Vanity And Its Discontents

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.

29 thoughts on “Vanity And Its Discontents

  1. It is indeed one of the main goals of spiritual life…and interestingly, anyone who comes close to learning to let go usually takes on an unearthly radiance that has nothing to do with age. I recently acquired some clients in their seventies, who have spent their lives as a “spiritual financial counselor” and an herbalist, respectively, and they are selling their home because “it’s time to let go of that part of our identity.” They both look no more than fifty, and I have been really amazed at the openness with which they speak of the fact that the exercise of letting go of the house, to which they are very emotionally attached, is a stage in their personal development. I kind of want to adopt them as my parents.

  2. While I don’t have to worry about the grays quite yet, I have had a truly hideous perm! I looked like a poodle. It was terrible.

  3. I’m jealous that you’re 42 and only now wondering whether to dye your hair! I’m only 29 (for a few more days) and already getting quite a bit of gray. My hair is similar to my grandmother’s in color & consistency and hers went gray early too. At least it was a pretty, silvery gray, I suppose. Luckily I think playing with hair henna is fun & slumber-party-ish, so that particular turning point won’t be the thing that brings on crisis mode. 🙂

    That said, this post is very timely for me as I’m turning 30 and having the standard “Where am I going with my life?” debates with myself. The spiritual goal of letting go of the need for constant control and trusting to one’s instincts to some degree is great in theory but difficult (for me) to achieve in practice. It’s hard to realize that there’s no one “right” or “perfect” way to live one’s life, and that any of several decisions will likely work out OK in the end.

  4. I have had my hair cut in Zimbabwe and in Germany. It turned out fine both times and in any case, it will always grow back (at least it has up to now).

    I used to fret about my hair when I was younger, but now (the wrong side of 40) I could care less. As long as I can get it into a pony tail, I am good. I do dye the gray bits, however. After you do it once, you only need touch up the roots.

    And listen to Bluestocking! A salon will dye it well, so that it looks natural, and not a solid block. To find a good stylist, just ask someone who’s hair you admire where they get theirs done and go there.

  5. In regard to your last comment, I have to say I think I will be disappointed on my deathbed if I haven’t at least gotten published and made some sort of intellectual contribution to literature. Also, while I will hopefully have some time beforehand, I’ve already decided that when my hair goes grey, I’m dying it red. Since I can’t get my natural color (also a brown of many variations) back, why not have some fun?

  6. I’ve had my hair disasters too – including terrible haircuts and a ‘loose’ perm that produced the tightest curls ever and it took ages to grow out. When my hair started to go grey (in my forties, several years ago) I did what you did and experimented with home kits, but I didn’t like the results. So then I had lowlights put in at the hairdressers – OK for a while , but I couldn’t stand having to go so regularly to have the roots done. The lowlights were supposed to fade with each wash but didn’t! Now I’ve decided that grey is good, but it has taken me years to get to this point – ‘letting go’ of my dark hair has been difficult.

  7. Lovely post! I do think learning to let go – of caring what others think and even more, what we think of ourselves – is part of getting older and learning to be kinder to ourselves. Having said that, every person has their boundaries as to what letting go means. For me, allowing the grey has been a wonderful journey of self-acceptance. But then I feel naked without my lippy.

  8. I, too, have had disastrous haircuts in France…

    On the dyeing question, I have been dyeing my hair since I was 18, so for a little over a decade now. My natural colour used to be the most boring mousey brown you could imagine, so dyeing it auburn or mahogany or Rich Red-Brown #32 or whatever was a fun escape.

    But I got my first grey hair aged 16, and now I’d say I’m about 50% grey at the roots. And not even (quite) 30 yet! It’s so unfair. Now, I must re-dye every month or so, otherwise the roots look too, too awful.

    Except I kind-of wish I didn’t have to keep dyeing my hair. I wonder what my natural colour is. I wonder what I’d look like with half a head of white. But how on earth can I transition back to my natural colour? At the moment I am resolved to keep dyeing, less and less enthusiastically.

    I don’t quite know where to go next. Woe, woe is me…!

  9. I had my hair cut in China, even a few perms, but every time I had long moments of apprehension during the process, in front of the mirror, that I hadn’t used the correct pronunciation and if they’d got it right (I even bought a small leaflet with model haircuts and pointed to pictures for years…). Most of other areas in life you get by with approximation in a foreign country, but not that one (same goes for doctors)! I don’t like the idea of dyeing my hair at all (chemicals… i don’t do perms anymore for that reason), I hope I will find the courage to go grey when it turns that way.
    btw… hair: another surefire blogging subject where every reader will add his/her two cents of comments! 😉

  10. I apparently have three times as much hair as normal people; everytime I go to a hairdresser, the stylist usually calls her friends to gather round and check out the crazy hair person. I now mostly tie my hair back with the elastic band from the day’s newspaper and then forget about it.

