For years, my hair was my nemesis—more foe than friend. Being called names such as curly, bush, and frizzy, it’s no wonder I had identity issues. While the girls in school had long, flowing locks, my tresses grew sideways instead of down, causing me to try any and all options to gain control. And so began my use of a litany of products from Dippity-Do, large curlers, and pink tape, to jumbo brushes, blow dryers, and flat irons.
Over the years, I met stylists who encouraged me to embrace my curls, and to not only accept my hair, but actually love it. I’ve learned to use the proper shampoo (no poo); to leave the conditioner in, instead of rinsing it out; to add styling crème or gel when the hair is still wet; and to handle my curls with little agitation.
In time, I began to appreciate the fullness of my hair—the curls that once caused me grief, were now a source of pride. I had come to identify myself with my free-spirited, wild hair, instead of a tamed-down version of a style that didn’t reflect me.
Color had become a way of embellishing my hair, and rich brown with copper tints had added to that expression. Habitually, I made my appointments—every six weeks—in order to keep the grays at bay, and my color fresh. But I was becoming disillusioned with the ritual, feeling held—bound—by it.
I had moments when I considered putting an end to the hair-dying, but was quickly discouraged by friends and stylists saying my natural hair would not represent me well. But there came a moment that became my catalyst for change. I thought about the mission trip my son Joey had taken to Mozambique. I remembered thinking, “I couldn’t go for three months because my hair would grow out and I wouldn’t be able to color it.” That realization sent shock waves through me as I thought about my limitations based on appearance. I began to consider what was important to me, and whether my hair color portrayed or disguised my real intentions. Transparency, honesty, and truthfulness came to mind and I wondered how those words could describe me if I were covering up what was completely natural for a fifty-six year old woman: gray hair, silver streaks, a salt and pepper melange.
And so, I began to research the pursuit toward natural hair color after years of dying, and while I was encouraged by others’ experiences, I also realized this journey was a personal one, and I needed to make it mine. I decided to grow my hair out for three months and then have the color cut off, leaving a short, new look. (It surprises me that I’d go for the more drastic of the options. Typically I’m the toes-in-the-water first, while others go for the full immersion.)
On October 31, 2014, I had my hair colored for the last time. I shared my decision with several people I knew would encourage me. To one, I wrote, “I have decided to do something radical. I am going to stop coloring my hair. I am feeling that I want transparency and honesty in the way I live, and decided that this falls in line with those desires.”
Over the next three months I was challenged in my attempts to blend the new growth with the old. On more than one occasion, I caught people looking at my roots, which had come to be rather noticeable. To some, I explained. To others, I did not. I stayed committed to my goal of authenticity, whether others understood it or not.
Deciding to remain strong was easier said than done. There were moments when I saw silver in my hair, and became frightened at the prospect of change. At other moments, I embraced my hair as a crown. It wasn’t as stark a difference as I’d envisioned. In fact, it looked natural—perhaps, because it was. There was no particular line of demarcation, but rather a coordinated effort at accepting the old and the new.
Seeing family and friends over the holidays gave me an opportunity to share my goal of going natural. Most said it looked nice, and I believed them. Others said one thing, but their expressions said something different. One asked, “Why?” One warned, “Don’t do it, Denise. It will age you. Seriously, you’ll regret it. Don’t do it.” I smiled at her direct approach, though I was unmoved from my goal. She continued, “I go every four weeks. Oh, yeah. Even my mother said to me once, ‘If I’m on my death bed, make sure you get my hair colored.’”
Another friend said I’d look more like a great-grandmother than a grandmother, and that I’d assuredly go back to coloring my hair one day.
But for each negative comment, there was one of motivation.
Cousin Maria encouraged me greatly. I told her when I’d seen her silver hair in a photo, it gave me strength. She shared this practical advice:
“When it grows out a little more, get it cut off. If you don’t, you’ll run out to the store and buy a bottle. You won’t be able to stand it anymore, and you’ll cave and color it.”
I experienced that very thing as my hair went through an identity crisis with its three distinct looks: my natural salt and pepper; my last color; and my sun-lightened tips. I imagined everyone looking at my roots and wondering why I didn’t care enough about myself to get my color done.
“I’ve been totally gray since I was 42,” she added. “I didn’t want to dye my hair my whole life.”
On difficult days, I gained strength from conversations with lovely women, like a local artist named Patti, whose silver hair looked hip and artistic, not old and past its prime.
“I had to color my hair every two weeks, and it got expensive,” she explained. “And as we get older, skin tone changes to match the gray hair. Color can make you look older.”
It was music to my ears when a friend said, “I’m on board with what you’re doing. You can pull it off.”
The night before my scheduled hair appointment—to have it all cut off—I felt confidence mixed with concern. I felt loss—a foreboding. I sensed a concern that the salon owner would discourage me from cutting off my curls. I had finally embraced my beautiful hair, and now I would be removing it. It was the hair I had at my daughter’s wedding. It was what defined me.
I felt vulnerable as I drove to the salon the next morning—like a schoolgirl, concerned about what the other girls might say about my hair.
