I have never gotten high marks in fashion and beauty. If I had to grade myself, I'd say I usually hover around a B-. On special occasions, I can sometimes work my way up to an A-. It's what comes of working at home in my pajamas for so many decades; of having come of age in the time of Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival and Indian bedspreads as fashion statements, and of having a social life that rarely requires a dress.
There is something about the tyranny of what is expected of women that I resist, that makes me want to reject the pressure, the feelings of being on display and of being judged. There seems to be a kind of desperation in the desire to be ornamental, to be too put together, too pleasing, too slavish to the demands of fashion. And, truly, there are so many women who are better at this than I am, I'm happy just to sit this activity out.
Reading a fashion magazine recently at a doctor's office, I learned about Roberta Armani, niece of Giorgio, who said of her own wardrobe, "I try to be present but not ostentatious." At last, I thought, a kindred spirit!-never mind that we're present at vastly different places, she at Paris Fashion Week and I at the Salvation Army thrift store.
Yet I am not oblivious to the seductions of fashion or the allure of the beautiful. I look often at art and try to surround myself with as much of it as possible. When I gape at pictures of Michelle Obama's otherworldly wardrobe-which I do compulsively-I ask myself, "What would I wear to state dinners if my husband were president?"
Which brings me, of course, to my hair, and it's here where my shtick about not caring much about my appearance gives way to a boatload of vanity. The older I get, the more attention I pay to my hair, and faced with a scalp full of gray roots, the last thing I intend to do is let nature take her course. It was not always the case.
As a young teenager, in the thrall of Ms. Baez, my dark hair, like hers, hung down my back for years that stretched into decades. Mine was thick, a little wavy, and frizzy on humid days. Floating around somewhere in my memory are big pink plastic rollers and a jar of Dippity-doo. My hair wasn't curly in an interesting way, but nor was it frizzy in a way that made me want to shoot myself.
I can't remember getting my hair cut once in college and only recall a single visit to a cheap salon in my late twenties, for what must have been a trim. I belonged to a gym where I swam regularly and loved drying my hair there, with the boxy wall-mounted dryer in the locker room, so I could pull, brush, and straighten the hair with two hands and make it smoother than it had ever been.
When I quit that gym, I thought I might never again find such a compatible way to do my hair. At that point, it never occurred to me that I would one day spend money, fairly regularly, getting my hair done. Going to the beauty parlor. Dying it, for heaven's sake, doing exactly what my mother did before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem changed the game and told us we could go natural, we could examine our cervixes for fun and otherwise just be ourselves.
It still seems ridiculous to me to sit in a room with dozens of women soaking our heads in toxic chemicals so we can try to look like people we are not. I can't bear admitting to myself that I belong to an enormous cult whose only belief is that our fake hair color is essential to our well-being. When I met the stylish, sophisticated Anne Kreamer, who went gray and wrote a book about it, I grilled her about how to make the transition, in case I ever decide to. But still I resist for the simple reason that I do not want to be reminded of my age. There may come a day when that changes, but for now, I'm still with Ponce de Leon in Florida, in search of the Fountain of Youth.
Speaking of Florida. Speaking of the Fountain of Youth. On my last visit to Miami Beach, I was delighted that the apartment I'd rented was near a branch of the Beauty Schools of America, where students work on walk-in customers. It was ten dollars for a wash and blow dry! Ten bucks! And my hair looked terrific. Four days later, I went back for another fabulous blow out, but when I went to pay, the woman at the desk said, "Five dollars."
"But it was ten dollars last week."
"It's the Tuesday discount," she said. "Five dollars if you're a senior."
"A senior! I'm not a senior. How could you think I'm a senior?"
"Because it's Tuesday. All the seniors come on Tuesdays."
I dropped a ten-dollar bill on the counter and sprinted out of the place, churning excuses for how this could have happened-that I'd been mistaken for an old lady. Then I remembered what Anne Kreamer had told me a year before: "Even with hair color, no one thinks you're a kid."
A month later back home, I checked in with another hair guru. Google assured me in hundreds of photos that Joan Baez was still looking good, but now she had a short, styled, wispy gray cut, close to the scalp. In hundreds of photos, she was gray and gorgeous. Should I? Shouldn't I? Yes. No. Maybe. Not now. Not yet. Maybe never. Maybe soon. The answer, my friend, just might be blowing in the wind.
Elizabeth Benedict's essay is adapted from her new anthology, Me, My Hair and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession (Algonquin). She is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost, and editor of the New York Times bestseller, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. In recent months, she changed her mind about going gray.
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