  11. Hands down, my worst haircut experiences were when I lived in Japan. I have very fine (yes, another word would be thin!) light blonde hair and this difference was extremely hard to manage for any of the Japanese hairdresses I encountered in rural Japan. I was in my mid-twenties and hated my hair for several years. It was hell. 🙂

    Luckily the Swiss manage all right. But it is awful what women will go through (and men as well these days) to feel presentable.

  12. Sounds like maybe what you need is lowlights, or a mixture of highlights and lowlights, in shades not too far from your natural one. Very low maintenance, as you don’t have to monitor roots growing out, just repeat at whatever interval you can afford without wincing – even six months is ok. I’ve been having highlights in my once blonde hair on and off for many years. I probably shouldn’t bother, as it’s expensive and not very noticeable. It just feels a bit less dreary than the natural colour, and I’ll probably carry on doing it until there is naturally more white than anything else, which I really look forward to. The effect of grey mixed into blonde hair is very different from with dark hair, of course. I’m sure your hair is perfectly fine now, though. I know what you mean about the shiny solid colour of dyed hair, but like all these things it is much less noticeable to other people. Certainly less noticeable than a bad haircut. And it fades quite quickly.

  13. Oh my goodeness, I could add a few things on hair… It’s much more important than we care to admit, isn’t it? I have a special relation with the topic as I lost all my hair at the age of 23. It took almost seven years to grow back. I’m happy to report I’m neither bald nor grey haired at present but the topic remains sensitive. I’ve been thinking about what I would do if I turn grey. I enjoy using color but it’s gentle, washes out, not the type you could use to cover grey hair. Many women who are dark go blond as the roots don’t stick out so harshly. I can even understand how you felt when you all of a sudden had only one shade. You would have to add highlights…
    On the picture you look very young and cute, so don’t worry too much. We usually look older in our own eyes. Bit of a relief really… You did remind me that I have a Kornfield book here, I’m sure I will like it.

  14. Hair is such a thing, isn’t it? I love the way you write about it and the whole colour angle. I thought I’d colour my hair when it started to grey, but I can’t really be bothered. I think it helps that I have 10 years on you and my hair is just grey at the right temple. My kids wanted me to colour it but A didn’t and inertia voted with A. I figure by the time it’s all grey I’d look funny with my hair coloured. What’s harder for me is that since I started getting hot flashes a year ago, my hair has thinned. I don’t like that! No I don’t. There goes enlightenment. (And I do like Kornfeld.)

  15. Oh yes – there are definitely ‘European’ haircuts, just like there are ‘European’ specs. Hard to say what makes them so continental, but whatever it is, it really stands out.

    About your hair, I think that what really matters is how you feel and what makes you feel most happy in your own skin. Personally, I think natural is overrated – as long as the colour goes with your face and eyes, who cares that it’s dyed? Bring on the richness, the glow and the funny shimmer! But it’s got to work for you and how you see yourself, so maybe natural or posh salon is the way to go… Will you post an update in 6 or 8 weeks?

  16. I am petrified of hair salons — they are like a goldfish bowl! I am emotional about my hair and I’m always afraid I’ll start crying in front of everyone if my hair comes out looking bad. And although I secretly harbor a desire to have red hair, I would never die my hair. I’m too scared! I always think of that scene in Anne of Green Gables where she tries to dye her hair and it comes out green. I admire people who are brave about their hair — I so am not.

  17. How interesting that I read this post today. I awakened this morning with a strange thought. After next Thursday, I will only be 7 years away from 70! 70!!! How can that be? How did I suddenly get to be 63? At least it feels sudden. I don’t look anywhere near 63. I inherited “peaches and cream” skin that doesn’t wrinkle, and any tiny lines I do have all go up, not down. Nevertheless, end of life thoughts are beginning to creep in at my sterling age. Knowing me, on my deathbed (assuming I have that kind of lingering time) I will ask myself if I was the best parent I could be, if I was kind, if I was honest. I will be grateful for the blessings that came my way. But, on second thought, I might remember the time I got a perm and afterward went to go pick up my kids from school. When they saw me they broke into tears and one of them cried out, “Take it off Mommy!” Well, if I don’t remember to think about the things that made me “me,” I’m sure my children will do it for me. Thoughtful post, Livelove. For me the timing was perfect.

