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Kreamer has been creative director of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite and columnist for Martha Stewart Living. She has a loving husband (author and radio personality Kurt Andersen) and two daughters. She was 49 and still "pretending" to be young. So not only did she decide to stop coloring her hair, she set out to discover the practical implications of going gray. If she wanted, could she still find men willing to date her? Was gray a handicap in the job market? Not surprisingly, she found that it isn't so much what other people think, "it's how we feel." Her consultants reminded her that hair color is only one part of a woman's appearance; a new haircut, well-selected cosmetics, new clothes and even plastic surgery will affect the success of a woman's look. Kreamer's chatty, confessional style is appealing, as are the gray-positive cultural icons she invokes (George Clooney, Helen Mirren, Emmylou Harris). But when she declares, "I remain at least as vain as the next person. I intend to continue spending large sums to have my hair cut and styled," she undercuts her own argument that "repackaging" ourselves can be a dangerously "slippery slope." In the end, she's learned to accept her own aging; readers over 55, however, may find that premature. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In October 2004, my friend, the artist Maira Kalman, sent me the photographs from a larkish summer driving trip that she, another friend, the writer Akiko Busch, my daughter Kate, and I had taken to Lily Dale, New York, the oldest spiritualist community in America. Lily Dale was founded in 1879, and each summer the hundreds of resident psychics and mediums open their candy-colored, slightly down-on-its-heels Victorian town in western New York to the public. The Lily Dale Assembly Web site defines a spiritualist as "one who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the continuity of life and in individual responsibility. Some, but not all, Spiritualists are Mediums and/or Healers. Spiritualists endeavor to find the truth in all things and to live their lives in accordance therewith."
Certainly none of our summer group would have listed ourselves as "spiritualists" on an official form. We're really not, in a word, kooks. But we do like to think of ourselves as people groping toward the useful truths, and the chance to spend a long weekend together in rural New York, having our fortunes told, felt like the kind of trip that would be tremendous fun. And boy, were we right. We tried everything available to us in Lily Dale: communed with our fellow travelers in the mornings at the "Stump," a group session deep in the woods; had several individual sessions in psychics' homes; and participated in "healing ceremonies" in "temples."
We even got to mingle with a group of sixteen visiting Tibetan monks who were stopping in Lily Dale as part of a tour sponsored by Richard Gere, but regrettably none of the four of us experienced anything approximating a "visitation," nor were we blown away by any blinding moments of insight from a psychic.
But months later, as I looked through Maira's photographs, one in particular-of my sixteen-year-old daughter; Aki; and me-actually changed my life. In that instant, sandwiched between my blond daughter and gray-haired Aki, I saw myself for what I truly was: a forty-nine-year-old mother with a much too darkly shellacked helmet of hair. I clearly was not some faintly with-it older pal of my daughter's, but neither did my hair make me look like a contemporary of Aki's. It was like I was some spectral person floating in a no-man's-land, neither young nor old. I felt as if I didn't know who I really was.
In fact, as I studied the photo, I felt like I was a black hole between gaily dressed Kate and about-to-burst-into-laughter Aki. My uniform of deep, dark mahogany hair and dark clothing sucked all light out of my presence. Seeing that person-that version of myself-was like a kick to my solar plexus. In one second, all my years of careful artifice, attempting to preserve what I thought of as a youthful look, were ripped away. All I saw was a kind of confused, schlubby middle-aged woman with hair dyed much too harshly.
But why this sudden self-critical revelation? In the past, when I'd looked at photographs of myself, I'd always thought I'd looked pretty good. Maybe the portals to greater awareness had been subtly awakened at Lily Dale ...? Ummm, no. I think I was just lucky that Maira's photo allowed me the momentary objectivity to see that the dyed-hair forty-nine-year-old wasn't the real me. Kate looked real. Aki looked real. To me, I looked like I was pretending to be someone I wasn't. Someone still young.
I had never before closely considered what the color of my hair communicated to the world. Artificial color was simply what I had always done, what almost everyone my age did, and what I unthinkingly assumed looked good.
But examining that snapshot made me start to think hard about who I was, and who I wanted to be. Would I continue holding on to some dream of youthfulness or could I end the game of denial and move more honestly into middle age?
