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Hair Is Life
How'd you do it? Are you doing that on purpose? Are you okay? Ever since I stopped coloring my silver hair, I've gotten a lot of questions. One of the most common during my hair transition was Why are you letting it go gray? While my roots didn't ask permission before they stopped growing in dark brown, it was a complex mix of fear and determination that rearranged my beauty priorities. The question of why — why, after twenty-five years of using chemical dyes, I gave them up — is something I've thought about a lot.
My world began to shift four years ago. I was sitting in a meeting about toxics reform in Washington, DC, when an environmental scientist began to describe the buildup of chemicals in our bodies. As she rattled off a list of ingredients in personal care products — toluene, benzophenone, stearates, triclosan — my scalp started to tingle. "We're just beginning to understand how these chemicals compromise long-term health," she concluded.
None of this was new information. As a journalist, I report on the intersection of health and the environment. I know that the soaps, shampoos, and lotions we use every day have been linked to threats such as hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer. I know that since World War II, more than eighty thousand new chemicals have been invented. And while most people assume that the chemicals in our products have been tested and proven safe, I know that isn't the case. Time and time again, I've seen regulators fail to protect the health of citizens. Yet all that knowing didn't stop me from availing myself of the alchemical wonders of hair dye.
Frankly, coloring just seemed normal. My mother still dyed her hair a coppery brown at age eighty-eight, my best friend went to the colorist every few weeks, and even my daughter dabbled with highlights. It's no surprise that I didn't — and still don't — know many women who forgo coloring; 75 percent of women in the United States use hair dye. Like many, I colored with the hope of "natural-looking" hair, spending hours and hours, and thousands of dollars per year, at the salon.
Over the years, I'd pushed aside fears about the possible dangers of dye. After visits to the hairdresser, my scalp would itch, which I chalked up to dryness, and I would get headaches, which I blamed, like almost all other ailments during my childbearing years, on hormones. When I scratched my head, dye would stain my fingernails for days after application. A small price to pay for beauty, I rationalized. I simply did not want to think about the noxiously charged question Is hair dye safe?
A young colleague at the toxics meeting was more skeptical. Wiping the lipstick from her unlined lips, she asked, "Why do we subject our bodies to questionable chemicals?" I could personally attest to the scientist's answer: "People ignore potential risks for convenience, cost, beauty. Many of these products promise a fountain of youth."
After the presentation, our group of mostly women discussed the health compromises people make "to look young and feel good." Scanning a handout with a long list of chemicals in personal care products, I decided it was past time to stop burying my beautifully dyed head in the sand. "How do I go about researching the toxicity of hair dye and its effects on me and others?" I asked.
The scientist's answer led me to the journey that would become this book. "The economic success of hair coloring collides so powerfully with popular demand that the task of understanding the landscape goes beyond science and law," she said. "Investigate that, and you'll find some answers that address the safety of hair dye."
* * *
In Japan, there's a saying, "A girl's hair is her life." It's a sign of female strength. Hair is a powerful expression of not only who we are but also who we aspire to be. It was against this backdrop that I came to love my long, thick dark hair. It was my most coveted beauty asset, a signature that told the world that I was unique and fun-loving and that I cared about a youthful appearance.
I owe that identity, in no small part, to my mother. Mom recalls having her hair braided by her own mother and living through World War II, when hairstyles were tailored and utilitarian. In her teens, she started to develop her own style. By the mid-1950s, when I made her a mother, Vogue had declared "hats and hair accessories as the must-have accoutrements of the day, while styling products hit the market."
She told me, "Hair is always important. It tells if you are well-kept and fashionable." I've been reminded of this my whole life, by her and by others. But my definition of "well-kept" differs wildly from my mom's. Ever since she had my long hair cut into a pixie when I was a child, to "make it easier to comb through," I started to create my own hair identity, which was (and still is) long.
By the time I was a teenager, I was doing what most teenage girls do — push their mother's buttons. I wanted to fit in with what was in vogue with my hippie-chic girlfriends. Finding a space to display teenage defiance, I pushed my hair obsession constantly.
It was the bane of Mom's existence. "Why must you bring your hairbrush to the dinner table?" she nagged.
Her admonishments came with a laundry list of dinnertime hair rules: no fidgeting with hair, brushes off the table, punctuated with "Hairstyling belongs in the bathroom."
Probably to annoy my mom, I didn't pay much attention to her Emily Post–like commands. This became an ongoing family joke between my brother and me, until my father lit up his cigarette before the rest of us reached for our dessert plates. Then Mom turned a disapproving gaze toward him for asphyxiating us with Chesterfield plumes. Horrified that he might billow smoke rings into my freshly washed tresses, I grabbed my brush, pushed my chair back from the table, and fled into my room.
