50 Strands of Gray

On a particularly nice fall day during my senior year, I met with my thesis advisor on a bench between Radford’s library and science building. Ostensibly, these meetings were to make sure my research was progressing, but more often than not our conversations drifted. That day, in the middle of whatever he was telling me about gay whales, Tim stopped and asked me if I was aware there were gray hairs on my fucking head (I’m paraphrasing, but Tim definitely swore. Tim usually swore a handful of times during these meetings. Tim routinely swore a handful of time during class.) I was, and still am, a woman of reasonable sightedness in possession of a mirror and an overhead light. I was aware. I might have asked if he was aware he was similarly afflicted. The difference, of course, was that I was a woman and 22. He was not. The next time we met, he asked me if I was aware my hair was aubergine in the right light. The box had read “Egyptian Plum” but “eggplant” wasn’t a totally incorrect descriptor. I’ve been dying my hair out of perceived necessity about every two months since.

I think I found my first gray in high school. I plucked it immediately and told no one. My relationship with my own body has been a little adversarial. I felt, and routinely still do, out of place in my own body most of the time—slightly too tall, slightly too thin then slightly too doughy, with too-large eyebrows and feet and too-small lips, too many freckles and acne that didn’t seem to trouble my brothers nearly as much (I also don’t recall any of them worrying about their eyebrows, but I could be wrong. At least one of them was concerned enough about eyebrows to attempt to eliminate my burgeoning unibrow. Mom caught us, probably for the best since Micah was going after it with a safety razor and some mentholated Barbasol which I do not recommend getting that close to your eyes.)

In my very early 20s, hiding my grays seemed easier than answering questions about them. I am no more equipped to answer the question “why do you have gray hair?” than I am “why are you so tall?” or “why do you have such long toes?”—all questions I have been asked at one point or another (exclusively by men, by the way. Don’t do that.) It is how my body is and I wasn’t given a choice in the matter,  though it is nice reaching the top shelf and those toes came in handy, both on the swim team and in dance class. I can also pick up socks off the ground without bending over (#blessed.)

For years, dying my hair felt like a reasonable use of my time. Sure, I’ve spent well over $1,000* and countless hours holed up in questionably ventilated bathrooms. I’ve ruined more than one towel, a handful of beloved over-sized concert tee shirts, and (I will admit since she is reading this and will point it out if I do not) my mother’s fancy shower curtain. I have dyed my ears, my cheeks, my forehead, and my neck while missing whole sections of my head. I’ve only avoided dying any pets because I won’t allow them into the bathroom. I don’t want them inhaling toxins. I’ve only had it professionally done twice. It was beautiful both times, but that dollar amount would be much, much higher and it wouldn’t have saved me any time. Only mess.

So, I’m done. Probably. Maybe. I’m not sure. The average white woman starts to see grays around age 35. I am 31 for the next month, but I’ve always thought of myself as a little above-average, a little ahead of the curve. I’m not making a grand stand against fascist beauty standards. I’m not going get my hair cut into a more utilitarian hairstyle or stop shaving my armpits or forego wearing makeup (not when I just picked up this bomb-ass highlighter and might have finally figured out contouring!)—not that there is anything wrong with doing any of that. None of this (or anything else I listed BTW) is necessarily a feminist statement. Right now, it just makes sense to give up something I do to myself largely out of a sense of obligation to other people who probably don’t care nearly as much as I have assumed they do. But I am also the same insecure girl I was at 14 and 18 and 22. I drink significantly less soda now and have that unibrow under control, but I am no less concerned about the way I look when I am out in the world. Giving this up is harder than giving up Diet Coke. I was pretty sure the Diet Coke was giving me migraines and no one asks me, unprompted, about how long I’ve drunk Diet Coke or how long it’s been since I’ve since I’ve had one.

When it all goes, I'm dying it lavender. I don't care if it isn't cool anymore.

Well, I still have less white hair than Bagel.

