Friday, January 18, 2008
Just in time to walk the annual New Year’s gauntlet of Self Improvement, I’ve realized my dark hair is decisively going gray. This is not an exceptional thing to do in mid-life, of course – but I’m learning it is exceptional for women. The numbers are startling: 3 out of every 5 American women dye their hair. That’s up enormously from 1950, when only about 7% of American women dipped themselves in dye. What is going on?
If Jane Austen were chronicling 21st century life, she’d say it was “a truth universally acknowledged” that graying women are considered “drab,” and graying men, “distinguished.” More than half the women in the U.S. are spending hundreds, even thousands, of dollars every year to disguise the signs of experience, which adds sexiness to men and detracts it from women. Quick – name some men who are “silver foxes,” and there are plenty of Paul Newmans, Morgan Freemans and George Clooneys. For women, there’s Emmilou Harris, Toni Morrison, .... hmmm.
My friend Elizabeth, whose sunny disposition could turn a pile of poo into chocolate mousse, instructively tosses her silver-streaked hair and says, “I’m not going gray; I’m going platinum, baby!” I hold that mantra in mind when I see all the compensation work women must do if they are “brave enough” to “let themselves go gray” – like having their colors re-done, wearing more makeup, and getting expensive haircuts meant to counteract this defiant display of female aging.
The objectifying light of physical perfection is always trained more brutally on women. A recent explosion of articles and books for women on “to dye or not to dye” is the modern iteration of Hamlet’s existential dilemma, and while it’s depressing that so much attention is focused on hair, it illuminates Americans’ discomfort with women of experience. For women, all gray is labeled “pre-mature” gray, making maturity itself an enemy of femininity. Why?
Picture the Republican presidential hopefuls; every male head is silvering, except maybe for that huckster, Huckabee. But heaven forbid our first female candidate Hillary Clinton reveal anything but a pricey rainbow of blonde streaks, even though her entire platform is built on her claim to years of hard work and experience. She can’t afford to look it, though, any more than Margaret Thatcher could, with her shellacked chestnut helmet. Maybe what really triggered Hillary Clinton’s tears in New Hampshire was the second half of the question the woman in the audience asked: “Who does your hair every morning?” That a potential world leader must spend any time at all thinking about hair – much less investing in that souffle of blonde ambition – well, it just shows how much Americans still struggle to reconcile our ideas of women as decorative with our hopes for women as leaders.
Why do we expect women to look unscathed, undistinguished, by work? How does this allow us to discredit and ignore much of the work most women do? Hillary Clinton aside, consider this anecdote: A few weeks ago, in the rush of Christmas shopping, I found myself in a discount department store late at night, standing in a long line of exhausted shoppers – all female. At the cash register, there was a flowery display of related items – a coffee mug, a journal, bath supplies – whose theme was: “For Women Who Do Too Much.” After bleakly surveying these goods for several minutes, the woman in front of me turned and said to the rest of us, “Gee – any guesses why no one’s making stuff for men who do too much?” The laughter that followed was, well ... unsettling. But maybe unsettling is just the thing. A key reason there’s only one woman in the primaries is that while American women have fought successfully for more opportunities, this new work has just gotten piled on top of the old work – the unpaid work of keeping families in gifts and clothing, the emotional work of making holidays special, the relationship work of being pleasing to others. Very few women, still, are able to manage these demands while pursuing public leadership. Perhaps you know men who are starting to share this unpaid work – and in the best sense we may be entering “unsettling” times. We’ll know we’re on more equitable ground when women, along with men, are made distinguished, not drab, from the work they do inside and outside the home, and when one half the population isn’t expected to disguise the effects of noble labors with makeup, cosmetic surgery, and hair dye.
I’m not advocating a revival of that creepy 1950’s slogan, “Does she or doesn’t she?” to judge women who dye their hair, but as the poet Muriel Rukeyser said, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Let’s dare to be honest about what we do, and who we are. Let’s reveal that smart women – like smart men – don’t use their hair to succeed, we use our heads. If we want to make it to the top of the charts, it is definitely time to go platinum.