In my 50s, after many satisfying years as a brunette I have unwittingly discovered that I'm a blonde -- a dark blonde, that is -- but nevertheless a blonde.
You might ask, "How do you discover your hair color? Isn't it a given?"
But up until last week, only my hairdresser knew for sure.
I'm lucky. The woman who has done my hair for many years comes to my house to cut and color my tresses. The last time, after she left, I discovered a box in my trash that said "dark blonde." Who would have ever guessed?
I knew my hair was way lighter than it ever used to be (it shows less gray that way), but I never would have called it "blonde." And maybe that's because it's not really -- it's just what Wella calls the color and somehow the dark-blonde dye turns my graying black-brown hair light brown.
I'm not the only middle-aged person unsure of their hair color. Even men, so often thought much less vain than women, aren't always aware of their real vital stats. For anyone past a certain age, self perception can stay fixed in time, not changing with age. My brother-in-law didn't realize he was gray until one day I teased him about his silver locks.
"I'm gray?" he asked in all seriousness. "I thought I'm blonde."
Now, the two of us realize how much we have in common, and we laugh together about how we're both hot-looking blondes -- not.
Look at yourself
The controversy about my hair color began way before middle age. I started to gray early, and by my late 20s I had many silver streaks. By 30 I was surprised to hear someone describe me as the woman with gray frosting.
Sometimes it takes an outsider or a mirror to drive reality home. My house has a normal share of mirrors -- getting ready to go out, I like to check my total look from head to toe. So getting undressed at night, it's not unusual for me to catch a quick glimpse of my naked body in the mirror. For all my years on this planet, I don't look bad.
But, again it's all a matter of how I look at myself -- not bad until I got to see my reflection close up and in multiple, not so complimentary, angles. This past weekend I stayed at my brother-in-law's. The bathroom in his condo includes mirrors at several levels, making self-delusion impossible. Suddenly I looked like I could use some toning up.
I am what I am
Same body, same hair -- just different perspectives; and what's the truth? When it comes to appearance, it's subjective.
Some attributes, at least for me, are fixed, and gender is one. But even there insight comes into play. As I get older, my voice, very deep to begin with, becomes deeper -- so deep that, beginning in my 40s, on the phone people who don't know me ask, "Can I help you, sir?"
I used to correct them and explain that I'm a woman, but I got tired of explaining. One day when I was helping my husband order computer parts for his computer-networking business, the not-so-perceptive or diplomatic customer service representative asked, "Sir, where do you want me to send your package?"
For some reason that day I let her know she was wrong. "I have a deep voice, but I'm a woman," I answered.
"No you're not," she declared with total confidence.
"Believe me: If you could see me in person, you could tell."
Well I can't be sure about my hair color, and some days my body looks better than others, but there is one thing that I'm sure about -- I'm a woman, a fact not open to interpretation that doesn't change with age.
But you can't underestimate the power of self-labeling. And now that I've joined the ranks of Cameron Diaz and Charlize Theron, I'm ready to have some fun.
(This essay first appeared on www.Newsworks.org)