In the last few weeks I have found some gray hairs on my head. Well, the word found implies that I was looking. I was not. It would be more accurate to say that while doing my hair I have stumbled across a few strands about which I thought "hmm.. that is not brown." I had not expected that I would find gray hairs had I looked for them. I am in my early 30's and my dad brags about how he has a full head of brown hair. The same shade of brown as my own. I am not unaware that gray hair exists. In fact, my only memory of my maternal grandmother is with long silvery gray hair. So I expected that I would see that in my future--I just did not know when that future would be.
Honestly, my first reaction was : Well, maybe people will stop telling me I "look to young to be a professor."
And then, the news is abuzz with the "shocking" discovery that Kate Middleton dared to leave the house with a few gray hairs. The Daily Beast "broke" the "news" with a set of close up photos of Kate's head.
Now I am far from a royal watcher, but I don't live under a rock. I know that Middleton has been the center of much hype since she made it onto the world stage. She also JUST HAD A BABY. But it is good to see that we have our priorities in order. Being a new mom is no excuse for looking "old."
Last spring when I was on a memoir-reading frenzy (see my earlier blog post) one of the ones I stumbled across was "Going Gray: How to Embrace Your Authentic Self with Grace and Style." Kreamer tells the story of her decision to stop dying her hair and addresses the struggles she has along the way--the worries about how she will feel about herself and how she will be treated by others. She wondered whether others would think she was attractive with gray hair and if she would experience discrimination at work. She interviewed and surveyed hundreds of people (mostly women, but some men as well) about their experiences being gray and how they feel about others who had gray hair. The history of the US cultural obsession with "washing away" the gray is fascinating. Having read her book, I felt a little more prepared to think about and react to my own gray hair discovery. It also led me to talk to other women about the issue--an act that some people have found to be a bit surprising and unexpected.
Jezebel's response to the Daily Beast's article about Kate Middleton articulates part of the problem with this cultural obsession. As if we need is another way to tell women that how they look is more important than anything else about them. Clearly, some companies are benefiting from the attempt to convince women (and increasingly men) that they need to look a particular way while reassuring them they can always buy something to change their appearance.
There is also something else going on here that is very disturbing involving access to power and the intersections of age, gender, and appearance.
Let's just step back for a minute and think this through. While individuals' hair changes at different ages, in general gray hair is an indication that someone has lived for a while. Been around the block. Experienced some stuff. Probably even learned some lessons along the way. Some cultures actually appreciate and value this fact. They realize that (while not guaranteed) with age often comes wisdom. Elders are respected, valued, and have access to power.
That might seem a bit strange to those living in a society that assumes people who are aging should be dismissed, made fun of, or hidden away in a home somewhere.
The intersection of age and gender in mainstream American society is particularly salient. While men do experience discrimination as they age, in many arenas it appears that women face more and /or harsher age discrimination than men. A recent Canadian report found that women were more likely than men to be treated unfairly because of their age. Hollywood actresses often talk about the way in which their access to roles (and which roles they are offered) changes as they age. Conversations about a potential presidential bid for Hillary Clinton often include a reference to her age (as though she could catch a break about anything...).
My conversations with other women often lead to a discussion about their fears that they won't be taken seriously if they have gray hair. Some of these women have shared they now dye their hair for that very reason, even though they never thought they would.
These conversations are fascinating to me and feel all too familiar. As a woman who has spent much of my life being mistaken for being younger than I actually am, I am often asked to defend or prove myself as a professional. It is shocking really how often I am told that I can't possibly be a professor, or have a PhD, or any number of things because I am "just too young." And while they don't say "too young and female" many of the interactions make it clear that is what they mean. Like the time a student introduced me to her mom and her mom shook hands with my husband (who happened to be standing next to me)--then proceeded to argue with her daughter about how I couldn't possibly be "Dr. Brinkman." Or the individual who attended an event I planned and told me he had always assumed I was my (similarly aged) male colleague's student.
So, I say, "bring on the gray" because I spend most of my days living on the other side of the age issue. The side with all the assumptions that a young woman can't be smart and accomplished.
Unfortunately, I know that life is not so simple. The days of me having to prove myself are not numbered by my gray hairs but by our culture's willingness (or not) to end discrimination against women.
I am starting to accept the idea that the window of time during which my legitimization as a professional will not be questioned because of my (apparent) age is likely a small one. Hopefully I won't oversleep that day and miss the whole thing.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.