Sari Botton has worn many hats over the years: editor, essayist, anthologist, instructor, and editor-in-chief of Oldster Magazine (for more on that, see her Q&A with Bloom). Now she has published a memoir, And You May Find Yourself…Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo, out from Heliotrope Books, that will resonate for Bloom readers: “About ‘finding’ yourself later in life—after first getting lost in all the wrong places.” Botton looks at love (and looking for it), feminism, work, and the physical manifestations of inhabiting the body for long enough to learn a few things about it.
“Gray Hair Don’t Care”
Just before my birthday in October 2020, my husband introduced me to a new acquaintance of his, a man in his early forties whom he’d met through work. “We’re going away for Sari’s birthday this weekend,” Brian said.
The man asked how old I’d be. “I’m turning 55!” I exclaimed, like the five-year-old I turn into on my birthday each year.
“Wow,” he replied, “if only you colored your hair, you could pass for 35!”
I knew he meant it as a compliment, so I simply said, “Thank you.” I spared him the lecture about how much I love my gray hair; how I have a weird relationship to time and aging that makes it difficult for me to grasp how old I really am; how I (mostly) do not mind the numbers climbing higher; and how regardless of the increasing ways in which my external meat suit reflects the ravages of time, internally I still feel like a young girl.
Not taking offense to his comment felt like something of a victory, especially since it was exactly the kind of gendered ageist expression of the straight male gaze that I’d feared before I found the nerve, at 51, to lop off my signature long, brown hair striped with obvious, wide, blonde highlights.
After I threatened for literally 10 years to shave my head and go “gracefully gray,” Brian stopped believing I would ever do it. It became a running joke between us. I’d say, “I’m so tired of my hair and the time it takes every couple of months to get it done. I’m thinking of cutting it all off and going natural. But will you still find me attractive with gray hair?” He’d always insist that he would, adding, “You’ll never do it, though.”
Part of the problem was that my half-bleached hair was nice, and pretty cool, frankly. I’d strived my whole life to feel cool in any way, and I finally hit on something when I arrived at my signature look. I was also, ironically, concerned that if I stopped coloring my hair too young, there wouldn’t be enough gray that it would look good. I wanted plenty of silver in my hair, so that it could resemble Emmylou Harris’s when she was in middle age, rather than be mostly boring brown with a few straggly, wiry, gray pieces mixed in.
I started coloring my hair in the spring of 2003, when I was approaching 38, and in the throes of my big online dating project—signed up on five different sites per an assignment from my therapist, and going out on several dates a week. I’d been toying with changing up something about my look. I was tired of my plain, long, brunette locks, and had been fascinated by women who were brave enough to make big statements with hair dye. This wasn’t, by the way, about coloring over gray. Forever the late bloomer, in my late thirties, I had a total of about five gray hairs. No, this was about freeing myself from staid, boring convention, with a look that was radical.
With that in mind, I skipped over my usual hairdresser, because he was only interested in giving me natural-looking “nice Jewish girl” highlights, meant to give the impression that I’d just been hanging out in the sun for a really long time. I couldn’t have been less interested in that kind of stealth artifice, which also required frequent upkeep, once your roots started coming in. I wanted obvious artifice that made a statement, and something a little less high-maintenance on a regular basis.
So I made an appointment at Kropps & Bobbers, a salon on the Lower East Side that I passed by often, and where I often admired the radically-dyed hair of clients as they walked out. Right after I scheduled it, I called a friend. “Can you meet me at the salon?” I asked. “I’m afraid that otherwise I’ll chicken out. I need someone to help me go through with this.” Sure enough, she met me there on the day of my appointment for moral support.
Tony, my new hairstylist, didn’t flinch when I told him what I wanted: glaringly obvious wide, platinum stripes alternating with my own brown color. I, a lover of show tunes, wanted to look vaguely “punk,” and even after I explained this to Tony, he didn’t for one second judge my choice. He simply honored my wishes, and went to work mixing up some bleach.
When the whole three-hour process was finished—it took a looooooong time for my dark hair to lift to blond—I looked at myself in the mirror. Surprisingly, I didn’t have the kind of identity crisis I’d worried I might, in the days leading up to this. Instead of seeing reflected back at me someone who wasn’t me, I saw a new dimension of myself, and I loved it.
It was an interesting experiment. How often had I wondered, What would life be like if I were tall? Blue-eyed? Blonde? A shikse goddess? Of course, I was still short and brown-eyed, and thinking-man’s attractive, as opposed to a raving beauty. But I felt like a new me, in a new world, and it was awesome.
Men responded favorably to the change, too. It was this specific kind of preferred treatment I was afraid to give up before, at nearly 51, I finally committed to saying goodbye to the highlights, and hello to a head full of gray. (I desperately want not to care what men think of my looks…but I also want to look beautiful to them as I’m doing that.)
I had a respectably long run as a semi-blond with short bangs—13 years! People complimented me on my hair all the time. I caught men checking me out frequently, which I hate to say I quite liked. Chic women asked me for the name of my hairdresser. Someone who saw me at a reading I took part in posted glowingly on social media about my “Sontag hairdo realness,” and I felt like some kind of legend.
But I also felt stuck. For a long portion of those 13 years that I colored my hair, I was tired of it. I felt confined and defined by it, and resented that. I wanted to be done with that. The blonde stripes also felt like a cosmetic lie I was no longer willing to live with; in the weeks after each application, I had the feeling I was wearing a hat, or a wig, that slid slowly off my head. Once I started thinking of it this way, I could no longer really enjoy my hair.
