As I nay dyeing
It all started with a simple word, an itty bitty contraction that threw my world into a paroxysm of feminist ageist angst and conflict. The word in question?
Now, I’m 48. I’ve been called ma’am plenty, usually by well-meaning baristas or bag boys, who pack no more import behind the address than when they tell me to “Have a good one.” This makes me want to swat them and respond, “A goodwhat?, you English-language-strangling moron” – which, by the way, is a very ma’amish thing to do, so I don’t.
That’s because I’m not a ma’am. I dress like a six-year-old and act like a prepubescent boy. I am downtown and rock ‘n’ roll. I like to hang upside-down, go fast, be loud and behave in myriad other unladylike ways that would curl the hairs on most real ma’ams’ chins. Really, by all accounts, I could probably pass for much younger than I am. There’s just one problem: my hair is gray.
This is not a new development. I got my first gray hair when I was 27, the year after my dad died unexpectedly. I shrieked when I saw it, but quite frankly, I was half-expecting at the time to wake up one morning with a head of white hair. I think I had read somewhere that a deep shock can do that to a person. Or maybe I saw it on a made-for-TV movie. Anyway, the overnight transformation didn’t come. The going-gray thing was gradual, one strand at a time, over 20 years.
Early on, my friend Joyce (the one who bosses me around) nagged me to have my hair colored. “Come on. You need to get rid of that mousey brown. You should get some highlights – or why don’t you go red?,” she’d cajole, and I’d pretend to think this was a good idea long enough to have her finish pouring me a beer or making me supper, then I’d change the subject.
After all, I had a look to protect. I was Cute Slob Girl. Slob Girls don’t get their hair cut on a regular basis, don’t do their nails, don’t wear heels, don’t iron, don’t match, don’t mewl over the latest trends. And they definitely don’t color their hair – unless it’s fuchsia, which I did to my Rod Stewart shag during the ‘80s, but we don’t need to visit that fashion choice again, do we? To color one’s hair requires a commitment, a promise to maintain the relationship. I was not up to the task.
But I was lucky. I got away with this Slob Girl look for probably more years than I should’ve. I got carded well into my 30s. I hung around with friends 10-plus years my junior, perpetuating the myth. I even found and married a man who thinks I’m cuter when I’m dressed like a bag of dirty laundry than when I’m dolled up for a night on the town. Not to mention the fact I’ve never had a bathroom with decent lighting in it.
And then one day I ran into an acquaintance I’d not seen in some time. I was heading west up Congress, and the sun was streaming at me. The friend seemed shocked at the sight of me. During the whole conversation, she stared at my hair and wore a look that said, Dear God, what happened to Liz Peavey?
I, of course, just assumed a pigeon had pooed on my head and the friend was too polite to say so. When I got home, however, and did a full examination, I discovered the cause of her horror. The few gray strands that had been intermittently insinuating themselves over the years had joined forces and formed flanks. Liz Peavey was officially gray.
A decision was called for. Age changes things. Just as there is a fine line between being considered witty and sardonic and just plain bitchy, I could no longer pass myself off as Cute Slob Girl. By keeping the gray, I would be making a statement, sending a message to my younger sisters in the trenches: No, to youth worship! Yes, to aging gracefully! Each of my gray hairs represented every wrong turn and turbulence, all my disappointments and good fights. They were a record of my experience, and I was keeping them. Besides, I was too lazy to do anything about it.
And then the ma’am incident occurred.
I was at a newish bar on the East End with a group of friends, mostly male, mostly older than I. (No offense to them, but it was not like I was surrounded by hunks.) We arrived en masse, and in fine fettle we crowded up to the rail. The young barmaid waited on the people to my left and right, and then every single patron surrounding me, passing me by time and again. Just as I thought I might finally place an order, her eyes drifted behind me to someone who had just arrived. The gent very courteously pointed out that I had been waiting longer than he. Even at this point, I was ready to chalk it up, let it go, be OK about it. But then she turned to me with a look that said, What.
Now, here’s the thing: I have manned many bars and waited on countless tables in my life. No one does surly public servant better than I once did, but this was beyond the pale. This was war.
I’ll spare you the details. Just picture a shootout between the old sheriff and the young gunslinger who’s just ridden into town. They’re both holding their own –ptwing! ptwing! – and it looks like it’s going to end in a draw, but then a final shot – blam – takes the old-timer down. This happened to me when the barmaid returned with my change, gave me a long, lean look directly in the eye, and said, “There you go, ma’am.”
I gripped my chest and reeled around the room, knocked over a couple barstools and hit the floor. My compadres circled ’round as I sputtered these dying words: “She ma’am’ed me, boys. It’s over.”
OK, so maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but she got to me. When I sat down, I couldn’t choke down my beer fast enough. My male friends teased me about starting a cat fight, about having to leave, and I kidded back, but my throat was tight and tears stung my eyes. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. This was supposed to happen to other women – all those real ma’ams, not Action Girl.
And that’s when I started thinking about dyeing my hair. My 30th high school reunion was fast approaching. (OK, only a total loser dyes her hair before the first reunion she’s ever attended, but I still had time.) I even asked friends for the names of their colorists. Kim offered to go with me. Joyce cheered. And yet, I just never quite made the call. I went to my reunion – I looked fine – and quickly forgot about the whole thing.
When I recounted all this to my friend Deb and her teenage daughter, Cadie (who, by the way, I have known since birth and who says she can’t wait to have her flame-red hair go gray), Cadie took it in and asked with the insight only the young seem to have, “Why did you want to color your hair? Was it a self-esteem issue?”
No, I said. It was not because I wanted to appear younger than I am, but because I didn’t want to disappear. I thought if I could trick the calendar, play out the clock a little longer… I didn’t really know where I was going with this.
Cadie’s gaze was intent, she listened to each word. I was not invisible. I was right there before her. I knew at that moment I had made the right choice.
Besides, as Joyce – who was disappointed by my decision – reminded me, I’d be hard-pressed to find Mousey Slob Girl Brown in a bottle.
Elizabeth Peavey, for the present, wears her politics not on her sleeve, but on her head. Her column appears here every month.