Stretch marks & silver streaks

I found my first gray hair when I was 22. I was knee-deep in trauma and stress at the time, and I remember that I was inspecting the dark circles under my eyes when I saw it: a silver coil, right in the middle of my part. Graying early in life is hereditary, I’ve heard, and I have a memory of my Papa telling me once that his hair had started going white before he could legally vote. I wasn’t anywhere near ready at that time to think about aging gracefully, so I yanked that hair out without so much as a second thought.

I spent most Saturdays mornings of my mid-twenties sitting on the porch in Liberia with a handheld mirror and a pair of tweezers.  I’d comb my fingers through my hair and pluck out each silver strand I saw by the root, tossing it to ground. Even though I was half a world from home, where people couldn’t care less what color my hair was, I had been so indoctrinated by our youth-obsessed American culture, so wrapped up in my own vanity, that I wasted literal hours of my life pulling out hairs that would only grow back in a few weeks. Years later, when I’d settled back into my life stateside, I ditched the tweezers for hair dye, hundreds of dollars of deep brown that would cover–or at least mute–the shimmering silver that seemed to be multiplying all over my head.

Then, one day last year, I saw a picture of a woman. She was wearing the most perfect red lipstick and tortoiseshell glasses, dressed in head-to-toe black–and her hair was nearly totally white, with a few chunky streaks of peppered gray throughout. She was beautiful. She was young, and stylish, and happy, and free. And I looked at her picture, and I said out loud:“I want that.”

See, as women, we’ve been given this unwritten code with all the ways we ought to make ourselves acceptable or even desirable to a society that visually consumes us. We live in a culture that is very, very good at telling us what other people’s definition of beauty is, but also at making sure we know we could never attain it without help. Wear this dress–it’s tight, but not too revealing. Use this makeup–it covers your flaws but still looks natural. Get contacts–you look so much better without your glasses. Dye your hair–wouldn’t want to look old, now would you? You have such a pretty face–lose some weight, and the rest of you will be pretty, too.

So when I saw this woman’s photograph, I think the thing that threw me most was how her whole look defied any sort of societal standard of what beauty was supposed to be. Her young, hip, happy vibe seemed so totally incongruent with the color of her hair, because when we as a culture think about going gray, we think about getting old, about vitamin supplements and walkers, not red lipstick and funky glasses. But she didn’t care about the status quo; she didn’t care about ascribing to that unwritten code. She was living her life in the way and the look that she wanted to, and her joy in doing was an act of resistance.

So four months ago, just after my 35th birthday, I made the decision to stop coloring my hair. Full stop. And though I have quite a bit of growth to go before my hair is as stunningly silver as the women I see featured on Grombre (new favorite Insta account, by the way), I have to say: I am loving it. I’m loving the freedom that comes without trying to find the time and money for a hairdresser’s appointment. I’m loving the way my husband looks at me with a smile and tells me he really likes my hair. I’m loving the curiosity that arises when I try to figure out what my silver-streak pattern is going to be, whether my temples or crown will go first. I love knowing that I’m honoring my body’s natural aging process and accepting where I find myself on that spectrum. I love the humility being fostered in me when I remember that growing older is a privilege denied to so many. Mostly, I love knowing my silver tells my story, just like every stretch mark on my belly or scar on my arms or wrinkle around my eyes.

Human beings wear the memories of the lives we’ve lived in our bones and our flesh. If I were to lift my shirt a bit, you’d see squiggles of varying shades that tell a story years of disordered eating and too-fast-too-soon weight gain after the death of my father. They tell of a seven and a half pound baby who lived in my womb for forty weeks, of an unplanned c-section after 58 hours of labor. The lines around my eyes and the circles under them pay homage to how I squint when I laugh–and I laugh often–and how I had insomnia once for over a year before I finally made the decision to have my anxiety disorder medicated. The creases in my brow are a tribute to the years I spent worried about money, about having a place to live, about feeling like my heart was in pieces all over the globe and I didn’t know when I’d ever feel whole again. And my gray hairs; they tell a story, too. A story of a bloodline of silver-haired Scots, a story of multiple losses and early heartbreak and an inner child who feels she was forced to grow up so soon. And so when I think about all this–the beauty and the mess of the life I have lived, the scars and stories and memories, the times I thought I would never get through and the sheer miracle of who I am today–why in the world would I want to hide that? Why would I want so much of me covered up? Why would I want to dull or mute huge pieces of myself that are screaming out to be remembered, to be handled with care and dignity, to be honored and shown off to the world?

So this is about gray hair, and yet it also has nothing at all to do with gray hair. It’s so much more. It’s joy in being me, right here, right now, as I am in this moment. It’s rebellion and resistance against a world that wants to tell me how much or how little it thinks I’m worth based on my physical appearance alone. It’s remembering where I came from, and remembering I have so much further to go. It’s gratitude for my body and what it’s brought me through. It’s self-care and self-compassion and healing and wholeness. It’s finding beauty in the silver streaks and stretch marks–and the long, gentle exhale of my body as it breathes its relief and its gratitude back at me.

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