Many years ago, when I was living in France, I booked into a local hairdresser’s to get a haircut. But then I started looking in the dictionary for words to describe what I wanted, and nothing that was possible to say looked accurate. It’s not that I have a particularly demanding haircut, only it is surprising how many pockets of technical vocabulary you run across that depend on very specific terms. When the time came for the appointment, I chickened out. I just couldn’t face emerging from that salon with a disastrous cut. Safely back in England I confessed my cowardice to an older student friend. ‘I don’t blame you,’ she said. ‘The worst identity-destroying haircuts I’ve ever had have been abroad.’ And I appreciated her choice of words; when you mess with a woman’s hair, you mess with her soul.
I know I am fussier than many women in this respect. I’ve had the same haircut since I was sixteen and I’m not about to change it. My male academic colleague with whom I wrote a book has had at least half a dozen different hair styles since I knew him. ‘Everyone has to have a hobby,’ he told me, ‘and mine is vanity.’ Generally, my hair is the only part of me that I consistently like, and that is properly low maintenance. Not that I haven’t had disasters. When my son was born, I thought I might try a perm, and even though I went to a good hairdresser the result was little short of horrific. Then, only months after that had grown out, I went to a small village hairdresser and emerged with one side several inches shorter than the other. The only reason these incidents were not sheer trauma was that I had a baby, which is probably the time in a woman’s life when she is least aware of herself. I didn’t look in a mirror from one end of the day to the other, and it was just as well.
Recently, however, I’ve been recalling these old scars on my self-image, as for months and months I’ve been trying to decide whether to dye my hair or not. I’m 42, and the grey is beginning to seep in. I still look like a brunette, and in imperfect light, you might not notice the grey at all. But it’s there. Last summer I made an appointment at my hairdressers but chickened out again. These places are nothing but windows, you know? And it bugs me that whenever women have beauty needs, they have to go on a journey of ridiculousness to meet them. Everything we do to ourselves, with the exception of having a massage, involves a little ritual of humiliation. Clearly lots of women don’t mind this, or don’t think of it that way, but I find I do. The times I have stood in the chemists eyeing up the home kits! And of course, the times I’ve been caught there by colleagues and friends… You could put money on it. I just know that if ever I picked up a pack of incontinence pads out of idle curiosity, some ex-boyfriend from twenty years ago would tap me on the shoulder.
But I digress. Mister Litlove was quite keen that I give it a go. Not that he would have pushed me at all if I hadn’t wanted to, but in the end I bought a home kit and in the end he said ‘Well, are we going to do your hair?’ and I sort of felt my time was up. ‘I know,’ I said in desperation, ‘let’s test it on you first.’ My Scandinavian blonde husband threw his head back and laughed. ‘Nice try,’ he said.
Well, Mister Litlove was quite into it, what with his engineering degree and sideline interest in chemistry. And it was relatively simple as processes go. But I would be lying if I said I enjoyed it, or wasn’t counting the minutes until I could get the gunk off my hair. Rinsed out, my hair looked sleek and dark and varnished. Once I’d dried it, it looked okay, not horrific, not like my truly atrocious perm or my lopsided haircut of years past. But… it didn’t look like me. It had a sort of burnished bronze thing going on, the way that all dyes impart a sort of neon glow to your head, like you may have found yourself downwind from Chernobyl at the wrong moment. Plus it was one solid block of colour rather than the range of variations my natural hair has. For a little while I felt quite sick. Who was I with one-colour hair?
And I realised that what I wanted was quite impossible; I wanted my youth back. I wanted to be twenty again, with no thought for my hair, no need for lipstick to brighten my face, no need to think twice about my diet, no concern as to whether or not I ever did any exercise, no worries that lying in the full sun would make me a wrinkly prune. It is very difficult for any woman to dodge the question of her attractiveness at any age (abandoning it altogether is not often a vote in her own favour), but there comes a moment where sooner or later you think: Is this it? Have I now embarked on being expensive high maintenance or succumbing to complete invisibility? With my genius for spotting the start of a trend whilst in its microscopic stages and developing it logically to extreme lengths, I was mentally fitting myself out with the glass eye and the wooden leg.
‘I don’t want to be one of those old ladies who has jet black hair and an inch of grizzled white roots!’ I wailed to my boys. ‘When it’s windy out, I don’t want to be the woman whose hair underneath the top layer is a completely different shade!’
‘You won’t be,’ my husband soothed. ‘That’s only for crazy old ladies who live alone, and that’s not going to be you.’ My boys were really sweet; I had one on each side, patting a shoulder, and I knew then that it didn’t matter what colour my hair was, that it could be the luminescent verdigris I had once seen on a student who had had a fairly impressive dyeing disaster, so long as they loved me. So long, that is, as they would still be seen out in public with me….
‘On finit par s’habituer à tout,’ the French say. Or it’s amazing what you get used to in the end. Twenty-four hours later, I am reconciled to my dark hair with its bronze glow, or at least I’ve stopped being surprised by it. I was listening to Jack Kornfield read from the sanest book ever, A Path With Heart, on audio CD, and he was talking about the huge amount of energy we expend on internal civil warfare, fighting ourselves and our nature and our instincts, battling for all we are worth against what simply is. When people reach the end of their lives, Kornfield was saying, they don’t ask, ‘Did I write enough books?’ they ask: ‘Did I love well? Did I live my life fully? Did I learn to let go?’ Whilst I may not be quite convinced that I won’t be fretting about how much I got written on my deathbed, I do hear what he is saying about letting go. I think it’s one of the hardest things we have to do, and yet we are asked to do it far more than is fair or reasonable. Letting go of the people we love, letting go of old self-definitions so that more appropriate ones can arrive, letting go of stages of life so that we don’t try to extend them beyond their natural limits…. All so necessary and all so very hard. But this is one of the main goals of spiritual life: the recognition that we are much more than any one self, any one body, any one definition, any one stage of life. Or any one hair colour.