GUEST BLOGGER: KAREN BRYNER

Karen lives in the cultural capital of Indonesia conducting dissertation research on elite Islamic schools. She recently sang “Heal the World” with a group of 4th grade boys during recess and demonstrated the moon walk for a class of 3rd graders. The students didn’t seem to mind that Karen can neither really sing nor dance.

I’ve been going gray for over 15 years. Plenty of people have opinions about it and some don’t hesitate to share. Strangers have stopped me in the supermarket, on the metro, or other public places saying, “Um, excuse me, can I ask you a personal question? How old are you?” More often than not, they’d go on to say something complementary about my gray and its contrast with my young face. I’ve had men, men I’ve hardly known as well as men I’ve dated, tell me they liked the gray and I should never color it. Once, an older woman in Harlem during the sacrament at church loudly whispered in her warbling voice, “Your gray hair is so sexy.” She went on to lament how she hadn’t started graying yet, not even one strand. I wondered, though, if she wasn’t bragging just a little bit. These comments, however, were more prevalent when I had a striking balance of gray and dark brown.

A couple of years ago, I entered that dowdy stage where I have too much or not enough for it to look good. More and more of the unsolicited commentaries are similar to that of a random Russian woman at my bus stop in Manhattan. After telling me I HAD to color my hair, she divined that my uncolored gray was the reason for my unmarried status. And the men who said they liked it, well, “they’re lying.” Well-meaning family and friends, hairstylists and a tactless first date have voiced the same cosmetology advice as this nameless public transportation patron. Simultaneously, however, fellow thirty-something year old women I barely know approach me with haunting, cautionary tales of regret for coloring their hair.

Deciding to color my hair hasn’t been as cut and dried as it is for most. First, I am lucky enough to have silver rather than mousey gray hair and I think that should be celebrated. Second, I like the idea of being unconventional by being underage for gray. But, unconventional and unattractive, well, that’s just a poor default holding pattern. To complicate things, I have an inexplicable allegiance to “being natural”. In my twisted reasoning, enhancing my appearance equates to deception, false advertising, so to say. This irrational mindset is why I am adverse to push-up bras and a lot of eye makeup. Somehow though, control top pantyhose, mascara, and lipstick have always slipped under the radar. In the beginning, I was happy enough with my hair’s natural color and I decided to embrace it. It has come to define me. But when I began to feel unattractive, I figured it was my own fault if I didn’t do something about it. Yet, even if I could resign myself to making concessions to my vanity, it ultimately comes down to the fact that I cannot stand the thought of showing gray roots or committing to the required upkeep.

Although I was feeling homely, my stubborn streak kept me from biting the bullet. Then I met Ana. As the first hairdresser to say she liked my gray, I confided in her my growing frustration with it. Her solution, and now mine: lowlights, the less publicized sister of highlights. Brilliant, really. Manage the amount of gray showing by strategically putting dark strips of color back in. The gray roots in between lowlightings blend nicely with the uncolored gray. I feel pretty again, and I still can look like I am going natural. Don’t ask how that reasoning flies under the deception radar, but it does, and I’m glad it does. Lowlights are a bridge to the day I will achieve a critical mass of gray (some say 60%) to go all natural again and feel attractive about it. And when that blessed day does come, I can once again be worthy of the pre-lowlights praise from my Delta Airlines seat buddy, a reverend from the South, who declared that by not coloring my hair, I was “respectin’ truth! Like the Bible says, thou canst not make one hair black or white.”

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