The Humanist Dilemma: Letting Myself Go…Gray

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Who’s the Boss? About thirty years ago I caved to my then- fiancé and began coloring over my gray hair, even though I rather liked it. I’ve tried to let it grow out several times over the past decade, but gave in to his grimaces at the horrible gray roots/brown ends stage, and went back to monthly touch-ups. Then, nearly two years ago, as I contemplated a major milestone birthday, I got really serious and worked with a hairdresser to transition gracefully to whatever color naturally grows out of my head. It was very expensive and time-consuming, and at first it looked bad (but not nearly as bad as going cold turkey or getting a buzz cut). Since then, I haven’t touched the color and I’m almost entirely natural now. To my delight, I really like my gray hair and get loads of compliments on it. But not from my husband.

My question is: Should I please myself or my spouse? It is, after all, only hair color. But hair is very important to my self-image, and I never liked how dyed hair looked on me. It’s not that my husband says anything negative, but his tight lips speak volumes.

I also don’t enjoy spending time or money in salons, and I don’t like the results I get out of a box from the drugstore. I suppose whether or not I look better is a matter of opinion, but I really enjoy being a silver fox—not only because I like the way it looks, but also because I’m proud of what I think it says about me. And I feel like I’ve come too far to give up again now.

By the way, my husband’s hair is currently pure white (which I think is gorgeous, although he doesn’t), and he’s thirty pounds heavier than the hunk I married, but I still love him just as he is.

—Color Wars

Dear Color Wars,

As you’re aware, this is not as superficial a problem as it may seem. It has deep, dark roots (ahem) in relationship dynamics and stereotypes. Let’s look at it from various angles:

What if your husband wanted you to get breast augmentation/reduction against your wishes? What about cosmetic surgery or liposuction? What if he insisted on you wearing stiletto heels and low-cut skin-tight outfits, even if you’d feel acutely uncomfortable in them? Would you be as conflicted about saying no?

What if the tables were turned and you hated your husband’s white hair, which he loved—would you expect him to color it for you, and would he be willing?

Now let’s envision the view from your spouse’s perspective. Maybe he misses the dark-haired young woman he fell in love with. Maybe he also misses the slimmer, dark-haired fellow he used to be. Maybe he’s terrified about you, or him, or both of you aging. Maybe he can’t help feeling less attracted to the new, older you. Maybe he’s threatened by your unilateral decision and what it signifies in your relationship.

Next, think about how much it matters for you to feel like the self you want to be, versus the desire to please your husband. A few years ago, dyeing graying hair was typically regarded as a basic component of feminine hygiene—along with bathing and wearing lipstick, mascara, foundation, and a girdle. Ironically, as men have increasingly begun dabbling in hair color and cosmetics, a trend of embracing silver hair has emerged among fashion-forward older women. Some young women are even dyeing their dark hair gray.

Ultimately, beauty—or unattractiveness—is in the eye of the beholder. And anyone can cease to be attracted to their partner, regardless of gender, for any number of reasons—appearance and age are just a couple of them. People change, and they don’t always change in tandem with their significant other.

So you have to consider what you lose or gain by sticking with your silver tresses vs. restoring the hue your spouse yearns for. If you were to resume coloring your hair, would he be content? And for how long? Or would he start objecting to the effects of time on your face and figure, and would you resent him—and yourself—for not sticking with your own preference?

Relationships involve give and take, and only the people involved can decide what works for them. They may not be able to reach consensus. No matter what you do, you will both increasingly show, and feel, your advancing age and the myriad changes that accrue over the years. You’re going to have to deal with those inevitable alterations of your status quo, together or separately.

Hopefully a three-decade partnership can weather a difference of opinion about hair color, no matter who prevails. If not, you two have deeper, darker problems.