There was a new wrinkle, too: my gray was starting to come in more seriously so that now, instead of alternating stripes of blond and pure brown, it was alternating stripes of blond and salt-and-pepper, which was much less striking. I wasn’t willing to additionally dye the brown/salt-and-pepper hair. I was already spending too much time, every few months, just sitting through the bleaching process.
Then I started seeing images of women in their twenties dying their hair gray, and I thought, Okay, if they can do this, I can.
Still, it took me a long time to work up the chutzpah to make a move. It was one thing for a twentysomething with supple skin and no wrinkles to play with gray color, and another for a woman who was old enough to allow herself to go gray. I was worried that unlike those younger women, I might become “invisible,” especially to men, in the way older women have often described feeling. I was loath to give up the ego boost I got each time some random straight man checked me out.
I wrote all these concerns down one morning in August, 2016, when I was leading a first-person storytelling workshop for a nonprofit organization at an adult education center in upstate New York. It was customary, during free-writing sessions, for me and Eva, the organization’s Executive Director, to work on our own stories too, then share them with only each other. Just before our lunch break, I read to her what I’d written about my resistance to cutting off all my hair and starting over with a gray buzz cut. (There was no way I was going to let the gray gradually grow into my existing long hair, leaving me with two different hair colors, one on top, and another on the bottom!) Mostly I wrote about my fear of no longer drawing the male gaze during the two or so years it would likely take me to grow my hair long again—as stupid and retrograde as that sounded. I’d tried short hair before, and I was decidedly not a short hair person. (You know when people feel compelled to pay you dubious compliments like, “You have a nice shaped head,” that they can’t find ways to genuinely flatter you.) I had no plans to make a pixie or short bob my permanent look. Cutting my hair off would be only ever a temporary move.
After I was done reading to Eva, we broke for lunch. I was washing my hands in the cafeteria bathroom when, like an apparition, behind me appeared a striking older woman with a perfect silver bob, dressed head-to-toe in Eileen Fisher linen.
“So, what are you going to do with your hair?” the woman asked.
I looked around to make sure she was talking to me. “Are you in my writing workshop?” I asked. “I don’t recognize you, but I think maybe you overheard me talking about this there?”
“No,” she said. “I’m here for a Qi Gong workshop, not a writing workshop, and I have no idea who you are. But I see blond…and brown…and a little silver. There’s a lot going on in there!” She pointed to my head. “So, I just wanted to know what you’re going to do about it.”
I could have taken offense. Instead, I took the woman’s appearance out of nowhere, at the particular moment she appeared, as a sign: it was time for me to do this.
As soon as the weekend writing workshop was over, I drove straight to my hairdresser—my upstate hairdresser, the one I’d been going to most of the time since I’d moved up from the city in 2005. I walked in the door and said, “Do you have enough time to cut all my hair off before I lose my nerve?”
She looked at her watch. “I have 20 minutes before my next appointment,” she said. “Have a seat.”
And so I parked my butt in her chair and let her shear off all my locks until I had the equivalent of a buzz cut, with not one single remaining dot of blond. Looking at myself in the mirror afterward I felt shocked, mostly in a good way. It felt as if I had a new slate, a fresh start. After I paid my hairdresser, I headed to my husband’s office. When I walked in, his jaw dropped.
“Oh, my god,” he said. “I really thought you’d never do it!”
He swore he loved it. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but somehow I didn’t feel anxious about it. It was temporary, anyway; I was committed to growing my hair long again. I was not looking forward to the eighteen months ahead, with one awkward growing-out phase after another. But with a slew of barrettes and headbands, I got through it. And now I love my hair.
Surprisingly, it grew in with natural wide highlights, similar to the fake ones I’d had applied to my hair for years—some stripes are much more bright and silvery than others. People often ask me whether it’s a dye job, or whether I got silver highlights added to my natural gray. Nope. It’s just my natural hair, doing its thing.
Here’s the part where I put the obligatory disclaimer about how there’s nothing wrong with coloring over your gray if that’s what you prefer. Seriously. Just as I don’t want to feel pressured to color my hair, I don’t think anyone else should feel pressured to leave their gray untouched. I’m for more options, more acceptance, more freedom for everyone to do as they wish. Sometimes, when friends change their mind about their gray and return to coloring it, they feel the need to justify it to me, and this is not necessary!
This is also where I must acknowledge that I know not all women can afford to “transgress” against the societal dictum to color over their gray. I am fortunate not to work in a field where I’d be discriminated against because I don’t adhere to this kind of “grooming,” fortunate to have a husband who loves and accepts me with gray hair, fortunate to live in a country and a state and a culture and a liberal community where it’s acceptable for me to be a fashion rebel.
It also doesn’t hurt that I have pretty good genes, when it comes to aging. Everyone in my family looks young for their age. Unlike my husband’s new work friend, many people still guess I’m younger than I am, head-full-of-silver notwithstanding. Maybe it’s because I wear it in the same style I’ve mostly worn since I was five—straight, long, with little-girl bangs. Or maybe they’re just being polite. Who knows?
But I’ve arrived at a place where I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I love my gray hair, and I can’t wait until it’s even whiter. Just like Emmylou’s is now.
Sari Botton is the author of And You May Find Yourself: Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She publishes Oldster Magazine.
Top photo of Sari Botton by Brad Dececco.