In my fiction writing, the question “What if?” is a great way to get stories going. What if an abused woman discovers she can leave her body? What if a young boy makes friends with the monsters in the basement? It serves a creative purpose, and it’s a fun question. But in my real life, […]
(Since everyone else seems to want to).
So I’ve been getting gray hairs since my late twenties. Back then, it was a few hairs here and there, something to joke about, oftentimes plucked out, only to be replaced virtually overnight. Not a big deal, though.
It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that they grew numerous enough for me to feel compelled to cover it up with hair dye. But I wasn’t consistent about it–I’d do it three times a year, maybe. Part of it was laziness–who wants to deal with that stinky muck?–and another part of it was, Oh, who cares?
Well, it turns out quite a few people have some fairly strong opinions about it.
I’m in my mid-forties now, and I made the conscious decision about a year ago to never dye my hair again. That slow and steady turning of a few grays a year has accelerated rapidly in the last few years, and I have just as much gray as light brown. Again, the decision was part laziness, part rebellion against the societal pressure for women to preserve their youth and beauty no matter what the cost. Fuck that, right? Yet I was still a little nervous and chose to keep that last box of hair dye in the bathroom closet. You know, just in case.
The reactions I’ve gotten over the past year have been interesting and various, depending on age group. Younger people (35 and under) invariably don’t give a shit. Why should they? To them, I’m already “old” anyway. It’s beyond their noticing.
The only exception to this was some youngish person asking me one day if my gray was natural or if I dyed it gray.
Excuse me? Why on earth would anyone dye their hair gray on purpose? Oh yes, I was informed. Apparently it’s a trend now among the younger set. Lucky me. I’m “trendy” without even trying. And yet I found myself a little miffed, too. Sorry, kid, but you gotta earn those grays. How dare you youngsters try to usurp that privilege! Stick to pink and blue and green, will ya?
Those older than me (50 and up), men and women both, seem to adore it. I can’t get through a single shift at my cashier job without some customer commenting on my hair:
“Wow, your hair is beautiful!”
“Is that your real hair color? It’s gorgeous!”
Gratification ensues. Finally, after a lifetime of hating my limp, mousy hair, it decides to become my friend in midlife.
One older man waxed rhapsodic about my hair–and other women in general who let their gray out naturally–for a solid five minutes. He praised the natural look and criticized that “horrible pharmacy red” that women of a certain age tend to dye their hair. This man has become my champion.
Interestingly, it’s women around my own age who are visibly distressed by my decision. A particular family member seems almost angry: “You’re too young to have gray hair!” Others have commented how “brave” I am to show my true colors. I find both of these reactions a little sad, and yet I’ll still defend the notion with my dying breath that a woman (and men as well) should do what makes her feel comfortable in her own skin. Hair, make-up, liposuction, even plastic surgery. As long as she’s doing it for herself, and not for some one else or “society”.
But that’s where it gets sticky.
The truth is, if I didn’t get any favorable responses, if my gray hair came out in uneven patches or was yellowy and ugly, rather than the lovely silver I inherited from my mother, if I had an unfortunate face, I’d probably dye it. Hell yes, I would!
So that last box of hair dye still sits in the closet, dusty and waiting. You know, just in case.
I have a thing for tormented genius women.
Not because I think I’m a tormented genius. I’m often tormented, but not much of a genius. It just seems like true brilliance often comes with a price, whether it’s tragedy, mental illness or repression or all of these. I’m thinking mostly of women like the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others. Men aren’t immune–think Van Gogh, or Edgar Allen Poe. The myth is that artists and writers need to be a little unstable to create their immortal work.
Obviously this isn’t true for all creatives. But the ones we’re often fascinated with are the ones that suffered and bled out genius.
What got me thinking about this is the recent film A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, as well as the BBC’s film To Walk Invisible: The Brontes. I haven’t seen the Dickinson film yet, but it’s at the very top of my list as far as movies go right now.
Dickinson was famously reclusive, and towards the end of her life barely left her room. She died in 1886, at 55 years of age, of “Bright’s Disease”, commonly known as nephritis.
(Shamefully, I live only 20 miles away from her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and I’ve never visited her museum. I’ve put it on my summer to-do list.)
A few other wonderful films I like about tormented genius women include:
The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Though not a straight biography, this film interweaves three story lines concerning Virginia Woolf, her work and themes. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941 by drowning, at 59.
Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Plath, a young poet in the 1950’s, trying to make her mark in the literary world while still outwardly conforming to the feminine ideal of wife and mother. Plath suffered from depression, and committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Luckily, we have other genius women, like Jane Austen, whose dazzling gems of comedy and social satire emphasize the genius rather than the torment. Despite her own life being marked by financial struggles, loss, and the boundaries of her gender, her works are a delight to read. She never married, and died in 1817 at the age of 41, possibly of Addison’s Disease.
I’ve read all of Austen’s novels repeatedly, but never read an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. It’s been made into a movie called Love and Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, and it’s also on my must-watch list. As far as biopics about Jane, there’s Becoming Jane, which focused on her relationship with Tom LeFroy. An enjoyable film, but it probably took some dramatic license and exaggerated the romance with LeFroy.
While I’m talking about women authors and film, I want to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (brilliant in her own right, quite sane, and very much alive). I’m seriously thinking about subscribing to Hulu simply to watch the new series based on the book.
Have you seen any of these movies? Do you have a favorite tormented genius woman author? Who have I forgotten? Drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it!