  18. This post sums up a lot of the thoughts I have about getting older, but could never put into words the way that you have.

    A good hairdresser will give you lowlights in different brunette shades which look far more natural than the block colour of home kits. Maybe you could have some dark blonde lowlights, too, which is a whole new way of approaching grey. Expensive, I know, but a woman’s hair is a key part of her identity.

  19. Lovely post and you have to let go I’m afraid, so best to accept it and get on within reason. As to my hair, well I won’t have to worry about the grey too much as gradually it’s letting go of me!

  20. David – your couple sound delightful and I can completely imagine what you say about their unearthly radiance. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like that – just the usual human beings! 🙂

    veryhungrybookworm – oh those bubble perms! My heart goes out to you. I remember it well myself.

    Bluestocking – I wish I were one of those women who think it’s fun, I really do. I’m sure your highlights will look lovely.

    Emily – you’re so young! I’m sort of surprised because your blog voice is so wise and insightful about your reading; I had you down as older than that somehow! Oh it took me until my mid-thirties until I realised that my entire life wasn’t being put on CCTV for some monstrously harsh judging panel to watch and evaluate me. 🙂 I’m sure you’ll get there far sooner than I did. And have fun with the henna – I’m sure you’ll look lovely.

    Ruthielle – judging by other comments it seems to be a France thing! But it’s always good to have come to some sort of solution that you’re happy with and that works for you. That’s great.

    Miriam – it’s good to have a plan! And good luck with publication – sounds like you have plenty of years to make that come true.

    Margaret – you get me completely. My husband is blonde and it’s so easy for him to go gray – it’s there but not obvious at all. We brunettes have a much harder time of the transition. And I know exactly how you feel about the salon. I really like my hairdresser and it’s a nice place, but it’s so expensive and I always put off going for as long as I can. Getting used to the idea of having to make these sort of upkeep decisions is a tedious business, isn’t it!

    Charlotte – I remember when you made the decision to stop dyeing – but then you looked lovely just as you were, and I’m not sure I will… but it is getting used to the letting go that lies at the heart of all this. And of course, making decisions about which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t.

    Jo – dear Jo! So many of my students have dyed hair (I’ve been watching, lately!) and of course, being young they can get away with anything and look lovely no matter what. It is SO difficult to decide what to do about hair, and how best to manage the transition, and it must be much more of a pain if you’ve already had to put a lot of effort into upkeep. But nature is very even-handed and you will probably keep your marbles far longer than any of us, or remain wrinkle-free or some lovely advantage to even it all out!

    Smithereens – pictures are a good idea. But exactly – it’s like the doctors, a place where you just don’t want to be misunderstood! You have many years to go before you have to make a decision like this and I think it’s easier for people with short hair – long grey is not going to look great on me, at least!

    Niranjana – as someone who’s always had fine hair, I think it would be lovely for it to be three times thicker! But of course, that’s easy for me to say.

    Michelle – oh I can imagine how difficult it must have been! I can remember years and years ago a hairdresser telling me about a young trainee who had Asian hair to deal with for the first time and made this dreadful butcher job of it that he had to sort out. There are some serious differences. And it is so true that we have to suffer for beauty more than is reasonable! 🙂

  21. Jean – to be honest, I have completely got used to it now and feel quite sure that when I see a friend for tea next week who hasn’t seen me in a couple of months, she won’t notice at all! It was just a shock at first, you know? And I am delicate (or fussy, take your pick) about these things. My husband is blonde and he is greying so nicely – you can barely tell – so I am sure you have managed the transition beautifully.

    Caroline – oh my goodness – well, now I feel I have nothing to complain about. Losing all your hair must have been quite an experience, and I am very glad it all came back. A friend of mine lost all hers as a result of severe stress, and I use that memory as a way of reining myself in if I think I’m worrying too much. Is this worth losing my hair over? I ask, and usually that puts me back on the straight and narrow. You are now officially my best friend for saying I look young. That picture was taken from a bit of a distance, you know. 😉 Oh and do let me know how you get on with Kornfield. I really like him.

    Lilian – oh you know a person can try and stay serene but before you know it, something’s happened that really irks. 🙂 I am fond of inertia as a solution to all kinds of beauty problems, but I guess I’m vain about my hair; laughing at oneself is always a way to get a bit of perspective though, and it did make me laugh to write this!

