ask polly

‘I’m Trying to Go Gray and I Hate It!’

Photo: Abdul Khafy Mohd Ibrahim / Eye/Getty Images/EyeEm

Dear Polly,

The world is burning and yet I can’t stop fixating on my graying hair. It’s stupid and vain, but I can’t stop. I’m naturally blonde, so it’s not immediately apparent. My hair doesn’t even look that bad! It looks like light highlights. I can see it gradually mellowing into a soft, lovely white. And yet I pick, pick, pick at my strands.

I know this isn’t about hair. But still.

I just turned 35. Last year, I broke up with my boyfriend. A long time ago, you wrote about some controlling ex of yours who couldn’t handle if the bed was not made to his liking. Did we date the same person, by chance? We were together for years and breaking up with him was like breathing cool mountain air after living in a volcano. Over the course of the past year, I’ve tried to come to terms with the relationship and what happened. He berated me a lot. I didn’t load the dishwasher properly.  He made sneaking comments about my manner of dress (never complimentary). He didn’t find me sexually attractive. Sometimes he’d make a comment about a cute brunette. This guy was hopefully the end of a long line of men who weren’t quite right. I stayed with him a lot longer than I should have, though. (Years, I tell you!) I shame myself for this often.

Since this went down, I’ve moved to a much more affordable city. I’m living with family until I find a job and can afford a down payment on a house. Recently, I (successfully!) defended my dissertation. I’ve experimented with my wardrobe, buying clothing that I like but my ex would have hated. I’m thinking about trying to date again in the coming months. I’m becoming acquainted with the local arts scene. I’m submitting job applications. I’ve taken all these steps! Everyone tells me I look great! More relaxed and confident than I’ve been in years! My lovely and supportive friends and family tell me I’m awesome and have everything going for me! And yet I don’t believe them.

I can’t stop fixating on my age and appearance. I feel like I’ve been sucked dry by my controlling ex. I’ve gotten no interviews. Well, actually, I had one months ago but they hired someone younger and far more tech savvy. (They told me I’m “not digital enough.” I’m not a computer, Polly!) I worry about dating. I worry that I’m not attractive anymore. I worry that I’ve wasted too much time in a bad relationship and in a lengthy academic program. I have no clue what good sex feels like! I pick at my hair and feel like a cliché. I can’t enjoy my success. (I’m a doctor now!) I can’t even relax and take pleasure in a long walk or read a good book the way I used to. I want a lot of things: a fulfilling job, a great relationship, a family. I want to have projects and feel excited about my potential. But ultimately I want to enjoy myself — my body, face (hair!), and life — in the moment. But I can’t. Please help.


Dear Graying,

Man oh man, did you come to the right place!

You are trying very hard to get over this fixation on your gray hair, to be more graceful and loving about your natural self, because everyone around you is saying that this is the only way to be. Going gray fits your station in life. Going gray is like deciding to become the kind of person who would never date your controlling ex. Going gray is your soul and your Ph.D. and your guts and your strength. Going gray is a man who loves you for you. Going gray is you loving yourself, more than ever.

But what if you’re walking down this path to gray hair, and everyone else’s triumphant story about it makes perfect sense — you love their story, in fact, and you’re living it, and yet, when you look in the mirror … it just feels wrong?

This makes you annoyed with yourself, right? “Why can’t you catch up to what everyone else is saying, you idiot? Why do you have to be so vain about this?” you ask yourself. You stare at your gray hairs and they’re all you can see. You pick at them. You feel like you’re developing an unhealthy obsession with the gray weeds sprouting from your head. “This is a sickness!,” you tell yourself. “There’s something wrong with me! Why can’t I be the person everyone else sees in me? Why can’t I grow past this? Why am I so vain and so obsessed?”

