To Dye or Not to Dye? That is the Question

Sep 30, 2012

Commentator Celia Brewer returned to western Kentucky eight years ago. But in another, completely different way, she has also gone back to her roots.

In an episode of the 50s sitcom The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden comes home to find his wife Alice chatting with her friend Trixie. Ralph, never one for the delicate touch, tries to compliment Trixie on her recent trip to the beauty parlor. “Your hairdo looks nice,” he says, “and the color is almost natural.”

“Natural” is sort of an elusive concept these days, especially on food labels. Regarding human hair, there are dozens of dyes on the market that mimic its many hues. There are also lots of colors NOT found in nature. My first weeks of teaching at Murray State have reminded me that young people, girls especially, like to experiment with outrageous colors on their crowning glory. More power to them! Later on in life, it will be difficult to carry this off.

No, what gets me is the pressure on us baby boomers to mask our gray hair, to present a front to the world that is—well—a pretense. The hair color companies count on this. In the myriad of boxes on supermarket shelves, Clairol and L’Oreal supply what is in great demand. Hair stylists do, too, catering to clients who prefer a professional job, at much greater cost.

I do understand the desire that many people have to stay young-looking, especially among women. The job market in particular and our culture in general are hard on older people, unlike other cultures where the elderly are respected and often revered for their wisdom. Try to imagine a stoic 75-year-old Japanese woman with, say, fuchsia hair.

As I watched Diane Sawyer covering the Democratic National Convention, I was struck by how blonde her hair continues to be. This is unusual for any woman born in 1945, even in Glasgow, Kentucky. Yes, I know the pressure to look young is greater for women on TV.  Just picture commentator James Carville, whose hair color is no longer even an issue. He is completely bald!

This double standard applies to us common folk as well.  Here in western Kentucky, for many couples in my generation, the man’s hair has turned gray—for those who still have hair—but time has stopped for their wives. These women in their 60s and 70s have not a single wisp of it. Brunettes, blondes and even redheads they remain. And it’s too late in life to claim that “only their hairdresser knows for sure.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that for a while I too colored my hair. It started after church one day in New Orleans, when a friend of mine touched the gray strands on my temples, among the dark auburn brown of my thick head of hair. “Why not get rid of these?” she suggested. Thus began a period where I either dyed my own hair, or had it done professionally. The battle of the roots had begun. Oh, the embarrassment when those gray shoots started sprouting, the compulsion to trade reality in for illusion—once again.

Finally, I decided that I had had enough—enough hassle, enough sham, not to mention the expense. It was actually a relief to embrace my total grayness, to go back to my feminist—uh—roots. No more vigilance in front of the bathroom mirror, worrying, “Is it time to color again?” Then “do I dye it myself, or pay the colorist to make it look fabulous?” Fabulous, yes, and fake.

Paul McCartney is on wife #3 now. His children by first wife Linda are in their 40s. Yet the tabloids show pictures of the former Beatle frolicking on some tropical beach, a 70-year-old man in a 70-year-old body—topped off by what is clearly a head of hair dyed brown. You would think this talented tunesmith, his lordship, would be proud of the long and winding road of his life’s journey—and would embrace his grayness. Memo to Sir Paul: Take a cue from Emmylou Harris. Her hair is silver-white, and she looks fabulous!

Celia Brewer is a writer who lives in Mayfield. She has been a big fan of Emmylou Harris for years.