Ungarbage Mag

GREY HAIR, DON’T CARE

How a low-waste life creates a life of true self acceptance

One year ago I made a commitment to living low-waste. I went on a journey to reduce single-use plastics in my life, only buying and using what is necessary. In some ways, this was easy. We’ve all seen the Instagram posts about not buying plastic water bottles and other single-use plastics. But in other ways, it wasn’t as easy as just replacing my day-to-day routine with reusables. In some areas of my life, my consumption practices were deeply entangled with my sense of identity. 

When I made the commitment, the most difficult thing I had to give up was dying my hair. The challenge couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was just inheriting the gift from my maternal family of prematurely greying. Or maybe it was perfect timing; it was my chance to look at beauty standards and practices, and whether I liked it or not, to accept the reality of being grey in my early 30s. What started out as a radical act of love for the world would soon become a radical act of self-love.

Portrait of India for Ungarbage Magazine article on grey hair.

Becoming

I started dying my hair at 16 when my body, my face, and my sexuality were all on a high-speed collision course into womanhood. The flawless models on the wall of boxes at the drugstore offered me so many possibilities at a time of awkward insecurities and deep vulnerability. They were possibilities of who I wanted to be and who I could become in the future.

Perhaps a shade described by its resemblance to food with slightly sexual undertones, like mysterious plum, ferocious cherry or delectable chocolate, would be just the thing. It could detract from the unattractiveness of puberty and make me desirable or even devourable. The models on the boxes of hair dye were not that different from the models in magazines. They promised something I wanted — feminine power — or really any type of power at all. 

At sixteen, my hair colour was one thing in my life I had control over, and it made for an act of self-determination. Dying my hair worked especially well as an act of power and defiance against my mother, who had never dyed her hair once in her life, and didn’t want me to either.  By her mid-30s my mom had a full head of grey hair, something I remember hating and being embarrassed by. I knew I would always dye my hair and never be like her.

After high school and into my twenties, I made a habit of dying my hair every few weeks as a recreational hobby. It was soothing to be alone with my thoughts, methodically working through each section and then wait for the result. I remember once coming home from a bad day at work and stopping to pick up a box of dye to make myself feel better. Going back to work the next day to compliments and attention was just what I needed. It felt like the bad day before no longer mattered. I had built into my identity that I was the girl whose hair was always different. It made me feel special and unique.

Even the act of choosing a shade from the wall was part of the practice of self-soothing. It could sometimes take me half an hour to choose just the right possibility of who I could become. A darker, almond mocha could make me feel like a  person from the hazelnut latte I’d been the month before. Maybe I could become someone who had it all together, who knew what they wanted to do with their life, who could make a relationship work. Someone better. Someone worthy.

The untangling

When I first started to become conscious of how much waste I created in my daily life I estimated I had probably bought over 100 boxes of hair dye over the last 15 years. That meant 100 boxes of applicator tubes going in the trash. 100 boxes of chemicals going down the drain into our water system, just from one person. That didn’t include the intermittent trips to the salon for bleach-outs.

For a year or so before fully committing to living a low-waste lifestyle, I tried to reduce the amount I dyed my hair. I was recycling what I could from the kit, but it was only a band-aid and not an actual answer to the question of why I felt I needed to dye my hair. Why did I think I was not allowed to have grey hair?

woman with natural grey hair

I was always judgemental of my mom’s hair because I knew that having grey hair, alienated her in some way. Maybe it was the way she talked about her grey hair as something to be proud of, despite what anyone else thought, or the way other people talked about it to her in front of her daughters. Oh wow, is that your natural colour? But you’re so young!

Conditioned to conform

In our society there is something perceived as bad about a woman being natural, showing grey hair and not  manufacturing her image. The prescriptive gender expectation for women is to use all available resources to improve their attractiveness and appearance of youth. This prescription manifests when we judge a girl or womxn for not wearing makeup, not dieting, or wearing unflattering clothing. However, patriarchy and capitalism are two systems of power that, when they intersect, reinforce each other.

Our current culture uses our vulnerabilities about our gender, no matter where we fall on the spectrum. They sell us products we don’t actually need, keeping us stuck in an endless cycle of consumption. If we are not consuming the products available to us to help us conform to our gender expectations, we are alienated two times over. First, for not conforming to patriarchy, and second, for not conforming to capitalism.

When I committed to living low-waste, I needed to interrupt my cycle of waste by interrupting my cycle of consumption. But to do that, I needed to sit with my insecurities and ask myself what motivates me to buy stuff? What fears about myself are marketers using against me to get me to buy their products? The fear of alienation, of not being good enough, of there being something wrong with me? Exploring these questions reaches far beyond the few hair dye bottles I am now keeping out of landfills each year. Any personal self-acceptance I create from doing this work ripples outward.

By truly accepting myself first I can truly accept others as well. I can see them as worthy, self-determining individuals, and not judge them for their insecurities. They too might be trying to feel better with a bottle from the drugstore. Accepting my own grey hair, my age, my appearance, and how I am already worthy and good enough, just might create the space for one, two, or five other people to do the same, and that will make a difference far beyond what we can currently imagine.

Written by Brenna Fynes 

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