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Itís a Gray Area, Part I

by Roberta McReynolds

The concern of whether I would ever use hair color sprouted long before the first strands of silver appeared. I was an impressionable preteen when I caught my mother in the act of her secret ritual. Never before had I considered that her auburn-brown tresses might have originated in a laboratory.

My mother stood in the center of the kitchen; a statue with a disposable plastic cap secured over the gooey, dark dye slathered over her scalp. Matching gloves protected her hands, which she held in front of her, wrist bent and fingers pointing upward like a surgeon scrubbed for a stint in an operating room. A kitchen timer filled the uncomfortable silence as it ticked off the minutes until the rinse.

I was rooted to the spot (so to speak), gawking at the spectacle. My mouth must have dropped open, because I could not only smell, but also actually taste the overpowering chemical concoction permeating the air.

A tattered bath towel wrapped over Momís shoulders like a super heroís cape, secured with a pale pink diaper pin. A mental picture formed of her poised atop the Empire State Building, gripping a squeeze bottle of concentrated dye high above her head with that terry cloth cape flapping in the breeze. Madame Metamorphosis, a rebel against the passage of time, holds the power to conquer the sinister force of graying hair and create the illusion of perpetual youth!

"Oh. I need to go to my room and write a book report," I mumbled when I finally blinked my eyes.

I found the periodic routine unsavory when I visualized myself far into the future. I couldnít imagine enduring the seemingly never-ending dye jobs and touchups. Au naturel for moi! I intended on embracing life while portraying how secure a woman could be with the aging process. Vanity! Who needs it?

I welcomed the first pure white strands along my hairline when I approached my late twenties. I marveled at how the light reflected off the surface of each hair (all twelve of them). It was time to stand tall and proclaim, "I have earned every one."

Those dozen white hairs multiplied exponentially like unrestrained rabbits. I was pleased by my mid-thirties when actual streaks formed and broke up the monotonous brown. I experimented with brushing my hair in various directions and parting it to accentuate the color patterns.

I have no idea what I expected would happen between that stage and when I would sport a full head crowned in lustrous white. The truth of the matter is that Iíd hit an awkward point I hadnít foreseen. The lights over my bathroom mirror still reflected the shine and sparkle I loved. (They donít call them Ďvanity lightsí without a reason.) But when I caught my image in a window, a store dressing room mirror, or worse yet, in a photograph, I was shocked by reality.

The white had become more dispersed through the brown making it appear Ö no big surprise here Ö drab gray. Medium-brown hair flourished on the back of my head while the mixed-gray framed my face. Whenever I pinned my shoulder-length tresses on top of my head it looked like I already dyed my hair and had an extreme case of gray roots. My face looked tired and washed out. The resolve I once had to stick to a natural look was getting shaky. It wasnít that Iíd taken so much pride in idealism that caused me regrets and anguish, but that Iíd openly shared it with such a large audience over the years. The prospect of eating my words wasnít a meal I found very appetizing.

Iíll be up front and state for the record that Iím uncomfortable with change. I donít rearrange furniture. The walls inside my house are still the original 18-year-old, antique white paint job. The very idea of a sudden change to my appearance was so far out of my comfort zone that it required a different Zip Code.

I researched hair color products and reviews with the aid and privacy of high-speed computer technology. Mike listened to a litany of pros and cons, and because he is a wise husband, he knew his job was to just nod his head to indicate he was patiently listening. The compulsion fluctuated within me like the ebb and flow of the tides. I donít know if my moods were actually tied to the pull of the moonís gravity, but I believe Iíd rather not know if lunacy indeed played a role in my drama.

I had to work up enough nerve, but eventually (Iíll admit to a couple of years) I tried a clear, non-permanent glaze. Even though the product wasnít recommended for gray hair, I hoped a healthy looking shine would satisfy my needs.

The product did add some shine, and my naturally curly hair felt a bit less frizzy. The process of mixing bottles of mysterious ingredients to plaster on my head was a safe way to familiarize myself with the same steps involved with using hair dye, but without fear of catastrophe. The end result seemed like a huge deal of trouble for invisible color!

Two more months passed before Mike got the next dose of my indecision. He was trying his best not to sway me one way or the other. This needed to be my choice, however agonizing it was to watch. A case of too much information was assaulting his poor ears. How much does a man, blessed with a glorious ĎSanta Clausí beard, really need to know about semi- and demi-products versus permanent dyes?

The overflow of uncertainty fell to my friend. Margie happens to be a champion when it comes to listening patiently. She already has the beautiful white hair I envy and all the business of hair coloring is in the past for her, but whenever she could get a word in edgewise, she shared her personal experiences. The topic had surfaced yet again while the two of us were having a special lunch to celebrate 30 years of friendship. I can testify that one of the best things about a friendship that endures is we can safely say anything to each other.

Sometime after our garlic bread with Minestrone soup and midway into deeply filled plates of penne pasta, Margie was listening to the tired subject once again. She set down her fork as she looked across the table with a steady gaze that made me pause mid-sentence.

"If you can get a tattoo," she emphasized with a nanosecond pause, "you can color your hair."

It took a moment for her words to reach full impact before I burst into laughter. When I caught my breath and met her eyes, I lost it all over again. The smile on her face widened with the intensity of giggles sweeping over me.

"Margie, youíve just put it all back into perspective for me!"

Less than five months earlier I got Ďinkedí for the first time. Designing an image, working with a trade professional and having the quite indelible process of needles and ink applied to skin took less time and energy that I had put into this matter of gray hair.

The following day I was back at the computer with a determined resolve. I found the Clairol website to be supportive and straightforward. Interactive pages guided me, beginning with a color sample that came close to matching my current shade. I answered a few questions with the click of a button; Yes, I want to enhance my natural color rather than change it. I was prompted to decide if I wanted a cooler, warmer, or natural tone. Now a picture representing a prediction of what I could hope to achieve appeared next to the original picture Iíd selected for comparison. The program also revealed the recommended Clairol color.

I was hoping for something more exotic sounding than #18 - Pecan. I even tried a few alternate buttons out of curiosity. I never came up with anything called #1 - Foxy Brunet, #10 - Helen of Troy Umber, or even Frosted Chocolate Malt Fantasy. Oh, wait a minute Ö that last one was my favorite Swensenís ice cream dessert.

The notes Iíd jotted down were shoved into the side pocket of my purse and I was ready to bravely venture into the beauty product section of the local drug store. Tomorrow. I think Iíll wait Ö one Ö more Ö day Ö in case I have a change of heart. Thereís no sense in rushing into anything, semi-permanent or not.

End of Part One

It's a Gray Area, Part Two

©2009 Roberta McReynolds for


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