An article in which a pivotal moment is come upon, where an author realizes that aging might not be considered glamorous, but it isn’t something to fear or to hide…
by: Rosalind Kaplan
I’m at a writing conference, in an auditorium with a large group of people. Though I’m not nearly the oldest woman at the conference, I’m the only one in the room with gray hair. At sixty-two I’m not truly old, or at least I don’t feel old. My natural hair is a pale, shiny shade of gray that I prefer to call silver. I know that many of the other women here have naturally gray hair, but they’ve chosen to dye it.
Until a couple of years ago, I also colored my gray. In fact, I spent countless hours and piles of money in the salon. My colorist aimed at an in-between, highlighted shade, a sort of caramel that was supposed to both light up my fair complexion and camouflage my silver roots for as long as possible between touch-ups. My natural hair color in my youth was much darker, but that would never do at my age, any new growth would be way too obvious against that deep-brunette shade. My hair seemed to grow unreasonably fast. By the time I was in my mid-fifties, I had to touch up with temporary color between salon visits, which I scheduled every three weeks.
I went what I like to call “pandemic gray” — my ambivalence about coloring had been long-standing when COVID came along. I was fifty-nine and could no longer remember what shade of brown my hair had once been. It seemed like I’d been dyeing it forever, and it was a losing battle. The pandemic presented an opportunity to stop. Magazine and news articles on the topic appeared a few months into shelter-in-place orders, articles about all the women-of-a-certain-age who were growing out their gray locks while at home. I suppose it was either because trips to the salon were untenable or because in lockdown few people would see them during that awkward phase when several inches of gray or white root stood in stark contrast to rest of their dyed hair. Facebook groups for women undergoing this “transition” suddenly became popular. “Silver Sisters” and “Going Gray and Looking Great” gained scads of new members. There was power in numbers.
For me it was a non-decision. I would have had to color my hair at home, and I wasn’t up for doing that. It was too messy and my past attempts had never come out well. More importantly, who could be bothered with hair at a time like this? I was a physician working in a clinic that tested and cared for those COVID patients not sick enough to be hospitalized. I worked clad in full PPE (personal protective equipment), covered from head to toe: surgical cap, face shield, mask, gown, and gloves, rivulets of sweat pooling underneath. Nobody saw my hair, or my face, for that matter. At home my husband, who’d long been encouraging me to stop coloring, was the only person who saw me.
Nobody was looking and nobody cared. Everyone was too busy either fighting COVID or battling their own unique mix of fear and boredom. The mental energy I’d spent on my hair for much of my life suddenly seemed absurd.
As the terror of COVID morphed to an anxious long haul, my decision to stay with the gray was clinched by an article on Time Magazine’s website by a woman executive named Sally Susman. She wrote that she was embracing her gray in lockdown, a decision forged by the sorrow of the pandemic, a reminder of struggle, and a life transformed. This resonated with me. Going gray felt like more than a superficial choice. It represented a pivotal moment, a realization that aging might not be considered glamorous, but it wasn’t something to fear or to hide.
If the pandemic didn’t make me appreciate aging, I don’t know what would have. In the “‘before times” I would jokingly say, when someone complained about yet another birthday, “Aging is a bitch, but what’s the alternative?” With COVID raging, too many people were suddenly bumping up against that alternative. Getting older looked more and more like a privilege.
What is our obsession with youth in women? Why is it that in our society, men go gray, develop lines around their eyes, and we say they’re “distinguished,” while we describe aging women as “sagging” and “faded”? Why do we quip that men age like fine wine, while menopausal women evoke fairy-tale images of black-shrouded witches, hideous hags, and cackling crones casting evil spells? Who is so threatened by aging women that we must be relegated to the ranks of the evil and ugly?
In some cultures the crone is not a miserable, nasty old woman but an archetypal goddess of wisdom and inspiration, based on one aspect of the “all-encompassing mother goddess” revered by certain Paleolithic peoples.
Early Christians in Europe first accused certain women of “witchcraft,” possibly because they were threatened by the esteem in which pre-Christian society held some older women. In fact, the word “witch” was applied to a variety of women in medieval Europe and later in America. Single women, widows, midwives, female natural healers, and the “wise-women” who gave counsel to others were all accused of evildoing. The specifics of their crimes included casting spells to harm people, scheming with the devil, and performing lustful, depraved acts. What these disparate women seemed to share was the absence of strict control over their minds and bodies by men, particularly Christian men. Thus they were labeled “evil” and “dangerous.”
