Purple

In early 2000 I flew to San Francisco with my newly adopted baby. At 46 and still jet lagged, I pushed her stroller through our Oakland neighborhood.

“Your granddaughter is beautiful,” said a woman on a park bench.

Granddaughter. Right. I went home and dyed my gray hair red.  It was my first experience, not of trying to look younger, but of trying not to be typecast by appearance.

In an enlightening Substack post, author Deborah Copaken (I love that she calls her blog ‘Ladyparts‘) recounts a story from a job-seeking friend:

“The hairdresser who was dying my hair was new and had never seen me before. As he was covering my gray he said something like ‘Maybe one day you’ll be comfortable with your gray hair and won’t have to get rid of it.’ I responded, ‘Clearly you’ve never been an older woman looking for a job.’”

I love that story because the last line is so versatile. Take out “job” and fill in the blank:

‘Clearly you’ve never been an older woman looking for a date.’

‘Clearly you’ve never been an older woman looking for a publisher.’

‘Clearly you’ve never been an older woman looking for a doctor who won’t dismiss your concerns.’

‘Clearly you’ve never been an older woman looking for a flipping salesclerk.’

I understand the impulse to go gray. It’s just easier. It seems authentic. At 68, most of my friends have stopped dying their hair (On the other hand, at 68 most of my friends are not flogging their debut novel).

What I don’t quite get is the self-righteousness that can seep through, as it did with that hairdresser. ‘Maybe one day you’ll be comfortable with your gray hair and won’t have to get rid of it?’ That’s not really the point. But again, what a versatile sentence. How about:

‘Maybe one day you’ll be comfortable with being discriminated against and won’t bother to push back.’

Grim. Or,

‘Maybe one day society will be comfortable with your gray hair and you won’t have to get rid of it.’

Now, that is something to aspire to, whether we dye our hair or not.

We each make our own choices about appearance. If I may indulge in some extreme cattiness, I bet the ladies who flaunt the gray hair on their heads don’t allow their gray chin hairs to grow. In my life I’ve only known one older woman who did: a bold dyke photographer in the Bay Area who sported a goatee and looked quite distinguished. Had she chosen to shave her chin, would anyone have questioned her feminist/anti-ageist credentials? Not likely.

If we want a social movement against stigmatizing women’s appearance, I don’t see why older women should be the sole torchbearers. If we are going to stop dying our hair, let’s all stop, young and old. Same with makeup: If older women should not wear it then neither should the young. Unless and until we all go natural, let’s not judge one another. And let’s not judge ourselves as we change course over the years.

My own choices about gray have evolved over time. For years I dyed my hair blond and enjoyed the obvious boost to my visibility. As a biologist, it struck me that being blond conveys a similar evolutionary advantage to women as the peacock’s tail gives to a male peacock: Both are elaborate displays of reproductive fitness with no functional value, rather like the concept of conspicuous consumption as a marker of social status. As I wrote in a blog back then, dying one’s hair blond is a game, a sort of make-believe, an exercise in semiotics. It was fun while it lasted.

Then several years ago I realized that bleaching and dying my hair had made it unhealthy. I could either go gray or go bald. I opted for gray. The change in how people reacted was noticeable, As I wrote at the time, there was a sense of loss combined with glee in eluding the male gaze. That was fun until I became invisible in the grocery line.

These days I take a middle path. When I feel like it, I use a colorizing conditioner; no coincidence, those are the days that people say they like my hair. I don’t bother with makeup now, but I use a rose-tinted skin cream. As I approach my seventies, this conscious ambiguity seems a stage in transition to a facial appearance that just won’t mesh with being blond.

At church on Easter Sunday, at an outdoor amphitheater under tall trees, I sat next to a physicist who uses her white hair as a blank slate, a color palette. No invisibility for that crone: she dyes her hair purple. It is a statement about visibility and transformation that only an older woman could make.

Brava! When my hair turns white, I look forward to joining her. I will be happy to push my grandchild’s stroller to the park to show off my purple hair. As we said in the Sixties (when we weren’t mouthing some foolishness about never trusting anyone over forty):

Let your freak flag fly.

4 Responses

  1. “If we want a social movement against stigmatizing women’s appearance, I don’t see why older women should be the sole torchbearers.” This is an excellent point, Stella! We should do whatever we want with our appearance. I understand the invisibility and marginalization all women our age experience. I suspect older men get a good bit of that too. We are living in a materialistic and shallow culture right now. We need to follow our hearts and make some noise about the richness of our lives. There is so much more to being a woman than childbearing.

    1. Hi Janna – I agree a thousand percent. Yes, let’s make some noise about the richness of our lives, and enjoy our beauty in all seasons. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. I’m 78 and my hair is gray. I colored it for years, then at some point just stopped. I had no idea what natural color my hair was at that point! It was time to take a look. Surprise: liked the gray! I called it “silver.” I called it “moonbeams.” Suddenly it fit me. We all have our own ways of dealing with our changing appearance — I’m not preaching that my way is best. It’s just my way.

    1. Hello Joan – I love the idea of silver hair as moonbeams! Thank you for that. I’ll try to conjure an equally fine name for purple locks, when the time comes.

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