I took the longer, country route. Driving along narrow roads with views of naked trees and lightly-snow-covered ground, I focused on peace, on Jesus, and on smiling. As I got closer, I sensed the familiar fear that has risen up in me before other significant moments: big family parties, the 600-yard walk/run that was part of the President’s Physical Fitness Award when I was in school, and speaking engagements.
I was the first appointment of the day. I took a deep breath and got out of my car. I saw my hairdresser, Darlene, walking into the building. I looked at her face for a hint of concern or disapproval. I saw none. “I got your notes,” she began. “You’re going to grow your roots out.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Are you ready for me?”
“Oh, sure! Let me just put my things down and we’ll get you set up.”
As we removed our coats and scarves, she called to her assistant, Alyssa, “You can go ahead and get Denise set up for a cut.”
I moved slowly and then sat in the chair. Alyssa covered me in a light smock—the kind with arms. Rubbing her hands together, Darlene returned, saying, “I just want to warm up my hands a little first. So, what were you thinking?”
“I want everything cut off except for my natural hair color.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed. Okay, sure.” As she lifted my hair to show the length that would remain, she asked, “So, you know that you’ll only have about two inches left?”
“Yes, I know,” I responded.
“Are you sure?”
She spoke both to me, Alyssa, and herself, as she touched my hair and said, “I think I’ll remove some of the bulk first and then have you washed before I cut. Since I’m cutting into the color, it will be easier having it wet.”
She raised her scissors and starting at the back, began cutting big chunks of hair from my head. In the full-length mirror, I saw them fall to the floor as she worked. There was a moment when all I had left were the long pieces around my face, and I was tempted to leave them in order to retain a bit of what I had when I walked through the door. First one side went, and then the other. Feeling a sense of accomplishment at coming this far, I knew there was no turning back now.
“Is the temperature okay?” asked Alyssa as she wet what was left of my hair. Already, my head felt lighter.
“When people get a short cut, it usually means a change,” she continued.
“Yes,” I said. “Transition.”
“Right. It’s a new story.”
As Alyssa continued to rinse my hair, Darlene asked me if I wanted to look at my hair before she swept it into the vacuum system. I didn’t, but I did want a photo. She followed up with, “Would you like to take it home and sprinkle it around your garden? Some people do that.”
“No. Thank you.” The thought of that reminded me of when my Golden Retriever, Luke died and the vet asked if I wanted to have his ashes. No. One goodbye was enough.
Back in the chair, Darlene considered how she would style my hair. We agreed to leaving a tiny bit of the longer color in the back in order to cut it into a wedge. I asked if this was hard for her.
“No,” she replied. “When it’s a choice, it’s fun. When it’s not, I can hardly get through it without crying.”
I thought of my dear friend, Laurie, and her battle with cancer. I envisioned her fluffy gray curls that had grown in after her latest round of chemo.
Darlene chatted gently as she cut. “Some people do what you do, and cut it all off; others add highlights and make a gradual transition.”
We moved on to other typical sit-in-the-chair conversation: children, work, weather, vacation. As time passed, my hair was transformed. I observed Alyssa’s interested face, and heard her surprised comments. Even Darlene shared, “It looks really good on you!” And it did.
“Thank you for making it easy for me,” I said.
“Oh, of course. You’re braver than I would be, that’s for sure.”
When I went to check out, the receptionist exclaimed, “You went for a whole new style. I love it!”
She said she really likes natural hair, though her hair is colored black. “I don’t dye my hair because I want to hide the gray—I just like color,” she said.
We chatted about how fun it is having short hair, and how it can be embellished by headbands, ear muffs, and big earrings. I thought about getting a new pair of large hoops.
I left the salon with my head held high—a little lighter, a little chillier, and a lot more satisfied. I sat in my car, considering what I’d just done, and wondering what sort of reactions I’d encounter as I went out into the world.
I knew I wanted to go to a comfortable and welcoming place, and decided on LOMA Coffee, where my son, Joey, was working that day. After finding parking, and bearing up against the wind which always seemed stronger and faster when travelling through city streets, I walked into the crowded cafe. Joey looked up with wide eyes from his spot behind the espresso bar, and said, “No way! I love it!”
His coworker, Taylor said the same, helping to raise my comfort level in my coiffure debut. The manager, Keith chimed in his approval, while another worker said, “Well, that came out of left field.”
I was entertained by their surprised expressions.
At home, I looked in the mirror and saw someone a little older—even distinguished. I felt real and natural. I felt honest, transparent, and authentic. Joey used the word “seasoned.” I liked that.
- Denise Marotta Lopes
In a day when much of the news is negative, I look for those things that bring life, and write about them. I accentuate what is good in order to inspire and encourage others. As a photo bloggerand freelance writer, I interview artists, business persons, and local residents. I meet them in their everyday lives and capture—in both word and photo—what I see, and share it with the world. It is my desire for those I write about to view themselves as special and unique, and for the readers to experience within the story, inspiration and possibility for themselves.