To this day, I wonder why my mother imposed rules that only drove her into a tizzy. Did she think of the hairbrush as a dirty, germy object, while I equated brushing with cleanliness? Or was it just a maternal sense of control, just as her hair, a hair-sprayed helmet that towered to an unnatural height, was strangely untouchable to me?
Wanting to have nothing to do with hair that neither wind nor atomic bomb could penetrate, I brushed my smooth, polished straight hair incessantly to a shimmery shine that swung across my shoulders like Cher's. I also learned to keep my head far away from aerosols. Possible early nod to environmental health awareness? Doubtful. More like teenage rebellion against the sleek, hard crust of older women's hairstyles of that era.
I blame Veronica Lodge from the Archie Comics for sparking my hair obsession. Of course, she was also called Ronnie. With her blue-black sheen, my hair could have been drawn with the same thick charcoal pencil. The similarities between Veronica Lodge and the girl I used to be ended there. I did not grow up in the spoils of an affluent family. Poise and, luckily, a mean-girl attitude were not my thing. Nevertheless, by stature, we could have been synchronized swimmers in her parents' backyard pool. While I never sensed a whole lot of feminist thought going on in Veronica's self-possessed head, she was made of tough stuff. Coming of age in the '60s and '70s, with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the women's movement simmering to boiling points, even Veronica lived on the ledge of changing times.
She sets priorities straight in a comic strip with Archie and his dad:
"Say! How come you're sticking up for Betty?" Archie's dad asks, with Archie standing next to him, shaking in his boots.
"We're rivals only on trivial matters like boyfriends!" Veronica points at Archie with attitude. "When it comes to big issues like WOMEN'S RIGHTS we see eye-to-eye."
Like most teenage addictions of the time, mine was fed by the media. Cher and Veronica embodied not only sleek beauty but also self-assurance. For me, hair was power. But with age, my hair story became more complicated.
When I was a young mother in my late twenties and early thirties, gray hairs sprouted and quickly multiplied. To cover the gray strands, just a short time after my daughter, Lainey, was born, I began dabbling in hair color. When I look back at her birth photos, I can see flints of silver threads embroidering my bangs and part area. By the time my son, Ben, was born four years later, my hair was back to dark, dark brown.
Having children thrust me into a grown-up world. While I was figuring out my new role as a mom, I scrupulously reviewed every ingredient that passed my children's rosy lips. I learned about the campaign to ban Alar (daminozide), a chemical sprayed on apples so they would ripen before falling off the tree. Alar and the product it created when heated, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), were deemed "probable human carcinogens" after dangerous levels of pesticide residues were found in young children. When 60 Minutes covered Alar in a segment titled "A Is for Apple," I switched to organic. Cancer risks from baby applesauce? Not on my mommy watch.
I dressed my children in natural fibers, hand knitting sweaters in cotton and wool. My farm-to-baby approach applied to the personal care products I used on their small bodies. After learning that about eighteen billion disposable diapers were thrown into landfills each year, and they take five hundred years to decompose, I switched from plastic to cloth.
Believe me, using cloth diapers was not easy. I knew only a handful of moms who would put up with the mess. But my children thrived, and that was what mattered most. And now, with everything we're learning about the disturbing list of fragrances, colored dyes, and chemicals in disposable diapers — including glyphosate, the notorious chemical in the herbicide Roundup — I'm glad I mostly used cloth diapers. The environmental impact of disposable diapers was an early wake-up call. I did not want to muck up our planet with plastic waste.
Ironically, this Earth Mama didn't think twice about covering her hair with chemicals that found their way not only into my body (and that of my nursing baby) but also into local waterways when the chemicals went spinning down the drain. This type of denial was a contradiction I wouldn't come to reconcile until years later.
Coloring didn't seem complicated in the beginning. One could choose a signature hue for life or be more exotic and go for a momentary beauty high. I chose life. Or so I thought. With unyielding certainty, I picked a color that was closest to my original dark, dark brown — because who wants to make that decision every few weeks?
At first, I took cover with a "semipermanent" or "temporary" darkest brown dye. I was told this would require a single-process procedure, just one application of color. In those days, my hair grew impossibly fast, and I washed it every day. I planned my life around those once-a-month three-hour salon appointments, getting babysitters and going as far as to make excuses to leave work early if it meant sticking to my coloring regime.