Every obsession is a map. When you read the map carefully, when you study it for clues, when you use your imagination to translate the symbols on the map into something you can experience in your own habitat and feel with your own fingertips, it becomes instructive and sensual and life-giving. The map shows what your soul wants, and why. The map informs you of some of the key misunderstandings you’ve ingested about how life works. The map tells you who you thought you were, and it hints that you might’ve been wrong all along. The map instructs you on how to circumnavigate your most poisonous delusions. The map leads you back to your truest self.

But sometimes you have to live inside your misunderstandings for a while. One key misunderstanding I have at the moment is that I will stop being a sexual being any second now, so I’d better eat this feeling up before I disappear or evaporate into thin air. I am working with patently false information, but this sensation is also feeding me, driving me to create in a frantic way, driving me to connect with other people at a deeper level. The only person who can make this destructive or creepy or pathetic is me, and all of the messages that other people have about where I am are 100 percent irrelevant. What matters is that I have unpacked my map and I’m meditating on it. I’m talking openly about it. And it is GIVING ME LIFE, MOTHERFUCKER.

Okay then! Tra la la! So now you know how high the stakes are for me, and you understand that I feel you on this. I feel you, I feel you, I feel you. Let’s thank the gods that fate led you here, to this seemingly shallow but actually vital and important place where we can discuss hair color without feeling the world’s shame crumbling down all over us, burying us alive.

I spent the first half of this year trying to go gray. I admired the white and gray varietals blossoming on heads all around me. I followed that “Grombre” Instagram account and marveled at how beautiful gray and silver hair can be. I started wearing red lipstick. I took selfies with my gray roots dominating the shot. I got my husband onboard. He loved the gray. He said it looked great, repeatedly.

But it was hard to walk around with half-gray, half-brown hair. My hairdresser told me blonde would make the transition easier. So why not? Fuck it, I thought. I’ll go blonde first and then ease into the white-gray more gracefully.

I didn’t recognize myself with blonde hair at first. I loved it, but I also didn’t feel like myself. But that was fine: The real goal was to become a gray-haired, organic, loving, Earth Mother type of woman — aging gracefully, full of wisdom and self-love. I would be a beacon unto others! I would enter my next phase of life like a sweet gray bird, lifting off from the petty concerns of modern mortals. So inspiring! I would take a new shape. I would put sexiness behind me forever, or I would be sexier than ever. Who knew? I would feel powerful. I would feel beautiful. I would manifest enlightenment. Gray hair definitely suited me. It would feel right.

Well, guess what? It felt wrong. I woke up every morning and saw Einstein in the mirror.

Now, one important thing to know about me is that I cannot be bothered to shower with clocklike precision. I wake up every morning and write. I have big ideas in the morning. I am a teensy bit delusional, which I probably don’t need to tell you is the ideal state for a writer. I am almost hallucinating. I am filled with images and feelings. The last thing in the world I can concern myself with is running a brush through my hair. The idea of slowing down to make myself presentable early in the morning is almost repellant to me. I feel like I’d kill off my own magic if I lived that way.

See, I sound like an old earthy hippie now. I sound like someone who would absolutely embrace and adore her own gray hair. But nope. I fucking HATED. IT. Being messy and gray was just too much for me. And I can’t kick messy. It’s a baked-in part of my lifestyle.

As it turns out, I am not a graceful gray guru lady. As it turns out, in spite of my deceptively messy exterior, I am a vainglorious beast. I am a shallow puddle with a tsunami hidden inside it. I am an attention-seeking missile. Over the past year, I’ve discovered this about myself and I’ve been slowly trying to own it. Owning it feels like returning to the person I was as a kid, some strange hyperactive entertainer type of human with an infinite kaleidoscope of planets spinning around inside her head and her heart. It feels really, really good, too. I’m on fire. I’m breathing fire. I am fire.

