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The Old Gray Mère: Does She… or Doesn’t She?

I apologize in advance for the possible vapidity of this column. In my next piece I will discuss my plan for Middle East Peace, the fate of the Jewish people in an age of rampant intermarriage, and Martin Buber.

But right now, I’m anxious about my hair. It’s getting gray, and I am not happy about it.

On the one hand, yes, there are bigger problems in the world — and even in my house — than my follicles. And there’s a whole gray-hair-embracing movement afoot, thanks to books like Anne Kreamer’s “Going Gray” (Little, Brown, 2007) and Web sites like Jane Hanstein Cunniffe’s I look at women like my mom, with her chic silver crop, and my aunt Belleruth, with her mane of snow-white curls, and think they look gorgeous.

On the other hand, aging sucks, especially for women. Study after study indicates that older women experience bias in job-searching, and anecdotal experience shows that there are financial penalties associated with aging. (There’s a term for it: “the gray ceiling.”) Is it any wonder that among the eight women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and the 16 female senators currently in office, not a single one has gray hair?

And the social adjustment to going gray can be miserable. It’s hard to turn invisible, to go from “miss” to “ma’am.” If you were considered a hottie as a young woman, it’s hard to feel that you’re becoming a nottie.

And going gray is no longer the norm. According to Procter & Gamble Co., 54% of American women currently color their hair. (In Europe, it’s closer to 60%.) We’ve forgotten that until the mid-1950s, hair dye was pretty much the exclusive province of actresses, showgirls and shady ladies; only 7% of women dyed their hair.

But then Shirley Polykoff, a copywriter for the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding (and one of only nine women in the 187-member Advertising Hall of Fame) changed all that nearly singlehandedly. She came up with the “Does she… or doesn’t she?” campaign for Clairol. The genesis of the slogan, according to The New Yorker: In 1933, after meeting her future husband George’s parents for the first time at a Passover dinner, Shirley asked George whether she’d passed muster. George’s father, a rabbi, had liked her. But his mother? George hemmed and hawed, finally admitting that the rebbetzin had said only that Shirley “paint[ed] her hair.” He added, “Well, do you?” (She did.) Shirley felt humiliated. “In her mind,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell, “she could hear her future mother-in-law: ‘Fahrbt zi der huer? Oder fahrbt zi nisht?’ ‘Does she color her hair? Or doesn’t she?’”

So when Polykoff’s Clairol campaign debuted in 1956, the models weren’t glamorous actress-y types. They looked like the girl next door, just a little prettier. All the ads had a child in them, to show the wholesomeness of the product and the similarity between the supposed mom’s hair and that of her naturally-fabulous-haired spawn. Within a decade of the first ad’s debut, nearly half of all American women were coloring their hair. National hair-color sales skyrocketed to $200 million from $25 million a year, with over half those sales going to Clairol products.

I didn’t grow up with a Polykoff-esque, glam mother. She didn’t do her nails or wear fancy dresses. She was a teacher. But when my brother Andy was about 4, he looked around our temple’s sanctuary and whispered to my mom, “Why do the other mommies here get blonder and blonder and you get grayer and grayer?” (Astonishing that this boy grew up to be gay.) About a year later, when she leaned over to kiss him before bedtime, he touched her hair and said, “Are you going to die soon?” That week, she bought a box of hair color.

She only dyed for a year or so. She never felt comfortable; she was only doing it to make Andy happy. My dad constantly told her that she looked more beautiful as she got older. So mom let her gray grow in; my brother learned to cope.

Mom was in her early 30s then. My own gray hair didn’t appear until my late 30s. (At least, I don’t think so. In my early 30s, I had pink and purple hair, which made it hard to see any gray and is both a sign that my generation matured later than my mother’s and that I was an idiot with a serious case of arrested development.) When I turned 40 last year, I suddenly focused on all the individual grays sproinging out like tiny escaped Slinkies all over my head. I freaked out; I dyed.

But it’s been less than a year and I want to stop. I see a future of irksome maintenance looming in front of me. (In “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” Nora Ephron wrote, “Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.”) I don’t want the financial and controlling-my-life costs of looking young. I want to have more Lofty Thoughts than this. And I fear becoming one of those pitiable women who doesn’t know how silly her undifferentiated mass of fudgy brown hair looks; someone who looks like she has a cat on her head.

But only one of my friends has gray hair. I can’t look to our aforementioned female political and business leaders as tress-for-success gray role models. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and all around me I see actresses and singers desperately clinging to their luxuriant weaves, extensions, hairpieces and total lack of gray the way an Olsen twin clings to her giant latte. (Yes, Emmylou Harris. I know. Shut up.) I want not to care, but I do. And many of my girlfriends — smart, accomplished women who identify as feminists — are doing Botox and pondering lifts and tucks of various kinds. And I am truly ambivalent. My response is more nuanced than either “Ack! Bad feminists!” or “Shut up! Feminism gave us choices! Our bodies! Our lives! Our right to decide we want lipo!”

I wish we didn’t live in such a body-dictatorial age; I wish we viewed gray hair and wrinkles and sag as beautiful (and not in a “Hey, who doesn’t love Judi Dench!” way). But truthfully, I feel scared of being the only one who looks her real age. I’m reminded of the late, great Wendy Wasserstein’s line in “The Heidi Chronicles,” about how everyone else seems to have made different choices: “I don’t blame any of us,” Heidi says. “We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women. It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together.”

In mathematics, there’s a concept called discrepancy theory. It’s the deviation of a situation from where you’d like it to be. When we think we’re less than our ideal selves, we feel crappy. And sadly, we live in a time that talks a good game about respecting age and experience while actually fetishizing youth. Gloria Steinem famously said, “This is what 40 looks like,” but do any of us really know what 40 looks like anymore?

So getting back to hair color: Will I or won’t I? Ach, I don’t know.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].

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