If you’ve talked to me for more than 5 minutes during the past 2 years, you know that in 2016 I developed an allergy to hair color products.
Since some of my readers have never met me, I should explain that I’m no longer in the first bloom of youth and have been coloring my hair since I turned 35, even though then I had no gray hair. My natural hair color at age 35 could be described as “blah”, and since I’m such an exciting and surreal person, the “blah” hair color felt like false advertising. Over the years, thanks to many trips to hair stylists, my disheveled locks have ranged in color from pickup-truck red to Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show magenta to sultry-older-woman black-orchid-brown.
The allergy first manifested itself in November of 2016, shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. At first I assumed the rash and fluid sacs sprouting over my face and scalp were caused by stress, but after my initial terror about the new presidency subsided, and a new-normal existential despair settled in, my head still itched and my face still burned with on-and-off pustules and crusting.
I was a mess.
Whenever ailments hang around for more than 2 weeks, I head for the nearest doctor. Or the nearest doctor in my insurance network, anyway. The doctor I chose was an allergy specialist known for his expertise, kindness and empathy. After shining a special light all over my head and peering into my ears, he gazed into my eyes and said, “You’re allergic to hair color products.”
Under normal circumstances I would have said, “Thank you, doctor. I’m so relieved I don’t have bubonic plague/scabies/syphilis/leprosy/cooties.”
But instead I wailed “NOOOOOO!!!!!”
“Yes,” he said. “If you want to get better, you have to stop coloring your hair.”
“But if I don’t color my hair, it will be gray,” I said, “and I’m not a gray-hair kind of person.”
“I understand,” he said. “It will be a big change for you. When you look in the mirror, you’ll have identity issues. I’m so sorry.”
When I told my friends I had to go gray, the ones who know me best reacted with hugs and tragic expressions. My more distant buddies were nonplussed at my upset, saying things like “We all get old, Nancy, even you.” Several acquaintances decamped after realizing all I was ever going to talk about for the next 2-20 years was my gray hair trauma. I got lots of advice on dealing with what they call “the skunk line”, which happens when you have sultry-older-woman black-orchid- brown hair and suddenly stop coloring it while your gray hair grows in.
I could go on and on about the things I did to cope with this tragedy, but trust me: I left no stone unturned. (Yes, I tried coloring my hair with Koolaid/coffee/coffee grounds/tea/tea leaves/beet juice/carrot juice/food coloring/vegan hair dyes/sage/prayer/creative visualization/etc., but nothing worked.)
Some of my much-younger friends said. “You need to rock your gray hair, like Emmylou Harris…or Kiki Smith…or Cher wearing a wig”. My older, shamelessly-grizzled friends said (in gentle, crone-like voices), “Instead of being upset, you need to get curious about your gray-hair journey.” My punk-rock buddies said I should shave my head, thus avoiding the grow-out skunk line.
The idea of parading around like a version of Emmylou, Kiki or Cher did not appeal to me. I AM NANCY ROBINSON, and therefore a rockstar in my own right.
Anyone suggesting I shave my head has never seen my ears, which are so Doctor-Spocky it confirms my suspicions that I’m a creature from outer space.
So I decided to opt for the journey, which in my case meant wandering around the Internet late at night, typing stuff into Google like “I fucking hate my gray hair HELP what should I do, HELP HELP?”.
Sometime around 2 a.m. during the darkest part of the 2017 winter, my journey on the Internet reached a Wikipedia page for The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, who had a lot more identity issues than I ever will.
“Enough is enough,” I said to myself. “You need to take your journey into the studio and paint pictures of yourself with gray hair.”
Here’s the first one, from 2017, when I explored my fear of becoming invisible.
I wasn’t sure I should share my story with the Internet. It occurred to me I should be cool about the whole thing and pretend I grew my gray hair out purposely. But the trouble with acting cool is: I always forget that’s what I’m supposed to be doing and accidentally end up being myself.
But I guess that’s why you like me.