So maybe the trip to Lily Dale really had, after all, led me to try and "live my life in more accordance with the truth." I had gone on the trip for fun, as an exercise in anthropological tourism, wondering if I might, and rather credulously hoping to, for instance, receive a "message" from my dead parents. Instead of taking a mystical or metaphysical leap into a spiritual unknown, I found that looking at Maira's photograph led me to do something extremely concrete and practical. I came away from that trip with a decision to try to embrace more authenticity and, as a first step along that path, to do something as banal as to quit coloring my hair. To let it be whatever color it was-nickel? steel? charcoal? platinum? white? who knew?-beneath the dye. Beyond the inspired lunge toward more everyday personal candor, I was also simply curious about what I actually looked like.
For years, people had commented generously that my relatively unlined skin made me look young. I'm not fat. I don't often wear matronly clothes. You don't look your age, people told me. Naturally, I chose to believe them. And to tell the honest truth, in the self-image I cooked up in my brain, I even one-upped them: in my mind's eye, I imagined I looked thirty-five, not forty-nine. Wrong. I mean, really wrong, but there you are.
I grew up in white, upper-middle-class, suburban Kansas City, Missouri, during the '60s. In 1964 my parents took the family to the world's fair in New York City, where I experienced for the first time the dense electricity of real urbanity. I loved everything about New York: the crowds on the streets, the multiplicity of signs and architecture and styles of dress, the acrid and fishy smell of Chinatown, the Jetsons-like General Motors "Futurama" exhibit at the fair, even the spicy food (garlic!).
When the Mod Squad television series premiered in 1968, it represented that same quintessential urban coolness to me. It felt like my personal window into an adult world, where people of different classes and races worked together, and even though, as cops, the characters were "the man," they were also anti-everything establishment. Peggy Lipton, the lead actress, wore great clothes and had straight, long blond hair. And she got to hang out on camera with sexy Michael Cole and the grooviest of all, Clarence Williams III. I wanted to be Peggy Lipton much more than the other fantasy TV version of "me," Marcia Brady from The Brady Bunch.
In reality, I was a nerd (the girls in high school nicknamed me "Miss Organization," and I don't think they were envious), so having hair that made me seem like the kind of girl one saw on television was very important to me. I discovered that my hair was the one thing that I could manipulate to make me seem at least superficially like someone I wasn't.
So in high school, to try to be "cool"-that is, to look a little bit older, a little bit more sophisticated-I grew my hair long and styled it just like Peggy Lipton's. I also tried somewhat successfully to make my tawny hair even blonder by spritzing it with Sun In and lemon juice as I toasted during the hot Midwestern summers. Lightening the color was my second step in changing my hair to create a new, improved version of myself to project to the world.
As a teenager my salient physical attributes were my hair and my-"no, really, I'm not a nerd" additional bit of '70s pre-Goth rebellion-black nails. And although mercifully I jettisoned the black nail polish in college, as an adult the long, straight hairstyle I'd so carefully adopted in high school remained a defining piece of my look, inextricably linked with my identity-as, I think, our particular style does for nearly all of us. Subconsciously, I believe, I thought my hair possessed almost talismanic protective properties.
But even as I maintained the uniform length of my hair, I began further experimentation with its color as a tool to assert my individuality and uniqueness. And over the years, my hair has gone through many, many different hues, from what I thought of as aubergine-but which a male lawyer friend once horrifyingly described as "deep purple"-to various roan and chestnut shades.
My first job right out of college was as an administrative assistant at the now defunct Manufacturer's Hanover Bank, assigned to move money among the bank's clients in the Great Lakes District. Yes, it was in midtown Manhattan, but could there have been a more boring job in the world? I sat at a desk opposite the men's room in the front row of a vast airplane hangar-like open office space. (Trust me: there was nothing more mortifying for the twenty-one-year-old me than to have men by the dozen smile directly at me as they zipped their pants on leaving the bathroom.) My work consisted in its entirety of writing out paper-money wire-transfer requests for companies in Illinois and Indiana; robots could have handled the job. Row upon row of hushed, uptight people cascaded behind me in desk after desk, each row representing a notch up the hierarchy toward the glassed-in aquarium-like offices of the vice presidents. The few women who worked there in 1977 were blond and wore conservative suits and pumps. Wearing any style outside of the dull Brooks Brothers dress code was practically a fireable offense, so I dyed my hair a rich bittersweet color as a way to demonstrate to myself and to the outside world that I did not really belong in this death-before-my-time job. I thought the artificial color communicated that I was, like, you know, some kind of an artist who was working this job just to pay the rent. Which was true, minus the artist part.
