I see you, shifting your gaze from my eyes to my hairline, from my mouth to my hairline and then back and forth and back and forth. This is not new to me. I see it often. I see you, old and young, black and white and all the different shades between. What is it that stops you in your tracks? Is it unfamiliar to see me, a woman of forty three years with strands of silver in her hair? Some sitting pretty looking intentional, others acting the fool springing in different directions like they're seeking attention. The young ones around me who speak of the white hair, I do not find bothersome. I am charmed by their blatancy, their stares and their direct comments. They reveal so much about the adults in their lives with the words they share, 'my mum has that, that's why she uses henna but don't say because she doesn't like anyone to know', 'once a week I have to sit down and pull the white ones out for my Aunty', 'if you no have this then you look nice', 'this one (pointing at my white hairs) is no good', 'my dad says when this happens it's because you don't want to take care of yourself anymore' ( so I prompt you child and ask what you think about this and you reply 'I think it will make you pretty if you take away the white hair.') These are just a few of the comments I scribble down 'out of the mouths of babes'. These are words which they share openly and willingly, words that leave me intrigued and of course not in the least offended. Their words are a powerful reflection of what many in our society believe is a standard of beauty, especially although not exclusively for women. Do we view men and women differently as they age? Are we inclined to perceive men with greying hair as 'silver foxes' and as 'suave gentleman' and their female counterparts as simply past their sell by date or as simply elderly as so many of the articles I read as I prepared to write and comment on this topic. I don't ask in judgement but truly out of curiousity, I sit and watch and ponder from week to week, from month to month, from year to year.
I have exchanges with women where they tell me that this greying or white hair is a reflection of a lack of effort, as a surrendering of self and a succumbing to old age. I have other conversations in which men tell me they see it as a bold and confident statement, a choosing not to conform in holding these white strands as friends and not as enemies, as a part of a chapter rather than a concealed secret left in the confessional pages of a journal. There are those too who suggest that I affiliate myself with the subculture of 'The Hippie Mum', they suggest I'm one of those breastfeeding types, the ones that don't dye their hair or wear proper deodorant, the ones that use moon cups and worry about the environment, that spend lots of time ion nature, that love plants and natural dyes, the ones that probably have hairy legs and hairy armpits and eat quinoa. Truth be told, all of those things bare some truth and reflect how I might feel from one day to the next. I do lack effort in making myself presentable in the way that is more the norm, I do feel bold at times and brace myself ready for the eye rolls and nose twitches that my body hair can provoke in folks, I am a bit of a hippie and I don't like all of the chemicals in antiperspirants and I do like quinoa. There, I said it.
However, my hope would be that choosing to not change the colour of my ageing hair or choosing not to remove the hair that grows on different parts of my body would not define my identity. I would hope that my attractiveness as a person would be defined by the words that I utter and the acts and kindness that I show rather than being boxed off neatly into a category based on refusal to comply with the surrounding societal views of beauty and the compliance that it demands. Do I feel the pressure? Of course I do. Do I often feel unattractive when compared with my counterparts (either by myself or others) who spend more time and money on removing body hair and changing hair colour? Yes. But when I change my appearance under duress, out of peer pressure, for fear of being called out, then I feel disappointed in myself and a sadness overcomes me. A sadness greater than the sum of all the other negative parts. This is when I try and draw on the strength that goes way beyond anything I could muster alone. I draw on my faith and belief in a maker who has made me, uniquely me, who knew me when I was being knitted in my mother's womb.
The legacy of family gives me confidence too. I am proud to have been surrounded during my childhood by strong, proud, feminine African women, who did not worry about hair dye or hair removal or saggy breasts or wide hips. I am proud to have had Czech and German Aunties who were more concerned with teaching the children around them about language and culture and strategies for life and about outdoor culture and fun, there wasn't a lesson that focused on 'fitting in' to a way of looking or presenting oneself. I had the example of a mother who was more concerned with work ethic and principles and of 'sticks and stones breaking your bones but words never harming you', a mother who would so often say 'oh, take no notice!' and Aunties who would exhale wise words denouncing judgement followed by the very African retort of 'DON'T MIND HIM/HER/THEM!' I have too, the acceptance of a husband, who was once a boyfriend who I may never have been initially attracted to had he judged me on the things of which I now speak. Had he found me unattractive for choosing not to wear bras or for not shaving my body hair when we first met then our story would be very different. Had he judged my body differently after bearing our children and gaining weight and a different body shape and reflecting the signs of wear and age and battles fought, then our story would be very different. Had he not persistently told me not to dye my greying hair and uplifted me and complimented me and told me my worth in a million different ways, then perhaps I would feel differently.
I have sons that see their mother, a woman with greying hair, hairy armpits and hairy legs. An individual that may or may not remove said hair depending on how great the pressure is to behave as the majority do. They see me with greying hair, with my afro out or with my hair tied back, they see me with my head wrapped in different ways, they see me. They compliment me. I tease them, that they will connect and have a relationship with all of these views and behaviours of mine that I take a proud stance with, that I often choose not to overthink and in fact that I sometimes do not even give a second thought to since they seem so natural and insignificant. 'My mother, myself' rings in my ears and I hope in theirs too. This is important work, this legacy stuff. I am thankful for the examples that I witnessed as a child and I take my own work in this field seriously. People have so often asked me, why do your boys have long hair? I always stop and smile and think how strange the question is but I think too, quite simply 'because their hair describes so much about their identity that words cannot in an instant'. The narrative of hair is incredibly powerful and it belies such multiple meanings. It is an entity that can so easily be replaced by any body part or emotion that we struggle with or want to guard or honour. We need to remember this. Remember that people see you as you look to understand all that this entity belies. They see you searching, they see you. Tell your story proudly, whether you choose to grow or colour, to display or remove, to disguise or reveal. I see you. I see your story and it is beautiful and significant and truly powerful. Spread the good news, wear your joy and if the storms do come, just remember that the rainbow is still to follow.