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Okay, can we take a look at the elephant in the room, the one we avoid, the one we pretend isn’t there? Specifically, the white-haired elephant, otherwise known as ageism. Ageism affects us all at one time or another in Western culture. Women get hit by it around 35 or 40 when the first white/gray hairs appear, and we are encouraged to run for the hair dye. Around the same time, makeup ads advise treating those new wrinkle lines with cover-ups, serums, and lotions so they don’t become permanent. Later, Botox is the treatment of choice.
Men get the wakeup call if they begin to bald early. Ads urge them to get hair transplants, or the trend now is to shave their heads. If their hair starts to lose color instead, they may receive a few years of deferment with the “distinguished gray” perception. However, eventually they too are faced with the white-hair stigma. The idea of just allowing our physical bodies to age gracefully and naturally—with a healthy diet, exercise, and a stress-free lifestyle instead of some kind of intervention—still remains on the outskirts of the collective consciousness. We live in a culture that promotes “youth” relentlessly.
I wore makeup in my early 20s, but when I came to see the underlying sexism and ageism in it, I stopped. I’ve never dyed my hair for the same reason. It’s all just costuming anyway. If we could see it as play, it might be fun, but when it’s tied to tight social expectations and judgments, it becomes an impediment to self-acceptance. Women are habitually trained to wear masks to alter their appearance and disguise their age. And one white hair can give you away. So I have had various reactions over the years to my gradually whitening hair.
What I’ve discovered is that there are three kinds of assumptions people may unconsciously make when they see someone with white hair:
1) The person is old, frail, and physically weak.
2) The person is mentally slow-witted and forgetful.
3) The person is just plain invisible.
I’ve occasionally had one of the above directed at me (or one of my parents), such as someone offering a bus seat or a salesclerk over-explaining in a condescending way. When my father was still alive, I habitually had doctors or salespeople talk only to me even when my father was asking the question. Your individuality and your humanity often become invisible because of white hair or wrinkles. Not to everyone, but to some. Many people respond with an open generous heart, regardless of age, sex, or physical appearance. Others get lost in their own preconceptions.
I’m certainly not criticizing people for offering seats; really that’s a kindness we should extend to everyone. It’s the socially created assumptions behind certain behaviors that are annoying. A receptionist at my eye doctor’s office recently said to me in a somewhat snotty tone, “Do you realize you’re a half hour early for your appointment?” I replied, “Yes, of course. I always arrive early. Better than being late.” It took me a minute to realize that she would never have said that to someone younger. My white hair made her think I needed some kind of wake-up call.
Isn’t it about time that we see aging as a journey into wisdom and well-being instead of decline and stupidity? We expand into more awareness, empathy, and generosity as we age (if our hearts remain open). Many cultures honor their elders as the most valued citizens of the community. They don’t ignore, shun, or discard them as we do in Western society because they no longer bring in “a capital wage.” So many broken paradigms are falling away—this one needs to as well.
Let’s look at white hair as natural and beautiful instead of something we have to hide or deny. Don’t let anyone else’s perceptions define and limit you. Be your own unique soul self throughout your life. As you stretch and grow with each year of your time here on Earth, think of that shining white light at the crown of your head as a sacred gift: God’s blessing for a magnificent, expansive, fully lived life.