To Live and Dye

Aging gracefully without the gray

Shanti Bright Brien
Modern Women

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Mawmaw slaying in her purple jumpsuit circa 1990 (Photo, author’s)

My 93-year-old grandmother, Mawmaw, still dyes her hair. Even with her memory slipping away bit by bit, she has not let her hair go. I vow to do the same.

Mawmaw is a beautiful, stylish woman. Also reserved, stubborn, and a tad vain. At one of my latest visits to her small ranch-style home where she still lives alone, I wanted to snap a picture of her with my kids. She flapped her wrinkled hand at me, dismissing such a silly request. Oh no, I haven’t even done my hair, she said. We convinced her to allow just a couple of photos but she made us promise not to show any of our friends.

Mawmaw was a feminist before her time, although she wouldn’t call herself that. When she moved from Oklahoma to California as a young mom in the 1950s, she decided never to wear a dress again. She cut her hair short, ran her own business, did her own accounting, and didn’t take shit from my grandpa or anyone.

Mawmaw owned a hair salon, although it was more accurately called a “beauty shop,” or “the Shop” by the regulars. Mawmaw ran the Shop until her late 70s and ensured leagues of old ladies looked curled and set and beautiful for the week. Week after week. Year after year.

I grew up in the Shop, practically. Because my mom worked full time, Mawmaw often stepped in to drive me to the dentist or let me hang around until my mom could pick me up. I did my homework on my lap next to the ladies under the dryers, big plastic globes over their heads like clear helmets. I spent serious time at that tiny beauty shop in a mediocre strip mall in Modesto, watching women age gracefully, while they dyed and permed and laughed.

I remember the first time I got a perm at the Shop. It was a small room with a hostess stand as a check-in desk and a pony wall separating the two washing stations from the main event: three swiveling chairs in front of three large mirrors. The mirrors always had the latest pictures of a kid’s graduation or a grandkid’s baseball team, and my school picture on Mawmaw’s mirror told me how special I was.

I had always sat on a black leather booster seat to prop me up the to height of Rachel’s quick silver scissors. Rachel worked at the Shop for so many years, that she became somewhat of a second daughter to MawMaw. On the day of the perm, I graduated to the regular, grown-up chair. Rachel draped an apron around my neck, gently tucking a piece of white tissue paper around the neckline to catch runaway drips. She pulled up the tri-level tray which held the mountains of curlers organized by color, yellow for the small tight curls and purple for the larger round waves.

Perms were not for kids. This was woman’s business, caring about my appearance. The first shimmer of self-awareness about my looks, the social significance of my hair and face–even at ten or eleven–landed me in that chair. Mawmaw dyed and permed her hair and so did my mom. This is what women did and I felt jittery with excitement to be doing it too.

Rachel washed my hair, scrubbing my scalp, in the almost-painful way that feels so good. Back in the chair, she carefully combed my wet hair into sections. She created a grid, wrapping each piece of hair with a square of tissue before rolling it up in the colored curler.

With my whole head covered in curlers, she drenched it in chemicals so foul-smelling it burned my nose. It seemed like six hours I sat there, waiting for the chemicals to work their magic on my straight black hair. I watched the other women get washed, cut, curled, and set. Some came for a bang trim and many for perms. The room buzzed with warm greetings, “Welcome back, Dorothy, it’ll just be a minute” and the hum of blow dryers.

The Frizz Helmet (Photo, author’s)

Looking back, my perm looked like shit. It didn’t make my hair curly as much as frizzy. I didn’t know how to blow dry it or curl it to tame the mess. I let it grow out so that the straight hair sat flat against the top of my head and the rest exploded outward. Sort of a frizz helmet. And yet, it didn’t matter, I thought I looked great. I felt grown up, gussied up as Mawmaw would say, and I felt pretty.

At 51, I have grown out of perms but I have been dying my gray hair for nearly 20 years. I don’t even know how gray my hair would be, but I’m certain it would be closer to snow than salt and pepper. I would like to be the woman who lets the gray gradually happen; to be confident with a head of silver hair. Sometimes I think those women are morally better; people remark with admiration about how they are “growing old gracefully.”

Sometimes I feel like I am growing old clumsily. I am growing old recklessly. I’m clinging to some ridiculous long-gone youthfulness, screaming and spitting “Noooooooo!,” as the wrinkles and sagging skin and gray roots drag me into the wheelchair where I will shrivel and die.

Yet, I mostly feel graceful.

I like my long dark hair. I feel pretty when it’s fresh, shiny, and lying down on my back like a blanket. Most of us resist aging in some way. Often these attempts make us feel healthy, energetic, and yes, pretty. We work out and lift weights for bone density, we put on thick night cream to soften the wrinkles, we eat anti-oxidants, and drink green tea for what I’m not totally sure. I dye my hair to feel good about myself, just like I wear semi-stylish clothes, I pluck my eyebrows and ever-more-frequent chin hairs, and I put on some concealer and lipstick when I go out.

I do all of that and still, I consider myself a feminist. I see the conflict. The patriarchy demands women look to please the male gaze. I conform to the demands, at no small cost to me of countless hours and bags of money. And yet the beauty of being the age of a gray-haired woman is the wisdom.

Older women are wise people. We know the dangers of binaries, we see the damage caused by judgments and criticism. We know the world brims with contradictions. I have been strong and insecure, too giving and too needy, screaming with anger and hiding with fear. I am a dark-haired feminist.

A young writer, Dolly Alderton said, “There’s enough shame loaded on women from birth without us loading even more on ourselves for not being a good enough feminist.” Or for not “growing old gracefully” I would add.

Mawmaw and all of the gussied-up ladies at the Shop showed me how to do it gracefully, and how to do what makes us feel stylish and beautiful, hopefully sharing pictures of our grandkids and laughing off a particularly bad hair day together. So although I have retired from the perm, I’m not ashamed to say I will be dying my hair until the day I die.

Mawmaw has transitioned to light brown hair over the years. Maybe I’ll do that… (Photo, author’s)

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Shanti Bright Brien
Modern Women

Author of Almost Innocent. Lawyer to criminals, mother of mayhem, daughter of cowboys and Indians. Champion of equity and fairness.