Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty,Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters, by Anne Kreamer. Originally published in 2007. 224 pages.
This is another one of those books which caught my eye as I was perusing the library shelves. I almost left it there because it would probably be best to finish the stack of books in the queue before adding another one to it. However, since the topic is one that interests me for a number of reasons, I picked it up. I’m glad I checked it out. Despite the fact that it started to go off point at about the half way mark, the first half was worth the time I spent reading it.
Kreamer started out with an excellent premise after being taken aback a bit by a photo of her 49-year-old self with her dyed brown hair. She wondered about the authenticity of the choice she’d made many years earlier to start dyeing her hair, since she began to gray a little earlier than usual. This epiphany of sorts led her not only to begin the process of letting her gray hair grow in uncolored, but also on an exploration of the how’s, why’s, and wherefore’s of a culture where 2/3 of women over aged 40 dye our hair.
I color my hair as well, but just as my greater journey towards health led me to stop chemically straightening my hair, I have recently begun to wonder if I should stop coloring it also. I haven’t gotten off the bottle yet, but the urge to do so is getting stronger and stronger the healthier and stronger my body becomes.
The best parts of this book are to be found in the first 100 pages. Kreamer starts with the day she embarked on her journey, and then transitions into the history of events which have gotten us to where we are today. She explores the beginnings of the cosmetic and chemical “advances” that put hair coloring within the reach of average women:
Three or four decades after the baby boomers’ countercultural transformation of the culture, we have held on to the hedonistic forever young part of our Woodstock dreams much more tenaciously than the -open-and-honest-and-authentic part. p. 38
Our present era of mainstreamed artificial hair color began in the 1950s and 60s. But the tipping point came, I believe, during the 1980s–when the oldest baby boomers entered middle age and the grand illusion of permanent physical youthfulness really became widespread and almost obligatory. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Ronald Reagan, a man with *impossibly black hair in his seventies (as well as glowing, ruddy skin) blithely and belovedly presided over the country during that decade. p.39
She touches on the technological advances in mass media that give average women hope that they can look youthful until the day they breather their last. She uses her Hollywood insider contacts to get the take of those whose livelihoods depend on appearances. She interviews many friends, acquaintances, and relatives of all ages to get a read on the thoughts, fears, and motivations which compel them to color (or in a few cases NOT color) their hair. The passionate engagement she documents-on both sides of the issue- serve to reveal the emotion bubbling beneath the surface on the topic of our hair, aging, and what our hair represents as we age.
Most of the women I talked to for this book admitted that their number one anxiety about letting their hair go gray was not a fear about how quickly they were closing in on their actuarial death dates–rather, it was that they’d instantly be seen as sexless, grandmotherly old ladies.
There’s an entire litany of responses I could offer up to that quote, but this is a book review. It was this part of the book where Kreamer goes off on a weird tangent which I found unnecessary for a woman happily married for more than two decades, whose children are all grown up. I appreciate that there are many women who approach their 40s in relationship situations far less idyllic than myself or Mrs. Kreamer, but her foray into the bar scene and onto Match.com left me cold. I didn’t see the point and because of it I found those parts of the book less satisfying as it moved forward.
Near the end of the book, Kreamer delves more into the practical realities for those women ready to take the plunge and dump the dye. She talks about appropriate clothing, colors, and the wardrobe overhaul necessary so that she didn’t in fact, look like a grandmother. The end of the book, like the beginning, was far better than the middle. She also delves a it into how gray hair is viewed in the professional realm.
Overall, because of the subject matter and historical context, I enjoyed the book. It isn’t a grand slam, but it was enjoyable enough, and written in a conversational tone which enabled me to read it in two days. I am not a fast reader, so that’s saying something.
On a personal note, it was a good and revelatory experience for me to embrace the truth that the coloring of my hair is an exercise in sleight of hand. Because I have the ethnic advantage of wrinkling late while spending the majority of my time during the week with people of different ethnicities, there is a certain boost that comes with hearing, “You don’t look that old!” Letting the gray come in might certainly interfere with that vain enjoyment. I’ve gotten into the habit of enjoying photographs which remind me that we are simply not the 40-something women of our grandmother’s generation, for better or for worse:
That’s my personal take on my journey to embracing the skin I am in. As for the book, I give it a grade of C.
Content advisory: Frank talk about sexuality, including two or three bits of profanity from interviews Kreamer conducted.
*My 92-year-old grandmother is only about 50% gray so it’s not necessarily true that everyone of a certain age has a completely white head. Graying is genetic.