I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized most American women of a certain age dye their hair. I was a guest at a Unitarian church, sitting in the back pew. Scanning the room, I realized I’d never seen so many middle-aged gray-haired women. Huh. Did I miss a memo stating that graying women must become Unitarians? No … a lightening clap of understanding broke across my brow. It was simply that Unitarian women — this group, anyway — were less likely to dye their hair. That truth revealed an even more shocking one. Most women in the US DO dye their hair rather than go gray naturally— somewhere around 75%, as best the record-keepers can tell.
Now, I celebrate humanity’s penchant for self-decoration. Our own children spent many years mixing up gloppy hair dye in every psychedelic shade from Manic Panic pink to cobalt blue. I even Vaselined a few ears along the way, as the willing assistant.
But many women in our youth-focused culture dye their hair not for fun or pleasure, but to hide the gray — an act that also, I’d argue, hides their experience and wisdom. (Maybe because there’s more salt than pepper in my own braids these days, this feels personal.)
It’s a lush image, taken by Annie Liebovitz, for Vogue. The women are posed carefully, but casually, in what looks like a posh men’s club, with dark paneling and chairs richly upholstered in emerald green. A painting of an 18th century tall-masted ship in full sail hangs behind them, either a metaphor for these adventurers charting new territory, or a reminder that just as women were seen as bad luck on merchant ships, the specter of “electability” still haunts women presidential candidates, no matter how prepared they are, or how effectively they campaign.
The women are all smiling or laughing, as if caught in an amusing conversation — even though they were reportedly talking about sexism on the campaign trail. A ruby-jacketed Senator Elizabeth Warren, light shining on her honey-blond bob, smiles down on Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose champagne hair wafts onto her shoulders. Senator Kamala Harris’s hands are caught in conversational motion, her dark curls melting into her elegant suit. Senator Amy Klobachur tosses back her chestnut hair, mid-laugh, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard smiles over the group, no sign of her side-swoop silver streaks. All of these women are slim, conventionally attractive, gorgeously dressed, disarmingly smiley. None are gray, despite their ages.
I feel all sorts of ways about this image. Of course, it’s a breakthrough — finally — to have more than a couple women running for president. Let’s celebrate that. But I worry that we’re not yet willing to celebrate women’s actual age and wisdom. Sure, older male candidates take some hits, but in 2019, gray only equals gravitas when it shines on a man’s head. (Test yourself: How would you respond to that image if most of the women were graying?) It’s hard to imagine a pacifying glamour shot of male candidates posed like these women. Maybe that is its own good — showing women as allies even as they are competitors. Or maybe the photo reminds us how nervous Americans remain about the prospect of women leaders, despite the fact that since 1950, women have been elected to lead 74 countries around the world.
I went to see Senator Elizabeth Warren this summer when she spoke in Elkhart at the RV Hall of Fame. She raced from the wings, high-fiving folks and bounding onto the klieg-lighted stage. I was both impressed with her youthful energy … and a little bummed by the necessity of the performance. Must she bounce and smile to please us? Aren’t her years of study and experience enough? Can’t we focus on her plans instead of her self-presentation? Based on this campaign cycle, I’d say: Not yet.
Perhaps this ruffles my silvering feathers because I’m leaning into croning pretty hard these days. I like the definition of the crone as a powerful, wise woman. And I like the idea of electing one for president. However this election turns out, I hope we’re sailing toward a moment when women candidates — and women everywhere — can simply be themselves, with all their wisdom, undisguised, on full display.
Music: "Good As Hell" by Lizzo