I am not brave to let my hair go white. My hair salon closed when the New York City Covid pandemic lockdown began in March 2020 when I was due for my three-week mandatory color. They were closed for a couple of months, which gave me enough time to grow a solid five inches of pretty cool white hair that we suspected was there, but we weren’t sure.
When they reopened – my colorist is married to my hairdresser and they are two of my favorite people – I met her outside to give advice and they both said do it. Grow it out!
I had been told that by other colorists over the years – and also by the people who did my hair on TV. You could see the white at my roots just before the three week color mark, and most thought it was beautiful. But one of them told me to look at my contract because he thought it had a clause that said you can’t dramatically change your appearance without consulting it. He was right.
Since I lost my TV seat during the pandemic, I was given the freedom to just keep going. A stay on television promoting our documentary The Sit In: Harry Belafonte moderates the Tonight Show, in autumn 2020, scared me a little. My hair was strangely two-tone. But when I pulled it back, which made the white stand out, it actually looked fine to me. For others too. I’ve had amazingly positive feedback on this (and on the film, which is more important).
I have to emphasize how unusual this type of positive feedback is for a woman, especially an elderly one. I’ve spent my 16 years on TV ignoring creepy comments about my appearance (even some of the positive ones were creepy too). But mostly I mean critical. Of women and men: you are too old to be sleeveless; You should wear clothes that make you look “younger”. Your eyebrows are too dark; your eyebrows should be darker. Your hair is too long or too short. Smile more, smile less. I stopped caring at least a decade ago. At least I tried.
Compliments were unusual. But as I’ve grown my hair for the past 18 months, the number of compliments has skyrocketed – not just from social media, but on the streets of New York City as well. I learned there was a “look” called “ombre” that people thought I paid for because I had white hair with brown tips. “Where did you get that done?” Women would ask. “Um, I just did it, on my crazy head,” I would reply.
When I got my full white – it’s mostly salt but still some contrasting pepper – the (literal) shoutouts started. By women. (And a couple of men.) Total love on Twitter for my TV appearances (I’m back on MSNBC) but the personal shoutouts were especially amazing. Women either stop me in the street or yell at me from afar when they can’t. “Your hair is beautiful!” “I want this hair!” “How did you do that?”
And sometimes just: “You are so beautiful.”
When I heard last month that Nora was walking my dog Sadie with my daughter in Washington, DC, Nora thought the woman was talking about Sadie. But I knew from experience that the woman meant me. (Sadie is adorable too.) I just heard about it again today from an older woman in Central Park.
I think I get these shout outs because women of a certain age are underrepresented in most rooms – and younger women notice that. When we are there, we have continued to dye our hair, trying to signal youthfulness in every possible way. I don’t judge women who still dye – really. I wouldn’t have grown my hair if it weren’t for some kind of excellent white. I think I look good. If I didn’t, I would probably dye it again (TV contract or not; and I don’t have one).
Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to compare the experiences of white haired white women with underrepresented black people, especially women, on TV or anywhere else. But I have to say, since I live in Harlem, most of the women who stop me or shout compliments are black people. Something is going on. These women are of all races and ages.
And many of them are young.
I’ve noticed for a long time that I’m regularly one of the oldest women on cable television. Almost all of the men I made up are still there, with gray hair or sometimes badly colored or tinted (ugh), or god knows what. I’ve noticed that the few women older than me seem to still be dyeing their hair (I say apparently because hair is great and some people have their natural color until they’re old. My dad happens to be.) Let’s go give no names of either sex; Let’s just say we know something is not fair.
I have to admit that during the pandemic I have often wondered why more women in public spaces – in Congress, in the media, and in the US – haven’t just given up on it. It was that simple and honest? Restorative.
I suppose it’s because they’re still in the market that I was largely freed from. I just wish more of them would break free.
Many more women need to see what we look like in old age. And they appreciate seeing it. At least that’s what I hear, which is actually pretty nice at the moment.
(My title, if not obvious, pays homage to Rebecca Solnit’s book Men explain things to me.)