    Rose – what a kind, sweet comment, thank you! I’ll definitely do an update. And I’m so glad that it’s not just me and French hair salons. There are definitely cultural factors at work! 🙂

    Jenny – oh a woman after my own heart. That is exactly how I feel. There is just something about hair – it’s too personal, although that is a ridiculous-sounding thing to say, I know. 🙂

    Grad – I’m glad the timing was good, although it sounds like you have many, many years to go before you need worry about these things. I once put my hair in bunches and my son freaked. They do like you to look the same, don’t they? Although to be fair, the bunches were only for a laugh and not the greatest fashion idea I’ve ever had.

    Nicola – thank you, how kind! And I have become accustomed to paying for an expensive haircut because it looks nice and lasts well, so I daresay in time I will become quite accepting that good colour stylists are a worthwhile investment too!

  22. I, too, have begun to get grey. I embrace the grey, but like you, I miss my youth. The hair doesn’t bother me, but I miss the firmness and freshness of my face. But you are right-my kids just think I’m beautiful.

  23. I’m like Emily way above who had gray very young; I had tons of it in my 20s. Maybe that made it a bit easier to start coloring, because I obviously had bad luck and couldn’t be expected to just adapt to it! You are so right that we are asked to do an unreasonable amount of letting go. I guess that’s why it makes sense to practice …

  24. Emily – thank you for the solidarity! And thank goodness our children love us just as wite are – that’s real love, isn’t it, and so precious.

    Dorothy – and I always resent the practice! 🙂 How annoying to go grey young, and so unfair. But I do think mother nature evens things out and you will probably have no wrinkles or remain super fit and healthy far longer than the rest of us!

  25. Oh Litlove, this was wonderful! I just turned 43 last month and when I look in the mirror I see strands of greay hair there too. My hair is curly though and the grey ones tend to get lost amongst the curls, still when the light is just right… Once in awhile I think of coloring it but that would defeat my goal of having gorgeous, wild curly white hair like Margaret Atwood’s. I wish I could just wake up one day though and have it be that way instead of this letting go process that you so wonderfully describe. I have colored my hair before with henna just for fun and really liked it. It doesn’t have an all one color effect. It is also all natural. Only drawback is that it lasts for about 6 weeks but on the plus side it just fades out so there are no root issues 🙂

  26. ‘Everything we do to ourselves, with the exception of having a massage, involves a little ritual of humiliation.’ Oh my I feel just the same way about hairdressers. Love changing my hair and having it be done, but hate the process. I’m terrible at small talk, so 2 and a half hours can be torture if I can’t strike up a lasting conversation. And (as nice as they are) hairdressers can never keep themselves from being amazed at the lack of volume in my quite thick hair. Thank goodness my hair is in pretty good condition usually so I don’t have to have the ‘you’ve got so many split ends’ talk. I stopped going to the manicurist because they kept talking about my ridges and the fact that I didn’t get all the varnish off the edges. I actually stride away from makeup counters if anyone approaches rather than have the painful conversation about just how little makeup knowledge I have.

    I am taking to heart all the other stuff about letting go I promise I just neede to get a bit of fellow feeling ranting out 🙂

  27. Stefanie – oh Margaret Atwood! What a fabulous hairstyle to aim for. Now I have hope. I’ve never tried henna (evidently) and may look into it. What I really want is to look exactly like myself and I mean exactly. Sort of quintessence of Litlove. Which is fine except I can’t quite think how to factor in ageing at all! 🙂

    Jodie – Quite! Two and a half hours of small talk would KILL me. And I abhor the thought of having my make-up done for me on those little stools alongside the cosmetics counters; so public! So performative! Rant all you like – there’s no letting go without a little letting off steam. 🙂

  28. I can totally relate to your post. I’m just a tad older and have had more grey hairs appearing than I can now possibly cover (or pull out…) by just fluffing my hair around. So the dilemma–I’m worthless when it comes to doing these sorts of things to myself–like dyeing hair so that means a salon which doesn’t much thrill me as the cost is out of my budget and I refuse to be one of those women who has an inch of grey roots at the top of her head (I’ve sat behind many a woman on the bus so I know what I don’t want). There will come a time, though, when I need to decide whether I’m going to just let it go (and brown and grey are not the nice combination of black and white, which actually looks sort of pretty). Why is it men with grey hair are distinguished and women are (and I hate saying this as I don’t believe it) old hags. I want to be 20, too. I often these days wish I could have a “do-over” and start out from college, but alas that’s not going to happen. So I will try and keep those last few lines of your post in mind! 🙂

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