I didn't stop using my hair color as a tool to differentiate myself after I quit the bank. My next job was as a secretary in the international division of Children's Television Workshop. And even though I wasn't doing anything other than taking dictation from an amped-up, full-of-himself, would-be-James-Bond British salesman, I wanted to try on a more sophisticated persona than my kind of down-market-bank-clerk reddish hue, so I colored my hair a rich walnut shade. And I actually felt different. More sophisticated. By the time I started traveling for the job, selling Sesame Street in Haiti and Brunei and Malaysia, I already felt a bit like Mata Hari (and you know what the anagram of her surname is, don't you?).
I discovered that the personality-enhancing aspect of my hair extended well beyond a sense of theatrical role-playing. I found that if I felt depressed, I could go and brighten up the hue and actually make myself feel brighter. When I felt like I wasn't getting enough attention from my boyfriend (and future husband), I could shift my color and, in my mind's eye, become instantly more alluring. I'm not so sure that this strategy actually worked, but it always made me feel as if I were taking control. There was nothing like transforming myself overnight from redhead to brunette or back again to make me feel like a new person. It was a regular cosmetic rebooting.
Hair color was something I could control easily, definitively- managing the color of my hair was my equivalent to taking Paxil. I discovered that when I changed my hair color, voilà, I'd move on-imagining, hoping, that by modifying the way I presented myself to the world, I was somehow actually dealing with whatever issues or uncertainties were confronting me at the moment.
On my fortieth birthday, in some I-want-to-be-a-rock-star-and- I'm-not-getting-older moment of fantastic denial, I indulged in my most dramatic and least successful coloring episode. I dyed my hair jet-black. Other than a few dutiful years of piano lessons, I'd never been musical-never played an instrument or sung in any kind of group. But at forty I chose to become thoroughly depressed over the fact that now I knew I would never become a Beatle. Yes, a Beatle. Insane in several respects? Yes! But at age nine in 1965, I'd seen them play live in my hometown, Kansas City. That scene-teenagers gone wild, and sexy, sophisticated, foreign boys (with cool, long dark hair) being adored-became my benchmark (other than The Mod Squad) for a certain kind of glam living, one that would lead me out of my suburban Midwestern tapioca life.
But my 1995 fake-rocker black hair didn't, of course, magically deliver me a recording contract or global adoration. Rather, it served to underscore my true age in unattractive ways-the black washed me out and added gray shadows to my face. My friend Larry Doyle, who's a comedy writer, announced in his deadpan fashion the moment he saw me, "You look like your evil twin." And both of my children, then five and seven, actually cried the evening I came home with the new color. Not precisely my goal.
I lived with that mistake for a long time because you cannot simply wash ebony color out of your hair. As an emergency remedial adaptation, I went back and had my colorist layer mahogany dye into the black and then, chastened by the entire experiment, settled into a conservative, acceptable, middle-aged brownish.
And from then on I went on absolute hair-color autopilot, the opposite of my previous decade or so of flagrant dabbling. My forties' hair strategy became all about maintaining the status quo-consistent hair color meant nothing in my life was really changing. No aging, no anxiety I couldn't deal with, no friends divorcing or family members and friends dying ... everything was just fine.
Until I looked hard at that photograph three years ago and everything wasn't fine, at least not as far as the way I looked was concerned.
Even though I've never once fudged my age, I simply wasn't prepared to look my age. And I thought that if I had my natural hair color, whatever it might be, I'd instantly look older. What was the big deal about looking my age? This was the real crux of my dilemma in wanting to present a more authentic version of myself to the world. At least since the flappers of the 1920s, we've valued extravagant youthfulness as the embodiment of all that is American-new nation, new ideals, youthful optimism and can-do-ism, Lindy Hopping and Boogalooing and Frugging our way through life to keep refreshing the sense that we are always creating ourselves anew. Even if we aren't. By keeping my gray "secret," not allowing my hair to visibly age, I was able to feel permanently thirty-four.
