(The featured photo on this post is of my mother, Susan Shea, and me on my 40th birthday)
You wouldn’t know it by looking at the array of women’s magazine covers at the grocery store check out line, but aging ISN’T actually the worst thing to happen to women. Consider the headlines on a recent SHAPE magazine: “Age-Proof Your Body: The Best Moves & Foods To Do It” and “Sharon Stone: 56 & Hotter Than Ever: Her Stay-Sexy Secrets Inside”. Statements like these contribute to the anti-aging, diet, and beauty mega-industry whose ads fill nearly every page inside. These products, ranging from wonder creams to hair dye, promise a more youthful appearance and are marketed nearly exclusively to women. It’s no secret that we live in a culture obsessed with youth.
Today, on my fortieth birthday, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on aging and how the blatant double standards in our society harms all of us but specifically targets and undermines women. Much of the focus on aging has to do, after all with appearance and how one presents to the world. As we’ve discussed in other posts on this site, professional dress standards also disproportionately impact women in the work place and specifically in student affairs. Regarding age and appearance – I contend that we internalize the pervasive anti-aging media messages and these in turn impact how, as we grow older, our effectiveness is perceived and judged in personal and professional contexts.
One way that we immediate assess age is by hair color (or lack thereof). To be specific, if a person has natural, grey hair they are immediately “aged” and judged.
I started going grey in my mid 20s. I began “highlighting” (another word for dying) my hair soon after. I was not alone, according to a 2008 study done by Clairol found that 75 percent of American women dye their hair. This same survey revealed that 88 percent of women feel their hair has an effect on their confidence.
Over three years ago when I stopped artificially modifying my haircolor, it was because I wanted to be more authentically me. Hair treatments had become increasing frequent, expensive, and time intensive. I immediately saved tons of time and money. Then, as the grey came in (nearly white in spots), I was shocked at the outpouring of support and even compliments from strangers saying “I love your hair color.” My current hair stylist, when I met her over a year ago, first commented on how much she loves my hair and wouldn’t ever imagine coloring it. She’s a rare find.
I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to step away from the salon colorist or put down the hair-dye bottle. It’s YOUR choice and I respect that choice as completely as I do any other personal choice that women make about their bodies. But for me, letting my natural hair color be seen is part of creating a sense of congruence with my actual age and life experience. Frankly, there are days when I wonder why I didn’t do this sooner. In short, I love my hair now.
I’m curious, however, why so many women choose not to go grey. Is there a pervasive belief that going grey is akin to “letting yourself go?” Is allowing one’s grey hair to show perceived as “not caring” about one’s appearance? Is there a perception in society that women with grey hair are incapable and old? And, with respect to the double standard mentioned above, why don’t men care as much about hair color as women? Of course, some men may be more concerned about losing their hair then what color it is, so I get that this isn’t really an entirely fair comparison. But still, what’s the big deal with letting our actual age be more apparent in our appearance?
In the book “Going Gray: What I learned about beauty, sex, work, motherhood, authenticity and everything else that really matters” by Anne Kreamer, the topic of grey hair is discussed extensively with a gender lens. The book is reviewed and discussed extensively in this article: To Dye or Not to Dye on Emerita. Grey hair on women is directly tied to perceived leader effectiveness and the public is a harsh judge. The author notes that (in 2007) just six out of 67 female members of the House of Representatives show any grey and that none of the 14 female US senators do. I wonder if that number has changed at all.
This is ageism. Ageism, or age discrimination, is stereotyping and then acting on those judgments in individual, institutional, or systemic ways. Ageism isn’t limited to just older people; young people are also actively excluded from opportunities or sent the message that “you’re just too young to understand” because of age.
In 2010, Elle magazine published this article Is Your Hair Holding You Back? in which the author discusses in detail various hair styles and colors and how they might be perceived in a professional office context. As I read the piece, I’m (not really) shocked at the stereotypes and blatant sexist and heterosexist statements that are made throughout the article. I also note that the article makes no mention whatsoever of grey hair.
If this is what our popular culture is saying to women about their hair and the impact that hair color has on how we’re perceived, no wonder so many women are fixated on hair and see it as directly affecting their confidence, another topic what we’ve written about on this blog. The Elle article’s last section “Having a Healthy Hair Image” begins with this quote: “No matter how society, employees, or potential employers may perceive certain hairdos, experts say the most office-appropriate coifs are ultimately the ones that make you feel most comfortable and confident.” At what point are we going to stop telling women that they need to fix their confidence problem?
We live in a youth-obsessed culture. I could have focused this article on any of the other signs of aging… wrinkles, age spots, aches, and pains. The final message and plea is please, feminists in student affairs, let’s start owning and understanding the impact of the ageist judgments we make about ourselves and other women.