People (men) like to give people (women) unsolicited advice on how they look or how they might improve their appearance. I am already dreading the first time that happens. Years ago (maybe four or five) a co-worker told me he liked the way my grays were starting to come in and I should think about just letting them go.  I’d been worried that my hair was starting to look really processed and I’d been extra gentle with it, which was the only reason I had not already covered the grays coming in. But in that moment, my hair was no longer mine. Suddenly, it belonged to that guy and whatever I did to it next wasn’t fully my choice. I might have dyed my hair that night. I might have had a false choice, but I was going to use that false choice to tell that guy to fuck off.

…“But Meredith, I’m a guy with opinions. Are you telling me I can’t ever tell women what I think of her appearance?” If you’re asking this question—yeah, that is exactly what I am telling you. If you read this whole thing and that’s what you’re taking away, you should probably keep those opinions to yourself, full stop. We also don’t need to know what you think about the 2016 election, the wage gap, or gender-swapped movie reboots.

Not spending a little under $30 every two months isn’t going to make me debt-free (that money will just go to my wine or cheese or book budget) and I will probably find other ways to waste that time. But this feels right right now. If you see me about in a couple months and my hair is almost pitch-colored all the way through, you’ll know I caved and we won’t talk about it because you know better now, right?

*My hair is typically long enough that I have to buy two boxes. At around $14 a box, 6 times a year, for 9 years= $1,512 and it could be so much worse.

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February Update: no new white dudes

Years ago, I remember a man telling me—this was a friend or acquaintance, I can’t remember who (and wouldn’t say if I could), but it was definitely a man— that someone couldn’t call themselves a fan of Kurt Vonnegut if their favorite Vonnegut novel was Slaughterhouse-Five. This is the sort of information women don’t volunteer to me about any author (or director or musician…) It seems I am not a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read other books by him, but Slaughterhouse-Five remains my favorite. Mother Night, though I’ve only read three other novels by him, would not make the top five. It’s not the novel’s fault, really. I should have known better than to read it right now.

I went to the library after work a couple of weeks about to rectify a particularly crappy Thursday. Someone had quoted the book earlier in the day talking about Internet trolls using racism or sexism to attack people: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The novel’s protagonist is a man by the name of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who is being tried as a Nazi war criminal for his propagandist radio programs. Campbell claims, though he cannot prove it until the novel’s end, that he was working for the U.S. the entire time. He used his radio show to send coded messages. Campbell maintains throughout his telling that his only real allegiance was to his wife, Helga and that he was never a political person…as if opposition to the aims of the Nazis can be called political.

As I read, news reports came in of bomb threats at Jewish community centers and schools around the country. Headstones in Jewish cemeteries were toppled in the middle of the night.  I had a hard time negotiating Vonnegut’s winking distance in light of this. There is a kind of book magic that happens when you pick up the book you urgently need to read in a particular moment. Everything clicks into place and you understand yourself or the world a little better. The opposite is also true. Maybe I’d like this book more Donald Trump had lost the election and Richard Spencer hadn’t set up shop so close to where I live.

This is all to say that I’m done forever with speculative Nazi fiction, whether it imagines the world if Hitler prevailed or tries to ferret out a “good German.” I’m not interested in softening Nazis. There is a book on my desk right now by Timothy Snyder called Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’ll read that. It feels necessary.

It feels equally urgent that I shift my reading life away from white dudes. I still have to read William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy this year. I’m pretty sure Timothy Snyder is a white dude too. There is a high likelihood that the book I read on Reconstruction will be by renowned white dude, Eric Foner. It’s also pretty hard to avoid white dudes when reading epic fantasy and pre-Soviet Russian literature. But that’s still less than 10 white dudes and last year I read around 75 books. I’ve read nine this year so far and Kurt Vonnegut has the distinction of being the only dude, white or otherwise on the list. I figure that’s not a bad start. I just don’t care about what white dudes have to tell me. I know I am supposed to qualify that statement and remind you all that I love specific white dudes. But they know I love them and this blog isn’t their blog. It’s my blog. I get to make blanket generalizations on my blog.

On Tuesday, book fairies (Amazon) left three new books on my door. I haven’t really started any of them yet, but two are very slim—single-sitting reads. I’m re-reading Beloved. I read it in high school and skimmed it for a project in college, but have not read it as an adult. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book