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In Defense of My Gray Hair

My therapist told me not dyeing it was a sign of insecurity. But I've found it a source of strength.

“You’re insecure, that’s why. Do you know what you’d look like as a redhead? You’d be a knockout!” my third therapist (the behaviorist) told me, trying to get me to lose the gray. She said it was all about my insecurities, that I didn’t want to be competitive with other women, and that my salt and pepper hair announced to the world that I wasn’t in the game. I considered her counsel in the intervening two weeks.

What game, I wondered? The love game? The sex game? The youth game? I really did like the part about knockout. She thought I was pretty!

Curious that she had selected red for me, when my native color had been dark brown. I was 40 then, having sprouted my first grays in my late 20s. The Freudian’s name, unbelievable but true, was Dr. Love. “What should we call you?” my husband and I asked, at our first session, where we’d come to save our marriage. “Dr. Love,” Dr. Love said. All my other therapists/marriage counselors, before or since, have been on a first-name basis: Doris, Ina, Florence, Richard, Elaine, etc.

But this was my fourth session with Love, and my first one without Andy. There were certain things that were good for the therapy, like not bringing in coffee. And Love had decided after our introductory couple’s sessions that it would be good for the therapy if henceforth Andy and I were to see her separately, each of us on a biweekly basis.

Now, just us girls, she could go where so many of my hairdressers had gone before her: “Why don’t you color your hair?”

She couldn’t see me shrug, since I was lying on her fainting couch looking up at a Matisse dancer print, and Love was sitting behind me in very low light. This arrangement was good for the therapy. “I don’t know,” I said. “A lot of reasons.  My mother never dyed hers, and she’d make fun of women who did. There were a lot of hair rules in my family.”

“Your mother had been too insecure to dye her hair. She didn’t want to compete with your father’s girlfriends, and look what happened to her.” Dad split is what happened. But could you say their divorce was only about Mom’s gray? What about her 13 pregnancies? What about her very difficult childhood, and Dad’s?  What about World War II and the Depression and the ’60s Youthquake?

As it happens, Andy and I were experiencing our own private youthquake. We were just kids when we married, and now here we were, smack upside the 18-year itch. We both had acted out. It seemed I’d somehow gotten in the game even with my as-is hair, and been found out. My husband was bad, too, badder than me, and every bit as gray, though his gray was camouflaged, blending well with his native light brown, blue-eyed golden boy looks, and by his maleness. In fact, the man has never owned to being bad, or to a gray hair on his head. He says he’s just getting blonder with every passing year.

On the subway home, I thought how strange it was that my not dyeing was insecure, because I thought it was the opposite of insecure. Love was right, though, in a way. Part of the reason so little of my life has been lived under artificial coloring is that I’d be afraid to have people see I’d taken what seems to me to be an extreme, costly and inconvenient, sometimes scalp-searing measure to alter my looks.

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