It never occurred to me that my light-sucking fake dark-brown hair might have had a subtle but even more profound aging effect. I chose not to register the fact that hair dye, inevitably, faintly stains the skin around the hairline, tipping off anyone who looks closely that what you are presenting is a simulation of youth.
As I approached fifty, I realized I was exhausted by the tyrannical upkeep, the enormous investment of time and money, just to seem younger-or at least not older. I was married, I was self-employed, my kids were almost adults. That equation no longer computed.
So how hideous could my natural color be-whatever it was-compared to liberation?
When I had first noticed gray hairs in my late twenties, I didn't give a second thought to covering them up. After all, I was already manipulating my color for professional /fantasy reasons, and frankly I thought twenty-seven was way too young to have gray hair. (From trying to look older in high school to trying to look younger at work just a decade later-such are the vicissitudes of a woman's life.) But at twenty-seven, in 1983, I didn't have much money, so I went with what I thought was the easy route to covering my gray - single-process coloring.
"Single process" is the technique whereby a coloring paste is applied to the scalp and roots with something like a pastry brush, forming a gooey helmet. (Ironic, isn't it, that this means of sexiness enhancement is so thoroughly unsexy: you never want any man who isn't a hair-care professional to see you looking like you've just climbed out of the La Brea tar pits.) It takes about forty minutes for the color to "set" from start to finish and, with shampoo and tips, costs about $125 at a midrange New York hair salon. (For those who do single process out of a box at home, the expense is a fraction of that, of course.) For highlighting, one's roots are treated with the single-process method, and then individual strands of hair are painted with a different bleaching chemical and folded into squares of foil. It's much more time-consuming-up to three hours-and, since it is virtually impossible to do at home, requires expensive ($200 and up) salon visits.
Either way, once you start coloring at thirty or thirty-five or forty-the insidious creep of roots perpetually growing out, lighter or darker, always threatening to show themselves and expose the ruse-you are trapped on a treadmill.
And the treadmill accelerates as you age. Particularly during the last ten years, as my roots became grayer and my artificial hair color ever darker, I found I needed to return to my colorist every two and a half weeks to keep my brown hair looking as spiffy as I'd come to demand-I didn't trust the at-home root-touch-up kits to look "natural." I couldn't bear even the teensiest millimeter of ratty gray roots showing, not just because I cared that people would consciously notice that I dyed my hair-over the years some of the colors I'd chosen had been obviously fake-but because the hard line between the visible gray roots and dyed dark parts looked ugly and losery to me.
Excerpted from Going Gray by Anne Kreamer Copyright © 2007 by Anne Kreamer. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 5, 2010
I've been considering giving up the hair dyeing habit. I was almost completely gray by 40 and felt I was just too young to look so old. Now I'm 57 and about to become a grandma. Why not look like a grandma and save all that time and money?
This book was perfect for me. It explored this question and presented lots of very interesting research and comentary.
Posted February 20, 2010
This book was very personal, both to the author and to this reader.
I grabbed the book because I'd recently started the "what Nature thinks I should look like" process and had met resistance from friends. (Few women go "natural" in South Florida) With unlined skin at 60, friends think I should maintain my dark locks and don't understand that looking young attracts much younger men. I have no desire to be a cougar; I've already raised a couple of men and prefer men who remember what class they were in when Kennedy was shot.
The decision was more difficult for Anne than for me, and I enjoyed reading about her path to the lovely natural look that enhances her features far more than dye ever did.
Anne's experience inspired me to stick with my naturally-frosted, and like Anne's, quite flattering look. And don't forget the savings of time and money, and being able to be yourself; makeup is even easier, though I don't recall that being mentioned in the book. It's priceless!
For those considering the plunge, read Going Gray for inspiration.
For those with a line of demarcation, read for ideas for coping (once you know where the concentrations of silver are, your stylist can highlight the darker hair to ease the transition if you wish).
For those already living naturally gray, read as a reminder of one of the best decisions of your life!