It was one of the best days of my life. The day Ariel – youngest daughter of King Triton, mermaid princess of Atlantica – wrapped her arms around me in a hug. Then, wonder of wonders, she leaned back, putting a hand to my own long, wavy red hair.
“Oh!” Ariel exclaimed. “You’ve got mermaid hair!” My soul briefly exited my body. The Little Mermaid herself said I had mermaid hair.
I wasn’t a child anymore, but I felt like one, a 30-something adult woman nudging past actual children with autograph books at Disneyland to pose for a picture with the flame-haired princess that defined my childhood. Countless were the summer afternoons spent playing mermaid in the pool, holding my legs close together and splaying my feet wide to make a mermaid’s tail of my shadow, then bursting through the surface to whip the water from my hair.
I have ridden the wave of that compliment for years. I’ve been especially clinging to that memory during these homebound weeks of quarantine. Never mind that it was delivered by an actress in a wig paid to make people smile. And never mind the fact that same actress certainly wouldn’t make the same proclamation if she saw me now.
After all, mermaids don’t have gray hair.
My hair and I have never been pals. Not when I was a towheaded child with hair so baby fine it tangled into Gordian Knots my mom would curse as she hunched over my head each night before bed. And certainly not as a teenager, when my locks darkened to a dirty blond and coarsened into unruly waves. Every good hair day I’ve ever had has been accidental, an unreplicable alchemy of humidity and chance.
In my mid-20s, it started going gray. Not just a sprinkling of errant strands, but in such earnest, I couldn’t pluck them without going bald.
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I colored it. Red, of course, because if I couldn’t have my natural hair color, then by God, I was going to have Ariel’s. First with boxed dyes, which made my hair brittle, and then with henna, purchased in solid blocks and ground with boiling water into a steamy hot bowl of mud I’d use to paint my hair.
I’d never let my roots go long enough to know just how widespread the gray had become over the years. Lately, I’d been having to slather the henna on thicker and hotter, leave my stinging scalp wrapped tightly in plastic cling for longer, so the color would take. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I was beginning to wonder whether it was finally time to act like the geriatric millennial I am and put my hair in the care of a professional, to pay hundreds – thousands? I refuse to calculate – of dollars a year in upkeep and grit my teeth through the hours of small talk.
That was nearly two months ago, right as the world was turning upside down. Since then, my roots have been moot, and I’ve left them untouched. It’s as I feared, especially in the kinky corkscrew curls framing my face.
I’m not alone. Social media is rife with women who, like me, are going through something with their hair.
Professionally beautiful women who typically appear immune to the ravages of aging are Instagramming their roots. Kelly Ripa put herself on root watch after week one, pointing out the silver in her neat part. Eva Longoria gave a video demonstration on masking gray roots, using the same L’Oréal color spray currently gathering dust in my bathroom. Raven-haired Sarah Silverman is less so now, her roots shot through with grays. “The ‘silver lining’ is literally growing out of my skull,” actress Hilarie Burton captioned a photo of herself, white roots framing her face.
This Instagram solidarity hasn’t made me feel any better. It’s no fault of the celebrities, who have been grappling with the vanity and creeping dread of mortality we all share with humor, candor, and vulnerability. It’s the comments.
“Beauty is beauty no matter what color hair.”
“OMG, you should totally go 100% gray. You could completely own it. Be a trendsetter…”
“Growing out your grays is a middle finger to the patriarchy anyway. Let it grow!”
And, most unhelpfully, “Still hot.”
Those comments are (mostly) well-meaning, but they give me the same trapped feeling as when a checkout clerk comments on the contents of my shopping basket. “Big night in?” the smiling clerk asks as she rings up a bottle of wine, a moisturizing face mask, and five tins of cat food. She may as well follow me out of the store, ringing a bell and shouting, “Shame! Shame!” all the way back to my spinster pad.
That imaginary checkout clerk isn’t wrong, and neither are those Instagram commenters. But that feeling – of being seen, of being assessed – speaks to why, despite not hating my gray hair, I’ve been too embarrassed to leave it be.
It’s not so much that I dread going gray. I dread the language of going gray. I don’t want my hair to be an act of defiance or a courageous stand against the patriarchy. I don’t want it to be a statement. I want it to be so rote and unremarkable nobody would think to comfort me or tell me I’m brave.
I have a lot of hopes for the world we’ll emerge into on the other side of quarantined. One of them is that it will be a world too preoccupied with rebuilding what’s broken to notice, and that my first all-gray Instagram selfie is met not with reassurance, but the silence of indifference.