While hair coloring is a chemical process, a simple explanation is really all non-hairdressers need to know to understand how the different types of hair dye work to concoct their magic. Semipermanent color is temporary. It adds more tone and enhances natural color without changing hair color dramatically. In fact, it won't lighten hair because it contains no ammonia or peroxide. The dye fades after several shampoos, leaving the hair its original color. Hair care companies claim that semipermanent dyes can cover up to 50 percent of gray hair. To keep up this coloring routine, you need frequent applications, which, like all hair dyes, can cause damage.
I stayed a semipermanent gal for about ten years, and then three things happened:
1. Gray hair started to overtake the brown.
2. The semipermanent dye washed out to a faded muddy matte color.
3. The times between part touch-ups got shorter and shorter, making the dreaded skunk line appear sooner and sooner.
I was being drawn deeper into the hair dyeing cycle. Friends told me not to use permanent hair color unless I wanted to go lighter, which I did not. I had heard rumblings that permanent dark dyes were dangerous. I knew hair color used hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, chemical dyes, and long-lasting coloring agents. And with the combination of the stronger dyes in permanent hair color, the dye needed to be left on hair for longer periods of time, making permanent hair dye even more damaging. Despite the warnings and increased salon visits, I wanted to cover the gray. So I took the plunge and began using permanent hair dye for a "more significant color change."
In the first step of the process, ammonia and peroxide are used to lighten the natural pigment of hair and form a new base. Then the new color is added. The result is a combination of natural hair color and the chosen shade. I was surprised when my colorist told me she used the same permanent hair color on a friend of mine. My friend's color looked quite a bit lighter and redder. That was probably because her natural color was lighter and redder. With permanent hair dye, the chemicals need to stay on the hair longer. Regular touch-ups every four to six weeks are required to cover the regrowth at the root.
This Whack-a-Mole love affair with permanent color quickly came to dictate my schedule. Intensive monthly sessions eventually gave way to every-two-week salon visits as my skunk line moved in sooner and sooner. By the time I stopped coloring, I was going to the salon every other week to cover my part.
Even in the early days, the constant upkeep was a struggle. It came to a head one sunny afternoon as I sat in the bleachers at one of my son's Little League games, simmering with rage at an obnoxious dad who was yelling over and over, "Kill the pitcher!" My seven-year-old was the pitcher.
Fed up, I threw off my baseball cap and stood glaring in disbelief at the oaf. Teetering on the bleachers, I was about to launch into an "adults play fair" lecture when a friendly mom on the bench above me tapped me on the shoulder and said pleasantly, "Ronnie, are you doing that on purpose?"
Thinking she was also peeved about Little League injustices and hoping I had an ally who would help give the guy a lesson about acceptable behavior, I started to answer. "Yes, he needs to know how to act like a responsible ..."
Peering down at the top of my head, she cheerfully said, "You're awfully young to go gray."
I was past due for a root touch-up, a social expiration date of sorts. I looked at my baseball hat lying in the mud five flights down. The hat was supposed to protect me from the sun and unsavory comments about my pariah part. But the hat had slipped from the floor of the bench in between the bleachers, and now I would need to climb down and crawl around in the damp grass to retrieve it. Lovely.
"Um, no. I'm not doing this on purpose," I stammered.
"Well, your silvers shimmer in the sun. Might look nice," she said warmly.
My son's honor was at stake, and all I could think of was, Are you kidding? No freaking way. I wasn't even forty yet. (I would later learn that approximately 32 percent of women are under the age of thirty when they notice their first gray hairs.)
Just then there was a burst of cheering from the parents on our team. My son had stopped walking miniature hitters and was on a spree of pitching perfect strikes. The crowd went wild. On my feet now, I glanced up to see the annoying dad watching me closely. He wasn't looking at my face to congratulate me. With a raised eyebrow and a cockeyed smirk, towering over me, he tipped his hat in the direction of the top of my head.
I lost the courage to take a verbal swing at the sweaty guy. How could he possibly take me seriously with my unkempt part showing? In that moment, I became the slovenly mom. Surrendering to an insane hair rule, I had only myself to blame.
Whoopi Goldberg once described how shocked she was when she first discovered that her "ass is bigger." She kept checking behind her and finally resolved that she was being stalked by her own behind.
Those slovenly roots stalked me everywhere, and they loomed large in my memory as, twenty years later, I made my way home to New York from the DC meeting on toxics. I was committed to researching dyes and their health effects. But could I give up coloring myself? Of course, the first person I consulted was my mother. My mom's hair is thinning, but her memory is thick with wisdom. Once I had blurted out my dilemma, she reminded me: "The world may be a different place from when I started coloring my hair, but old, graying hair is not necessarily good hair."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "True Roots"
Copyright © 2019 Ronnie Citron-Fink.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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