(Repost of an essay from 2016)
The day after your birthday it occurs to you that you're one day closer to turning 50 than you are to being 40, and despite a common sense approach to life, this realization challenges everything you thought you knew about yourself.
Your mother's generation taught you to believe that sex was your superpower. Not intellectual or spiritual development but the grooming of your physical appearance for the male gaze and the sculpting of your personality for the male ego. Their well-meaning advice on financial security was to find a husband. Forget the eccentric great-aunt who played the accordion and never got married. She was clearly a lesbian, not to be taken seriously.
Those messages, aside from being a drag, prevented the bonding that you and your mother so desperately needed. They also fueled a lifetime of rebellious behavior- including a decision to go gray in your early 40's because... fuck. all. that.
These fucks go deep.
Aside from my grandmother (whose silver hair still stands out in my memory as a thing of beauty), all of the women in my family have colored their hair way beyond a natural age. And while I respect a woman's choice to do whatever she wants in terms of appearance if it is empowering to her, it still bothered me on a fundamental level because I knew it was rooted in the belief that a woman's beauty and worth fade with age.
Two years ago I stopped coloring my roots and shaved off enough hair to expose 80% of my natural gray. Across the board, I found that men were remarkably supportive of the change. In fact, I don't think I've ever received more compliments than the day I traded in my Schwartzkopf chestnut brown ponytail for a salt and pepper fade.
The responses I got from women weren't as consistent. Not that they were bad, just really different.
One common reaction was something along the lines of "Wow, that's BRAVE."
Some women were enthusiastic about the gray, and for months I couldn't go anywhere without being complimented or asked if the color was natural. (Coincidentally, I had no idea that Rihanna was rocking a gray ombre at the time. Thanks RiRi)
And then there were the women who emphatically believed I was too young to go gray. One friend's mother even scolded me for it, insisting that I keep coloring my roots until my mid 50's at the very least.
Several women admitted that they had at one time considered going natural but for various reasons (all of which I can relate to) were afraid of the drastic change in appearance. And to be completely honest, it was drastic.
As for my own reaction, it changed constantly. I vacillated between radiant self-confidence and debilitating insecurity as all of the stigmas around ageism that I grew up listening to suddenly came gushing in.
As much as I wanted to be a rebel, there was a part of me that feared they were right. Afraid I would be stripped of my sexual identity and tossed by the wayside as an eyesore simply because I chose to embrace my naturally occurring gray hair. It reminded me of body image disorders that are fed by our collective social anxiety around imperfection.
After giving it some thought, I realized that women are responsible for the majority of my socialization and social identity. Beginning with my mother and moving down the line of relatives, friends, church ladies and teachers, most of the criticism, advice, and praise I've gotten in life has been from the women in my community, not the men.
After several months I decided to color my hair again. I wanted to know if I would feel any different, and I did. Something felt wrong, as though I had betrayed myself on a deep level. It wasn't long before I walked into a barber shop, and the relief of feeling those clippers graze my scalp to reveal the truth of my appearance was almost immediate.
I found the experience interesting on multiple levels. It reminded me that our preoccupation with the male gaze is only part of the story. The other part is the way we respond to the female gaze, and how many fucks we give in reaction to it.
The hormone responsible for caretaking and nurturing is estrogen, and by middle age a woman's body begins to curb estrogen production which triggers an array of physical and emotional changes.
Perimenopause literally means the time before the big pause. A time when ovulation and menstruation gradually come to a stop. Unfortunately I hear more about the downside of perimenopause than the upside- the physical and emotional symptoms caused by a constant fluctuation in hormones comparable in intensity to puberty. But instead of the body gearing up for reproduction, it's gearing down.
Hot flashes, insomnia, irritability, depression, incontinence, and the thing we all cringe to say out loud... vaginal dryness... are all symptoms related to menopause. Interestingly enough, not all women experience these symptoms, and new studies are exploring the way cultural attitudes around aging can affect the severity of menopausal symptoms. This has been proven in matriarchal cultures where women rise in status as elders and signs of aging are a welcome thing.
Only when all props and crutches are broken, and no cover from the rear offers even the slightest hope of security does it become possible for us to experience an archetype that up to then had hidden behind the meaningful nonsense played out by the anima. This is the archetype of meaning, just as the anima is the archetype of life itself.
—C. G. Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious
Some women experience what might be best described as a late blooming during perimenopause which supports jung's theory of individuation. Having a strong sense of identity and self allows a woman to break free of the maternal gaze, including that of the collective.
Having our own children may afford a split from the psychic authority of our mothers (and in some cases our elder siblings), but not always. Whether we get married or not, have children or don't, the expectations we hold ourselves to in terms of pleasing and measuring up to the women we grant authority to can be overpowering.
Looking at it from this perspective, the hormonal transformation of perimenopause can be a welcome change, but again, our cultural and social attitudes have the power to reinforce this liberating stage or suppress it.
I was joking with a friend about the unpredictability of my menstrual cycles and how I'm learning to embrace moods like weather patterns. She told me that when her mother went through menopause it was like getting to know a different person. She and her siblings were insightful enough to be supportive during these changes, and it made all the difference.
It made me think back to how different my mother's forced transition into menopause had been after having a hysterectomy. With no emotional support for the changes that were happening to her, all I remember her saying to me at the time was, "I'm just glad it's out."
It, as in, her uterus. The organ responsible for bringing life into the world, that can stretch from the size of a pear to a watermelon, feed an embryo, grow an entirely new organ called a placenta, support other pelvic organs by holding them in place, and if you are lucky, it is the organ that is the seat of your sexual power.
It still pains me to know that she regarded her body as the problem instead of the misogyny she internalized about her body.
I remember her sudden hot flashes, clothes soaked in sweat, complaints of sleepless nights, and extreme bouts of depression. I was only ten at the time so I had no understanding of what was happening, not to mention feeling anxious and unprepared about my own upcoming transition into menstruation.
How different things might have been if we'd had more outside support, including rites of passage for both of us, and better resources to help ease our sacred transitions.
"Oh the fucks, they are a changin..."
My fucks are changing.
I give less of a fuck about making mistakes and more about making better ones. At the end of the day, we are all fucking something up, and we fuck ourselves the most when we place more value on outside appearances than inside progress.
I respect my mother and the women of her generation for surviving in a male dominated paradigm. I recognize that I wouldn't be the person I am today without the constant pushback and compromise of our differences, but I also give props to the women who mothered me in ways that were essential to my spiritual growth. The ones who loved me into loving myself and when I walked into a room with short, gray hair simply said, "Hello lovely."
Because we are so much more than what meets the eye, and at the end of the day the only fucks worth giving are between you and yourself.
Making the choice to age with grace. Celebrating feminine qualities that are nurturing but also exploring the broadness of our feminine spectrum. Rejecting stereotypes and most importantly, recognizing that we don't have to choose between spiritual enlightenment or sexual empowerment. They are both cut from the same cloth.
These are a few of my favorite fucks...
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