And every morning, I wake up and it’s like there are these maps everywhere. I’m surrounded by obsessions. I’m writing trippy shit and spitting out ideas on Twitter and exercising and writing songs and yes, I do sound manic. But I’m not depressed. And I’m still sleeping at night and eating and speaking calmly to the people who matter to me. I’m still realistic, almost. And yes, I am still occasionally knocked down by a giant wave of shame that says, “This is not how you should behave at your age,” and “Why don’t you just calm the fuck down?,” and “This glorious planet inside your head is a delusion,” and “Get back in your cave, bitch.”

So I have to read my maps closely. My maps tell me that I thought my world was ending. My maps tell me that I thought this was it, that my life would always be the same from this day forward, that all I could do was smile sweetly and shut the fuck up about it. My maps tell me that I want more than that. My maps tell me that I want a bigger life than this. My maps tell me that infinity is still mine, and yours, every goddamn day we’re still drawing a breath.

Blonde hair is a symbol of something for me now. I don’t even think I look better with blonde hair. I miss being a brunette sometimes. But my blonde hair feels essential at the moment, in its audaciousness. It’s just for me. It doesn’t have to be a symbol for anyone else. It doesn’t have to be anything to anyone. But I know what I want now. I know how I feel. So my obsession with my hair has passed. I hardly think about it at all. I make hair appointments now, that’s it (and thank Jesus I can finally afford this, because I’ve been coloring my hair at home for decades).

That particular map has been folded up and returned to a high shelf. But here’s what it taught me: Vanity is a knife we wield against women, young and old alike. It’s a weapon that says, “Get back in your cave and boil the rice, you stupid whore.” And I’ve decided I’d rather be a stupid whore out in the world than go back into that cave again.

Whore is a word I love now, in fact. It feels like solidarity with all of the women I used to hate for no reason. Beautiful women and menacing women and powerful women and yes, actual sex workers, too. It feels like solidarity with the reckless predatory lover I was as a young woman. I have resurrected that pretty slut (also a great word) and we are having a blast, jumping from planet to planet, celebrating all of these fucked up maps and what they’re teaching us.

So even though an unruly mob might rush into the comments section of this piece in order to inform us both of what self-centered, vain losers we are, I want you to see that for the sick, distorted variation on the same “Get back in your cave” theme that it is. And look, I say that with love and empathy for the people who write and say such things. I was just like them pretty recently. Everyone has their own maps, and all of our maps are constantly evolving, so we have to cultivate compassion for the maps that look entirely different from ours.

The choices you make about your appearance are not some moral litmus test. You get to do what you feel. My blonde hair does not mean gray hair is shitty and old-looking. The words old-looking also mean “gorgeous” and “sexy as fuck.” Think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s craggy, outrageously luminous and perfect face. Craggy grayness is hotness incarnate.

No one gets to place these arbitrary symbols on a scale of comparative purity. And also, fuck purity. Fuck taking trivial human behaviors and blowing them up until they’re sweeping indictments of your soul. Regular, enlightened human beings need to stop imprisoning themselves and each other with these impossibly moralistic regulations on how to be. We finally created a secular world where humans can feel free to be themselves, and now a whole new set of self-imposed religions have entered to crush us all into the ground.

Do what you feel. Do what you feel today and tomorrow and the next day. The primary ethical concern we should all have now is the survival of the planet. Everything else is dinner music.

Personally, I feel imperiled. My children are imperiled. Our world’s expiration date lives inside me now, as if it’s tattooed on my vital organs. I’ll bet you’re the same way. Emancipation from arbitrary cultural verdicts feels like a form of survival at this moment. So let’s fight the biggest fight of our lives in sequins, motherfuckers. Let’s seize this glorious day and love it with every inch of our bodies — in feather boas and silk capes, in ludicrous lingerie, in satin and fringe and silk scarves and thigh-high boots. We are still here. We need to celebrate that. We are wide awake and alive and we need to dress like it and act like it. Shame is a shipwreck in this drowning world, an artifact of a place that we’ll never visit again. We can do whatever the fuck we like.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘I’m Trying to Go Gray and I Hate It!’