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To Dye or Not to Dye

Give in to Agism in my 50s? Not a chance!

· Aging,Self-worth,Changing Careers

My husband is a young looking guy. He still has his thick sandy blond hair. What gray he has sneaks around, hiding in his flaxen locks, virtually undetectable. Like many engineers, he’s a rough and tumble guy who when working from home stays in sweats and leaves his hair stand on end all day. Thus boyishly appareled, he might on occasion run out to the market to pick up a few things.

That is exactly the setting for what happened last week. I went with him. I looked put together next to my flaxen slob. I sported clean neatly styled hair and a carefully chosen outfit, as I had been to a meeting earlier, so I appeared brisk and businesslike. At the check out counter, the clerk asked us, “Family shopping?” Perplexed my husband and I both nodded. The clerk smiled approval at my husband. “I went shopping with my mom two weeks ago!” he said.

Argh! In the parking lot, my husband noticed I was stunned. He was quick to console me. He jeered that we look like the stereotypical aging-in-place mother and unemployed, former drug addict son of Silicon Valley. He’s taking care of her in the family home and living in the basement, watching old movies and playing video games. And she is grateful for his company and his help around the house. That was my husband’s takeaway. I rapidly adopted it. That’s the best spin I could hope to put on the strange feeling inside. Me. Old.

A quick glimpse in the mirror at home. Last year I let the Silver Fox that is inside of me come out Prior to that I was highlighting my fading brown hair with blond to mix with the emerging gray. I felt great about dispensing with “the bottle.” But I wasn’t rejoicing at being mistaken for my husband’s mom either. It reminded me of the time I was talking with an engineer at a laser manufacturing company a few years ago. He was very proud of his tool. He said, he could take 20 years off my face. He looked instantly abashed. I easily quipped, “Are you kidding? I’ve worked years to get this look.” He laughed and we were able to carry on our conversation. I wasn’t fazed at all.

So why is the “I’m my husband’s mom thing” tripping me up? Could it be that this time around, having recently left my job (and a big part of my identity) and struck out on my own, that I am afraid I will fail in my professional goals because gosh, I could be too old to succeed? Who do I think I am going out on my own (at my age)? I should have played it safe as an employee. Could it be that fears, that I didn’t know I had, surfaced with that casual comment made by a young man who probably does live in his mom’s basement, because who can afford rent on a clerk’s salary around here anyway? That’s it! I was afraid. Not of being old, but of being over.

Older women are pretty much shelved in our culture. That’s the terrifying thing about letting your silver fox out, letting your “freak flag” fly. You are telling the world: “hey look at me, I’m old.” But old does not mean we are washed-up, that we’re rocking chair fodder. It means that we have hella experience to draw on to enrich our own lives and those of our friends, family and colleagues. Much wiser to be sure, but inside I feel exactly the same as when I was young. My 93 year old mom says she still feels about 15 years old on a good day. The exterior changes but the interior is eternal and bright.

I’m good to go for another four decades. And harkening back to my mom, she became president of a national organization in her 80s and has gracefully refused to bow out gracefully. It's up to me as far as my future career success goes, that’s the truth. I am done with helping other people and other organizations look good. I need to make myself look good - and that has nothing to do with the color of my hair; that’s not “mirror looking good” (although I look great in the mirror), it’s “what’s inside me” good that counts.

I had no idea I was afraid until that chance remark shook me out of denial. Thank you grocery clerk! You helped me confront my fears and embrace the silver fox within. I am woman, hear me write!

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