Walt Whitman sang of his own armpits and sweet fat. What do mothers
sing about? We sing ceaselessly of our children, of solutions
and customs and patterns and problems. We throw suggestions at each
other, with or without disclaimers, hoping to feel another's approval.
Then we sing of ourselves and our vanities. When the conversation goes
on long enough, we ultimately sing of our appearance, refining the
discussion to the equivalent of armpits and sweet fat. Our vanities are
a matter of selection, and this is a glimpse at vanity on a small scale.
Daughter and granddaughter of beautiful, kempt women, I fall far short
of the standards they set regarding personal grooming. As an
adolescent, I played up my ill-adaptation to conventionally female ways as
a means toward self-definition; as an adult, I am a stranger to my
ancient makeup kit and ransack my closet daily to find clothes without
olive oil stains. I have chosen other ways to be vain.
A few years ago, strand by strand, my hair began to gray. At first I
was proud of them. To me they represented the trials I had struggled
through. They were the visible tokens of my common-enough journey as a
mother. My gray hairs came along with my Caesarean section scar, my
sleepless nights with newborns, my trips to the emergency room, my worry
and guilt over parenting mistakes. They came with the laugh lines at my
eyes. As I peered closer to the mirror to inspect them, I felt both
shocked that I could be old enough to have gray hairs and proud that I
had engaged life deeply enough to have earned them. Vain in its way, of
course, this particular pride was quite radical given my pedigree.
My mother, like her father before her, had gone gray so young that I
have no memory of her natural hair color. I see her leaning over the
bathtub, head upside down, surgical gloves on her hands, squirting dye
all over her scalp from the pointed beak of the plastic dispenser. As
the years fly away, the color is now black, now brown, now rusty red, now
wild orange, now back to auburn. Not for a millisecond would she have
considered going through the rest of her life with gray hair.
I grew up assuming that I would go gray by 20. But at 20 I
scorned the image of dangling myself over the bathtub, blood rushing to
my head, spreading acrid-smelling goop through my hair. Having read
Dorothy Dinnerstein, I respected the crone, tuned in to the wise woman,
honored the spinster and resented the patriarchal hegemony that
insisted on the value of youth and external beauty over that of the
soul. Naturally, the spinsters I had in mind all had gray hair.
For a few years I admired my gray hairs. Then, suddenly, the day before
a departure for summer vacation, I had my hair colored. As my son bopped
around the salon, the colorist spackled henna paste through my hair.
Under the heat lamp I nursed my child. Changing back to my clothes in
the dressing room, I felt giddy. The strands that had been gray now
winked a deep coppery red. The rest of my hair, usually brown, was ad
copy perfect: shiny, with a healthy, reddish, glow. To my eye, my hair
was beautiful, a gift to myself. As long as the red lasted (it washed
out in weeks), I carried my head like a treasure.
Recently I had my hair reddened again, and the uplift was the same.
Where does this satisfaction come from? I say that I like the way it
looks and leave it at that. Many women will say that masking their gray
brings their appearance in concert with their inner sense of self. Their
gray hair, they say, does not honestly represent the person they feel
they are. They want their feelings and their looks to match. But I
wonder about this inability to allow for divergencies between body and
soul. How odd it is to say that we feel younger than our hair! As if our
hair was not an integral part of us, and we have to show it who's boss
lest it betray us to the world! Do we actually feel younger when our
hair looks unaging? "When you look good, you feel good," say some. "When
you feel good, you look good," say others. Vanity is easy to spot, even
easier to ridicule, but difficult to explain.
There are of course women who skip the artifice. I know one woman with
a youthful, wrinkle-free face, bright brown eyes and a slim body made
lissome with yoga. She favors vivid red lipstick and layered clothing
patterned by silk screen and batik. What makes her deliberately
assembled appearance remarkable is her hair: white, wiry waves kink to
her shoulders. She wears it loose, or in a ponytail, or even in two
thin girlish braids beside her ears. Unfairly enough, this choice of
hers rankles me and many others who know her; we all fantasize about
dyeing her hair. She would look so much better, we murmur, if only her
hair were black, or strawberry blond, or platinum.
I know another woman, past 40, who wears her hair down to her waist.
Once it was brown; now it is streaked throughout with stiff gray
strands, and bands of gray cascade from her part, framing her face in
streaky steel. She has a beautiful face with pale blue eyes and wears
no makeup. Her suburban friends are advising her to dye her hair; her
urban circle says leave it alone. She says she knows she would look
better and younger, but declares that a new look "would not be me."
Indeed, there is something seemly and aesthetically pleasing about the
way her long, long hair makes its gradual way to total gray.
Acts of self-adornment, or the act of refusing to adorn, though
privately motivated, are public statements; the mirror speaks to us as
alter ego and as audience, both. But what is the source of our personal
vanity? Our individual histories, of course, and the tastes and
preferences we have cultivated because of those histories. Vanity is
certainly overdetermined, and perhaps universal.
Whichever way the impulse carries us, I like to believe that being
human and able to make choices about what we project to the world, we
all draw from a common, Whitmanesque well of vanity -- that what lures me
to reddish hair is what lures you to staying gray, and you to lipstick and
polish, and you to a perfectly wound scarf, and you to unshaved legs,
and you to eyebrows shaped by hot wax, and you to pierced eyebrows, and
you to bleached teeth ...