How I Shunned the Anti-aging Tyranny and Learned to Embrace My Gray Hair

Despite all the unsolicited, well-meaning advice she gets, Nili Landesman refuses to submit to the false consciousness of the House of L’Oreal.

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A woman with gray hair (illustrative).
A woman with gray hair (illustrative).Credit: N/A

I was two weeks into my pilgrimage to India, and Margherita, my roommate in the ashram, couldn’t hold back anymore. “Forgive me for saying this,” she began in her lilting Italian accent, “but I think you should color over your gray.” Wow, I thought, not her too! What I blurted in response was, “Forget it, no way.” Noting my dismayed expression, she launched into an attempt at self-justification. “I know it doesn’t sound very Yogi or feminist or politically correct, but really, it would be good for you. It could make you look 10 years younger.”

Surrounded by so many American spiritual-seekers, as we were, especially of the middle-aged female variety, Margherita and I, the sole Mediterranean pair in the vicinity, had been amusing ourselves by poking fun at their fixation with political correctness. Still, her desire to improve me rubbed me the wrong way. I immediately ticked off my list of reasons for never dyeing one’s hair: 1. All the money you save by avoiding the mandatory periodic trips to the hairdresser; or, alternately, 2. Being spared the unholy mess and laughable results of do-it-yourself coloring at home; 3. Reveling in how healthy and strong your untreated hair is; 4. Not ever having to worry about your roots starting to show; 5. Having soldiers get up and offer you their seat on the bus.

The subject was dropped, though I could tell that Margherita continued to feel sorry for me, and I for her. But then I noticed that I was no longer so pleased to see myself in the pictures of the group that she posted on Facebook. Suddenly, the gray hair that had become a badge of rebellion and about which I felt a sense of mission was all I saw. Was it really making me so much less attractive?

Riding in a minibus that crept along the twisty mountain roads, doubt began to eat at me: Maybe I’d been too cavalier about the risks of being a true believer, as it were, and had gone over the edge into fanaticism?

What one needs in a time of crisis like this is a strong role model. And in our group in India there was one such woman, by the name of Karen. She must have been about 70. I took a photo of her for a souvenir, mainly because of her full head of white hair, magnificent as a snow-capped Himalayan peak. Whenever she was seated across from me, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was living proof of how divinely beauty and age can combine.

Karen, who seemed ageless, like both young girl and old woman at the same time, was the one who taught me to rethink the axiom that you’re supposed to aspire to look years younger than your age. Why should you want to look young when you clearly aren’t anymore (and you know it)? Why insist on staying on the playing field and competing when you have zero chance of winning from the get-go?

Let’s leave young womanhood to those of fewer years (and try to remember for a moment how many flaws we found in ourselves when we were their age), and sit back and relax in the section that’s reserved for us veterans. Okay, so men won’t find us that attractive – big deal. Is it better to let ourselves be caught in a trap or endless masochism? To contend with that ever-present anxiety that inevitably accompanies all the effort that is poured into maintaining ourselves and keeping up appearances? And why should we accept the insidious idea that old age is something to be ashamed of, a disgraceful condition that must be stopped by any and all means?

Illustration. Credit: Tal Granot

Any hairdressing guru will tell you that white brightens your appearance, and better than some shade of blond. And if it’s gray you want, then just go ahead and pick your shade – there’s a huge selection. But at the age of 50, I refuse to adopt the false consciousness of the House of L’Oreal. By the laws of karma, as I understand them, if in this incarnation I am not destined to work as a presenter on Israel Television, then the obligation to adopt the generic look of an older woman who strives to appear younger simply does not apply to me. Not long ago, on TV, I saw a former top model, a woman my age, showing off her flowing blond locks in a totally cringe-worthy act of cosmetic self-abuse. Needless to say, it firmly reinforced my beliefs.

As is the lot of devoted missionaries, my gospel falls on the deaf ears of all those who, like Margherita, only have my best interests at heart.

