For the last year I have been letting my hair "grow out." No more highlights, no more trying to hide the fact that my beautiful brown hair is turning gray. While this decision has had a positive effect on my pocketbook (chemical hair treatments at a good salon can run $150 per treatment if you get a cut and style as well), it's not been easy.
There's no getting around the fact that I look older with gray hair, even though I love the way it's streaked in the front, almost as though I'd been hit by lightening. I would love for the gray to be utterly white, then I'd like like the bride of Frankenstein or at least Susan Sontag. I look at photos of Terry Tempest Williams a lot for inspiration: she's let her hair go completely white, and she can't be much older than I am (54).
And that's the point, really, to look older. I don't want to be one of those women forever wanting to look younger than what they are, forgetting that we have a responsibility as the elders in our communities. If we neglect mentoring younger women, if we want to be like them and not models for them, to whom will they turn when they begin to age and need to find positive role models?
Still, when I recently traveled to Brazil with 10 beautiful young women about the age my son is, I felt keenly my age and how I had moved on to another country not only literally, but emotionally.
The translator who accompanied us on the trip is around my age, and we had lots of great conversations about aging. She is Brazilian, but has chosen to live in the U.S. even though most of her family is still in Brazil. She said this is because a woman past menopause is "nothing" in traditional Brazilian society. People just don't look at you if you are older, she said. Both she and Rita, the woman with the dreadlocks in the previous post (who is also around my age) dye their hair for this reason. It's one thing for Rita, who is black and comes from a favela and still has the accent of someone who comes from a favela, to be discriminated against because of race and class, but it's quite another to be discriminated against because of age.
It's inspiring to me that the situation is quite different in the Candemble religion as well as in the quilombo communities we visited in Brazil. There, the oldest women in the village are honored and asked regularly for their blessings. It is clearly a matriarchy, and I felt empowered to be among so many beautiful and wise older women. I could see, from my students' journals that they perceived in very powerful ways, the beauty of these women (in the photos from my post yesterday).
I am happy to be employed by a university that has a woman for a president, a woman for a vice president, and women in many of the powerful positions on campus. Every day, when I walk our campus, I can feel that I am appreciated, that I matter, that every gray hair I earn will be respected here. I just wish that I didn't have to stay on my campus or go to a remote quilombo in Brazil to feel honored as an older woman in this culture.