After a year of growing her hair out, and letting the gray come in, all salt and pepper save for a lock of white I thought was beautiful, Shelley did an about face.
I posted her progress back in August — See: Hair! (Or, The Joy Of Living Is Being Exactly What You Are). Since then the pressure on her has been relentless. Her fellow nurses alternately sneered, snipped at and pleaded with her to dye it again.
I tried my best to stay neutral and support her as she struggled with what to do. She loved the freedom of letting her elder flag fly, but suffered from the knowledge that her peers almost unanamously disapproved. I applauded her daring, and tried my best to encourage her to make up her own mind.
The last straw for Shelley came when we went to Florida. Before visiting Disney World, we joined the rest of the family in Ft. Lauderdale for my mother-in-law Ruth’s 80th birthday party. The following day, Ruth informed her daughter that someone had inquired as to whether Shelley was her sister. My wife was, understandably, aghast. (I’m skeptical, however. The following week, Ruth told her 55 year old son, who had also gone down for her birthday, the same thing: “A friend asked me whether you were my husband.” The result? Rick dyed his hair. I think Ruth’s an agent for Revlon.)
Now that Shelley has pulled the trigger on the hairspray, I find myself with two conflicting feelings. One is, I’m angry at a society that eschews the natural process of ageing; that sees growing older – or at least appearing to – as some kind of failure. That sends the message: I don’t want you to look your age because then, seeing you, I might feel my own. I hate this devaluing of elders. This dogma that your beauty and worth evaporate with your youth.
The end result is a generation of boomers who are desperately trying to not look like they’re trying to not look their age.
All this, however, is not half as disturbing to me as my own personal reaction to Shelley’s new look: I love it.
Now Ron, my shrink and mentor, would patiently explain to me that our equating looking young with looking good is due to the existential fact that ageing evokes in us thoughts of what inevitably follows.
“Live fast; die young; be a good looking corpse!” is his philosophy. (Between you and me, if Ron wasn’t also a genius and consistently and remarkably helpful, I would have had him committed long ago.)
Yet, there it is: I look at Shelley and find it a welcome relief from her gray. While I don’t like the idea of her dyeing her hair, I do like the reality. Why? Because looking at her I feel younger myself and therefore more vital? Perhaps. Hey — I may reject our ageist culture, but I’m not immune to it.
Sometimes I wonder whether attitudes about age today are like attitudes about race as they existed 50 years ago. I, for one, am old enough to recall a time when most blacks felt about their skin color the way we boomers now feel about our hair color. Back in 1960, America was definitely an “If you’re white, you’re alright; if you’re black, get back!” culture. The way we old feel now about ourselves, and how we envy, emulate and wish to look like the young, is eerily reminiscent of how so many blacks back then felt about themselves while they envied, emulated and wished to look white.
Then it was white people who were valued and rewarded. The very words “white” and “black” actually meant good and bad. A white lie was excusable. A black mark against you was not. Today we feel similarly about the words “young” and “old”. Old means tired, obsolete. Young means new, vital, cool. Oh, I know I may look old, but I’m actually young at heart you see. I mean, I’m not like those other, really old people. Please don’t lump me in with them!
Oh I know it may feel like a stretch to cop the attitude blacks did when they woke up, and to suggest we start shouting “Say it loud! I’m old and I’m proud!” But truth be told, I am old. And I am proud!
But if I feel so alone with this, like a voice in the wilderness, it’s also true that I haven’t found my own way out of the woods. I don’t like the fact I so like, and am so relieved by, the way Shelley looks now. But I do, and I am, and I’m not going to beat myself up about it. It’s where I’m at. Ageism may be the new racism, but when I look I see it’s deeply entrenched all around me, starting right inside these old bones.