“It’s a shame for you to go around looking like some old auntie,” one of my yoga students says, shaking his head sadly.

“You have to get rid of it!” a caring relative opines without being asked.

“What an adorable grandma you make!,” an old acquaintance teases.

“You should at least get highlights,” advises a woman I know who, up until her own gray crossed some invisible line, comported herself like the high priestess of the natural look.

“Are you aware that you’re sending out the message that you’ve closed up shop?” warns a childhood friend.

All of these people who are so taken aback by my grayness have one thing in common: They are about my age or a little older. But who am I to cast aspersions? Until just a few years ago, I myself was one of those people who thought, “Why doesn’t she color her hair?” whenever I saw a woman in my state.

Ever since I’ve decided to go over to the other side, I’ve received enthusiastic support from people who really are still young, and who have yet to be infected with the anti-aging hysteria. The whole propaganda and brainwashing campaign seems to have eluded their radar. And though they like to take the credit for it, they weren’t the ones who invented the concept of MILF. At most, they came up with the branding. My mother, for one, was always tickled pink when cab drivers would ask if we were sisters (And by the way, cabbies have just one other trick up their sleeves: When you’re too young for them, they like to tell you that you look older than your age and expect you to take that as a compliment.)

My mother is in her 80s and would dearly love to stop coloring her hair, but in Morocco that’s what they did and she’s powerless to fight the tradition. When I was born, my head was covered in black fuzz and she was aghast to have such an ugly baby. But before long, a miracle occurred – the fuzz fell out and smooth blond hair grew in, leading my mother to say such flattering things as, “You would have passed the selection [at the concentration camps].” When I was a kid my mother did her utmost to preserve my blondness and implored me to use a special shampoo for the purpose, though it failed to live up to the manufacturer’s promises in this regard.

When I was a teenager, just to break her heart, I hennaed my hair red. For years, she mourned my lost blondness. For years, I kept on changing shades, until I hit a midlife crisis in my 40s and willfully subjected myself to applying peroxide, “just to light up your complexion.” Now that my mother’s eyesight is failing, my untamed gray hair looks blond to her, and she couldn’t be happier. We sit together watching the women of my age and of her age who appear on television. She lavishes praise on their look of frozen youth, the result of plenty of plastic surgery. I suspect she only does so because she likes to get a rise out of me.

A cousin on the Moroccan side of the family, who doesn’t hide her gray either, recently lamented about the nightmare that lurks around every corner of the job market for a woman who doesn’t look younger than her age. This idea was not surprising in the least; you hear about it on TV all the time. We are both well aware that we are the avant-garde and that our decision to stick to our natural color automatically evokes a desire to neutralize us. But bitterness and resentment make you ugly.

It’s better to rejoice, for example, at the sight of the Israeli sex therapist and TV presenter Anat Biran Frost, photographed alongside her gorgeous daughter for the Honigman catalog and looking a 1,000 times prettier than when we were young. Despite the abundance of gray in her fading blond tresses, no one would ever dare suggest that Frost has “closed up shop” (between us girls, it would not be such a bad thing to close up shop for a while and be spared the awful spectacle of a morning erection).

I know that in this selfie- and Instagram-obsessed day and age, it’s probably an utterly lost cause, but if somehow I have persuaded you to let yourself go gray, you will soon find that there’s no going back. Like the wise man says, You needn’t go all the way to India to discover, again and again, the beauty that is visible only to the eye that has become accustomed to seeing it. And in moments of grace, even on bad-hair days, even in Israel, I find myself attuned to this cosmic frequency and then see them everywhere: so many beautiful aging women, on the spectrum between me and my mother, each one in her own way and in her own style projecting the message that the important thing is not to be afraid – of wrinkles or of foolish men. And sometimes, when we pass one another – on the stairs, in the street, at the beach, in the crosswalk – we exchange a quick, little knowing smile, recognizing an ally.

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