As I Lay Dyeing

I suppose I should be writing about Craft or Career or something like that, but today I think I’ll talk about hair dye. When you Google “feminism hair dye” the top three hits are:

The Simpsons and Gray Hair as a Feminist Statement (
Should a Christian feminist color her hair? (
Feminism – SILVER: A State of Mind (

One website said 75% of American women color their hair, while in 1950 only 7% did. I could probably write seventeen different blogs about what those statistics mean to me (ageism, sexism, racism, feminism, ism-ism…all as they relate to hair dye), but I won’t force either of us to suffer through that. Suffice it to say, the men at Clairol probably had a little something to do with encouraging women to believe it was a sign of their freedom and independence to become hooked on a product that requires frequent re-application over many years.

To me, hair dye is the tip of the iceberg.

My grandmother had a story she used to tell to illustrate the slippery slope into moral turpitude, about a frog swimming in a glass bowl (for some reason I always pictured it swimming in this vintage Pyrex Flameware double-boiler):

In any case, the ignorant frog swims in happy oblivion as the evil forces around him turn the water temperature up one degree at a time (candy! billiards! alcohol! drugs! SEX!). By the time the frog realizes what has happened, he’s in boiling water. In my grandmother’s version of things, then, if I start dyeing my hair, the next thing you know I will have Maori tattoos running up the entire right side of my face, a bull-ring through my nose, vaginoplasty, and augmented double-D breasts.

She was right in a way. If everything is acceptable, then what? Chaos! (I am not ruling out the boob job, for example.)

These thoughts on shifting moral compasses remind me of this interview that Mike Wallace had with Bennett Cerf 11/30/57:

(NB: I highly recommend the entire Harry Ransom Center collection of Wallace interviews…especially if you have many hours to spare and like to watch people smoke.) Anyway, the fascinating thing about the video is how certain behaviors are culturally taken for granted: some things are masculine and fabulous (smoking, for one) and other things are vile trash (sexually explicit books). My grandmother was a big opponent of moral relativism. Hence the frog metaphor. It is a very clear-cut way to live. Right. Wrong. End of discussion.

But this silly hair-dye-decision now has a lifetime of my conflicting morals pressing in on me from every direction:

-DON’T MESS WITH MOTHER NATURE: I want to be “natural,” whatever the fuck that means. I want to be hairy and crazy like Janis Joplin. But then I think, “I drive a Prius, isn’t that enough?” (I had been led to believe that driving a Prius would cover a multitude of sins.) Why is my natural state no longer “good enough” for me? Who am I trying to please?

-CHEMICALS ARE EVIL: I don’t want nasty chemicals seeping into my scalp…right there by my brain…that just can’t be good for me. I live on planet earth, who am I kidding? I probably inhale more carcinogens when I clean the bathroom.

-VANITY VANITY ALL IS VANITY: I don’t want to care what other people think, but let’s not be ridiculous, I don’t want to look like an old bag either.

I spend very little time contemplating my appearance (despite what you might think), so when I am jarred into doing so, I am not very good at it. Everything about getting my hair dyed feels fraught with meaning. I just want to get the gray hair off the top of my head, damn it. It makes me feel old. And I guess now that I put it that way, this IS where I am going with this. Whether I am 25 or 85 I don’t ever have to FEEL old. I don’t care what it looks like to other people, but when I look in the mirror? Seeing those springs of lifeless, colorless hair (they’re not even the same texture! they are harbingers of death!) I feel my own mortality pressing down on me and that is not a reminder I need every time I wash my hands or brush my teeth.

But wait! Maybe I do need that reminder. The truth is, I AM getting closer to death every day, so maybe those gray hairs are there to say, “Hurry the fuck up!” Maybe that’s why I should leave them?

Fuck that. I want to beat death back with a stick.

4 thoughts on “As I Lay Dyeing

  1. I love this. For all my feminism, I do not plan on going gray gracefully. At all. In fact, I worry a bit that I’ll end up like one of my ancient great-Aunts, still clinging hopelessly to my too-dark hair at 80. But, damn it, I suffered through 16 years of hating my hair, and now that I like it (read-know how to make it not look like I stuck my finger in a light sockey) it’s the one part of me that I like. I really like. So every time a gray hair pops up, I pluck it out. And when they start popping in groups my very delightful hair guy Marlow is going to be getting a call.

  2. I noticed my first grey hair at 17, and have been getting steadily streakier ever since. Now, at 34, it’s taking over with a vengeance at my temples, around my face and I’m so torn. I love my natural color (a very dark brown) and this grey is changing everything about my looks, not just my hair color. My eyes don’t look as blue against a background of grey; my skin tone seems less “fair” and more “wan”, colors that used to be flattering aren’t any longer. But coloring it just doesn’t feel right, for me (plus I’m lazy and cheap, I’d never be able to keep up a good professional dye job). So I try to think of it as silver and not grey, to focus on the way it seems to sparkle like tinsel in the sun, to alter my makeup and clothing choices to flatter this changing me and not to feel too old before my time. But it’s hard. And if you decide to color? God, more power to you. I hope it looks and feels fabulous. A not insignificant part of me wishes I could just stop being stoic and stubborn and make the same choice.

  3. I always said I wouldn’t dye my hair, mostly because I’m way to lazy to go to the salon every six weeks. But as the years go by, I have more and more white hair. Not gray, white. My kids swear it looks blond (they lie). For now, it’s all clustered in a stripe of white like a skunk, which amuses me a great deal. We’ll see how long it is funny.

  4. Its interesting that u make a comment about ‘not wanting to care what people think’. At 53 I now honestly DO NOT care what people think. Certainly not when it comes to the colour of my hair. I mean, no, I won’t walk down the street naked etc.. of course to a great extent we are all deeply socialised. But I’m certainly not going to dye my hair because i’m worried that people will think…what?? That I look my age? No, I don’t care that much and it’s a fantastic feeling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s