By DOMINIQUE BROWNING
Published: October 21, 2010
NEW YORK TIMES Op-Ed
It’s become a cultural norm: women of a certain age cut off their hair
MY mother hates it. My sister worries about it. My agent thinks I’m hiding behind it. A concerned friend suggests that it undermines my professional credibility. But in the middle of my life, I’m happy with it. Which is saying a lot about anything happening to my 55-year-old body.
I feel great about my hair.
I have long hair. I’m not talking about long enough to brush gently on my shoulder — when I tilt my head. I’m not talking about being a couple of weeks late to the hairdresser. I’m talking long. Long enough for a ponytail with swing to it. Long enough to sit against when I’m in a chair. Long enough to have to lift it up out of the sweater I’m pulling over my head. Long enough to braid.
What’s worse (to my critics) is that my hair is graying. Of course it is. Everyone’s hair is graying. But some of us aren’t ready to go there. That’s fine with me — I’m not judgmental about dyes. In fact, I find the range and variety of synthetic hair color to be an impressive testament to our unending chemical creativity. I’m particularly fascinated by that streaky kaleidoscopic thing some blondes do that looks kind of like Hair of Fawn. For my own head, I’m a tad paranoid about smelly, itchy potions.
No one seems to have any problems when a woman of a certain age cuts her hair off. It is considered the appropriate thing to do, as if being shorn is a way of releasing oneself from the locks of the past. I can see the appeal, and have, at times in my life, gone that route. Some women want to wash the men (or jobs) right out of their hair. Others of us have to have at them with scissors. Again, I do not judge. Go right ahead, be a 60-year-old pixie.
So why do people judge middle-aged long hair so harshly? I’ve heard enough, by now, to catalog the multitudinous complaints into several broad categories.
YOU’RE ACTING OUT.
Long hair is not the appropriate choice of grown-ups. It says rebellion. Hillary Rodham Clinton softens her do, and sets off a bizarre Howl of Angry Inches, as if she had betrayed some social compact. Well, my long hair is indeed a declaration of independence. I am rebelling, variously, against Procter & Gamble, my mother, Condé Nast and, undoubtedly, corporate America in general. Whereas it used to be short hair that was a hallmark of being a liberated woman — remember the feminist chop? I do; I did it — these days, long hair is a mark of liberation.
My mother has a lot to say about my looks: Where did you find that shirt? Did you forget your makeup? She recently suggested, fluttering her hands in the vicinity of her ears, that I get just a very little trim. As if she thought she could still trick me into the barber’s chair to re-enact one of the central traumas of my childhood, when I was marched into a hair salon (so that’s where mothers went?) with hair to my waist and came out an outraged, stunned, ravaged 7-year-old with a stylish, hateful pageboy.
My mother’s favorite expression to me is “Make an Effort.” What she doesn’t understand, of course, is that just because things don’t turn out the way she thinks they should doesn’t mean an effort wasn’t made. It is incredible how parents and children never let go of old habits of relating. My mother still makes me feel like a 15-year-old. However, that no longer feels like a bad thing, if you see what I mean.
YOU’RE STILL LIVING IN THE ’70S
. And why not? I like being 55 going on 15. As far as I’m concerned, we never did get better role models than that gang of girls who sang their hearts out for us through lusty days and yearning nights: Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Cher. Emmylou Harris is still a goddess in my book, with that nimbus of silver hair floating past her shoulders. Next thing you know, we’ll take to wearing beaded leather headbands across our foreheads. And, I might add, that was a good look.
If you want to throw Princess Grace, Brigitte Bardot, Ingrid Bergman, Pussy Galore, Sophia Loren, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert, Julie Christie and Catherine Deneuve into the mix, who am I to complain? While those sexy sisters are hovering, I might note, with a sense of wonder, that Europeans are much more comfortable with long hair on women of a certain age. But then again, they’re more comfortable with women of a certain age in general. Perhaps I should move to Paris. Come to think of it, this would be making the kind of effort that would make my mother happy.
LONG HAIR IS HIGH MAINTENANCE
. Yes, I’ll admit that it is a look that requires tender loving care. It is impossible to body surf without getting seaweed tangled up in it. It is impossible to get it completely dry when one is in a rush to get to a job interview or a blind date. It is impossible to forget one’s hairbrush when one travels. It is impossible to garden or farm or weave or cook without one’s hair getting in the way. I have knitted many a gray strand into many a scarf. Which, by the way, I consider a nice touch. Anyone who disagrees can send me back his Christmas present. It is impossible to let the vacuuming go for too long, lest the bezoars (new vocabulary word) become large enough to choke a tiger.
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Dominique Browning, the author of “Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness,” writes a column for the Environmental Defense Fund Web site and blogs at SlowLoveLife.com.