Even modern witches, those who practice the religion known as Wicca, are frequently misunderstood, believed to be agents of the underworld and practitioners of black magic. In reality, Wicca is an earth-based religion committed to a peaceful existence in harmony with nature and humanity, a far cry from an evil force.
Perhaps the threat of the aging woman in our current society lies in the knowledge and experience that women accrue throughout their lives, individually and collectively, when left to explore freely. The cycles of the moon and sun, management of fertility and birth, care of the sick and dying, are all traditionally in the purview of women. For men these processes may remain shrouded in mystery, while women, through life experience, gain understanding of body and spirit. If not reined in by patriarchy, seasoned women might become a threat. Rather than admit to women’s wisdom, society chooses to marginalize those who dare display it.
In the folklore with which Americans are most familiar, the ugly, frightening old hag-witch-crone is the only representation of women no longer of childbearing age. Children are indoctrinated into this view of older females from the time they hear their first fairy tale. Thus, the only way in which real-life aging women can redeem their image is to disguise themselves as younger women, who can claim the role of a fairy-tale princess awaiting her prince rather than that of a hideous hag. Hair dye, makeup, and youthful clothing become the costume that makes us acceptable to society and prevents our destruction.
If I buy into the idea that my natural aging turns me into an evil witch rather than a wise goddess, what message do I give the world? What message am I giving other women, especially the younger women around me, if I hide and deny my aging?
If aging is a privilege, then evidence of aging is desirable, a badge to be proudly displayed. Accepting my natural hair color is a little act of rebellion against a culture that fetishizes youth in women. I can choose to tell a different story, one of a wise, proud, silver-crowned Crone Goddess, rather than accept the stereotype of the ugly old hag.
It took a long time to grow out my hair. Six months passed before I had a few inches of consistently gray-white hair, the faded brown ends clearly demarcated. By the time the gray reached chin length, it was the spring of 2021, and there was a lull in the pandemic. I went to the salon and asked the stylist to cut it in a short, layered bob. No more dyed hair.
When I looked in the mirror after the haircut, I saw my own familiar face, now framed with thick, wavy silver hair, shinier than I’d expected. This was me, the way nature made me, and I was free from the tyranny of those frequent coloring sessions. It would take some getting used to, but I thought it looked pretty good.
True to what the media had been saying, other women joined me in eschewing hair dye. One of my close friends decided to give up coloring along with me and was pleased with her bright-white curls. A much younger friend told me that she liked my gray so much that she wanted her naturally light-brown hair dyed gray. She would have gone through with it, but her colorist told her that the amount of bleach needed would make her hair break.
But now here I am in 2023, and most of the older women around me have resumed coloring their hair, at war with their gray roots once again. Where are all my Silver Sisters? I’m disappointed to see that so many women have returned to their colorists but I understand it. COVID may not be gone, but it has been significantly tamed. Most people prefer to forget, to erase any evidence of the dire nature of the early pandemic and of the surreal life we lived, the masks and social distancing and toilet paper shortages. Who can blame them? And now that in-person business meetings and weddings and dinner parties have resumed, so has self-consciousness around appearance. We look to each other for clues, for validation. How am I supposed to look? What story should my appearance tell about me?
It takes great resolve for me to be the only gray-haired woman in the room. There are moments when I waver, thinking I’m crazy to show up as a hag-witch-crone. After all, the fear of gray is deeply ingrained in my psyche too, as much as I may intellectually reject that fear.
Still, I stand my gray ground. I can’t deny that my time on this earth, including the pandemic years, has changed me. Time has been an important teacher. I’m stronger and wiser than I was in my youth. My silver crown tells my new story, the Crone-Goddess story. If I repeat it over and over, perhaps more people will come to believe it. Maybe even I will someday.
Rosalind Kaplan has been published in several literary and medical journals, including Amarillo Bay, Annals of Internal Medicine, Another Chicago Magazine, Brandeis Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, El Portal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, HerSTRY, Ignatian Literary Magazine, Minerva Rising, Open Arts Forum, Prompted, a Philadelphia Stories Anthology, The Pulse Magazine, Signal Mountain Review, The Smart Set, Stonecoast Review, Sweet Tree, and Vagabond City. Her memoir Still Healing: A Doctor’s Notes on the Magic and Misery of a Life in Medicine was selected as the winner of the Minerva Rising 2022 memoir contest and is forthcoming in fall 2023. She is a physician and also teaches narrative medicine and medical memoir writing at Thomas Jefferson University/Sidney Kimmel Medical College. Dr. Kaplan is a 2020 graduate of Lesley University’s MFA in creative nonfiction, and she has attended a number of writing workshops. She lives with her husband, two rescue dogs, and has two grown children.