Each of my grandmothers has reached an age when the price they must pay for passage into a new year of life has grown almost insurmountable. They are bedridden, spending their days unable to fully enjoy the beautiful island on which they live, the sensation of the hot Caribbean sun, or the temperate ocean waters upon their skin. They do not go for leisurely walks or quickly run errands. They cannot get up to let in visitors (or show them out when they’ve overstayed their welcome). They must be read to, as their eyes are failing, and they must be content to keep themselves company with the contents of their own minds or turn on the radio. Tasks that most of us take for granted (cooking, bathing, changing clothes) must be done for them. Lying vulnerable, the journey through their final days is sometimes painful, always restrictive, and often cumbersome, and yet they face each day with grace, still able to laugh, to consider themselves blessed, and to praise God—whom they both cleave to.
Watching how age has changed my grandmothers makes me wonder how I’ll accept my own aging. When I was a young child, I didn’t fully understand why my paternal grandmother (Grandma F.) had black hair while my maternal grandmother (Grandma C.) had hair that was graying. I assumed that Grandma C. was older and that Grandma F. was younger. Then, one day, while Grandma F. was staying with us for a while, we came home to find a suspicious hyper-black smear on the sheets for the guest bed. And so it was that I was introduced to the concept (and potential hazards) of hair dyeing. I was shocked to discover that Grandma F., who seemed so immersed in natural living (no shaving, no makeup, no grocery store shopping) and so devoid of all vanity, wouldn’t allow her hair to exist in its natural color.
These are the questions I’ve asked myself: Will I allow my hair to gray with age or fight its natural progression? Will I embrace my hair’s natural markers of age, or will I view them as something to conceal or abhor? I can’t say for sure how the first gray hair (and all that follow) will affect me. Given my heightened sense of nostalgia, I do not expect that I will go gentle into that gray/white. But, as of now, I have resolved to gray gracefully (even if, at first, reluctantly). My reason is multi-fold. Ever since an ill-fated trip to the hair salon for a perm left me with a chemical burn and a bald spot (a spot that to this day grows hair that is shorter and weaker than the rest), I self-pronounced that I would never chemically alter my hair again.
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I also don’t like the idea of trying to cover or coat over my age—or any facet of my bodily reality. I hardly ever use makeup for a similar reason. Even on my wedding day, I chose to wear only foundation and lip gloss; I wanted to look like me. In addition to not liking the way makeup feels against my skin (especially when I’m sweating), and hating how it has the tendency to rub off onto other people and items of clothing (which gets in the way of good hugging), I don’t like makeup because it makes me focus on my flaws. What should I conceal or enhance today? Where do my facial features fall short?
Wearing makeup for some is a form of expression; it’s facial art. For others, it’s a non-essential accessory. For still others, wearing makeup builds them up; they feel more confident and bold. But it never became any of those things for me. In fact, wearing makeup brings out the obsessive and compulsive perfectionist in me. It changes my posture in the mirror from accepting to critically appraising. Makeup is bad for my self-esteem. Putting it on might make me feel prettier in the short-term, but removing it makes me feel plainer and less presentable. I never want to slip into becoming someone who feels naked (or unfit for public presentation) without makeup on. Plus, as someone who likes to try to pack light and be as low-maintenance as possible, I don’t want one more thing I need to pack in my bag or one more addition to my routine in the morning.
Once I became aware of how makeup was slowly (and manipulatively) eroding my self-esteem, it was easy to let wearing makeup go—to let my unaltered face be the one facing the world. None of the women in my family wore it, and so I didn’t discover it until much later in life—too late for it to become a habit or (and worse) a crutch. I’ll admit it though: in college, I was a bit jealous of the big “getting ready” productions my friends staged before a special event or party. Lipstick (or gloss), foundation, mascara, eyelash curling devices, eye shadow, blush, eyeliners, curling irons, hairspray—these were the major players. But after trying a few of the aforementioned items myself, I decided that I liked being a woman for whom the “getting ready” production only involves a shower and putting on the appropriate clothes.
On any given day I may love or hate my face—or feel ambivalent. But regardless of how I feel, I am determined to accept it. I have spent entire seasons of my life trying to systematically accept (and sometimes even appreciate) the parts of my body that I found it difficult to love—from my flat feet to my kinky hair to my veiny arms. My mother helped me to accept the large gap between my two front teeth with some farfetched story about being related to the queen of Sheba. I ate it up at the time, but even when I grew old enough for that tale to fall apart in the face of genetic reality, the result remained. The gap was a part of me—something both my siblings and I shared with my mother (and perhaps, though not very likely, the queen of Sheba)—and now I feel no insecurity or shame when I smile. I could have tried braces or opted for dental surgery, but my mother helped me to accept that “imperfection” as perfectly part of me. As for makeup, my mother with her impeccable skin wore none. As a black woman, she saw herself as already beautifully colored in. God’s hand had blended her hue, and she saw no reason to add additional ones. My complexion will never be as clear or clean, but I like the idea of wearing my skin as unadulterated as she did.
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And so I think it will be for me with hair dye. I’ll let the gray come just like my mother did—taking each changing strand (and advance in years) in stride like the leaves in their seasons. For some, hair dyeing must be just like playing with watercolors and crayons—fun. But for inclined-towards-the-critical me, using it would probably cause me to grasp for the years I should be leaving behind and to feel combative toward aging forward. If I can accept my gray (which I can’t tell you I’ll find easy to do), I can accept my age. Going gray is the statement I’ll make against the hegemonic push of society to be (or appear) younger. It is how I will continue to be at peace with who I am—my bodily reality. It is one more way I will try to accept my appearance less critically. I can’t control all of the aspects of how I’ll age, or if and when parts of my body will fail. But I can decide to face it all—come what may—with my hair in its natural color and state, and with nothing on my face except for an SPF facial cream and/or petroleum jelly.
With all of the above on my mind, it felt eerily timely that I should come upon the following verses as part of my Bible reading this morning:
Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone…Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God… (Psalm 71:9,18).
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[Feature image: The photograph shows an older black woman with short gray hair and her arms crossed. She is smiling into the camera and wearing a white sweater.]
Aabye-Gayle Francis-Favilla is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City with her husband and two cats. This piece first appeared on her blog Write Away and is reprinted with permission.