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Illustration by Alexis Lira

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

In 1997, my mother’s hospice nurse counseled the family that Mom was nearing the end of her 17-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “If friends and family want to say their goodbyes,” the nurse told those of us gathered around Mom’s hospice bed in the living room, “now is the time.”

With that, Mom turned to me and asked, “Will you touch up my hair, honey? I want to look my best.”

Although I’d never colored Mom’s hair, I knew just what to do. I’d watched the hundreds of times my aunt and mom colored each other’s hair at the kitchen table while smoking cigarettes and chit-chatting about family and national politics. (In all my life, I’d never seen either woman’s natural hair color.)

Within the hour, I raised the head of the hospital bed and covered Mom’s shoulders with an old towel. I secured the towel with a butterfly clip I took from my own bleach blonde hair, poured the contents of Clairol Warm Blonde into a plastic bottle, donned the plastic gloves, and as I’d witnessed many times before, shook the plastic bottle vigorously.

Then I clipped the nozzle tip and honored my mother’s dying wish that I apply purple goop to her scalp.

Years after Mom passed — and just as my first gray hairs were poking through — I came across a study linking non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to women who use hair dyes, especially if they began use before 1980.

Presented with evidence that permanent hair dyes might be linked to the cancer that had killed Mom, you would have thought that I’d stop dying my own hair. I did not.

It was going to take more than science for me to break free of the notion drilled into me since childhood that womanhood was about making ourselves attractive.

Eventually, I would stop coloring my hair, but for reasons other than science

What reasons could have been more persuasive than the risk of cancer, you ask?

The morning after a lovely 54th birthday beach party, I woke up with an ulcerated cornea. The pain was so intense, the only thing I had to compare it to was childbirth.

The injury forced me to stop wearing eye makeup, which would have normally left me feeling naked. However, I was in so much pain the absence of makeup barely registered.

Three weeks later — just as I was getting back on my feet — I received a call from my ex-husband informing me our son had had a stroke. I spent the next two months at my son’s ICU bedside, not once thinking of my residual eye pain, let alone makeup.

It would be a tough, long year of caregiving before I returned to very occasionally wearing light makeup.

I no longer wanted be a slave to beauty standards in a way that men expect women to be — but aren’t themselves.

In that time, a feeling of liberation began to take hold of me. It was the same kind of liberation I felt when my children were infants and everyone’s attention was focused on their appearance — not mine.

My preoccupation with my son’s recovery also kept me out of the hair salon. As my gray began to blend (rather nicely) with my blonde highlights, I gave my first serious thought to going natural with my hair color.

And truth be told, I was also finding it impossible to justify my monthly budget for beauty products and services with my son’s medical and rehabilitation expenses staring me in the face.

In the background of all the dramatic twists and turns in my personal life was the #MeToo movement and the election of a president who routinely objectified women. The more I began reading and thinking about the patriarchy, the more I understood that by embracing my gray I’d also be making a bold feminist statement.

On Madison Avenue and in Hollywood, they spend a lot of time advertising that a woman’s shelf life is up when they begin to “look” old. And yet I didn’t know a single man whose beauty routine included sitting 12 to 15 hours a year having highlights or lowlights spliced through his hair, or who plucked his eyebrows daily to maintain the perfect arch.

I know of only a few men who routinely submit to painful waxing of pubic hairs. And that’s not even counting the time that women spend — that men don’t — applying makeup and having their nails done.

Which begged the question: What do men do with all the extra hours in their day?

I subscribe to the theory that these gender messages support males as having a dominant status in society. And so going natural gave me the satisfaction of sticking it to the Man for making me feel like a monster for an offense as small as having pores.

I no longer wanted be a slave to beauty standards in a way that men expect women to be — but aren’t themselves.

I want to be known for something more than a signature hairstyle or shapely calves. I want to be known for being a badass advocate for my son, and as a writer who worked to affect social change.

And so I went to the salon and had all my chemically-treated hair lopped off, leaving behind a “fierce” (as my best friend called it) shock of salt and pepper curls.

At the same time, I’d been working long hours hunched over my laptop finishing up edits to a final draft of my first book. After turning it in just ahead of deadline, I took my stiff body to a much-needed yoga class.

While in tree pose I looked in the mirror and caught sight of a feral-looking woman with untamed short hair looking back at me. I lost my balance as I laughed at the realization that despite my unattractive-by-societal-standards appearance, I had just completed my first manuscript and had never in my life felt better about myself.

How we wear our hair can send a powerful message

It’s not easy to reject what powerful societal forces would have us believe — that the younger a woman looks, the more attractive she is.

And the last thing women need is other women shaming them — see Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey — about how they choose to style and treat their hair.

I’m not here to tell you that there’s anything wrong with taking pride in your appearance or thinking of your hair as a “crowning glory.” But if your appearance does project a message, I believe it’s best to choose the message based on your personality, values, and beliefs, rather than letting the message choose you.

For instance, you could choose a spiritual message that says: My body is a temple and I refuse to knowingly put harmful chemicals on or in it.

Or a factual message that says: I don’t color my hair because government agencies have classified chemicals that are or were used in hair dyes as carcinogens.

It could be feminist message that says: I won’t be defined by what men, or advertisers, or Hollywood, or my boss deem attractive or appropriate.

It could be a counter-cultural message that says: I’d rather spend two hours a week reading a book, learning to rock climb, making delicious dinners, or marching at rallies than ironing my hair.

Maybe it’s an inspirational message that says to younger girls and women: It’s okay to not fight aging.

Or a message to women of a certain age that says: We may be older, but we’re wiser and richer for every experience that made us the confident and beautiful women we are today.

Or maybe it’s a message proclaiming self-confidence that says: I am over the rampant insecurities and constant comparisons that preoccupied me in my youth.

Or, as was the case with Mom, your message may simply say: A Warm Blonde is who I am, who I’ve always been, and who I want to be when I say goodbye to my loved ones.

Amy Roost is a freelance journalist, documentary podcaster, and a 2019 Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Fellow. She lives in San Diego with her husband and weighted blanket (aka two cats). Photo by Jenna Schoenefeld.