Vanity, Part 1

After months of a mysterious allergic reaction I finally pinpointed its source: my hair color. A little research and I think I found the culprit, para-Phenylenediamine. It's a nasty little chemical, present in almost all hair dyes, and has been banned in Europe because of a suggested link to cancer.

I shared this with some friends at lunch one day and one of them smartly said to me, "You bug me about drinking Diet Coke and you put this crap on your head?"

Just in case I didn't catch the point, I had another, unrelated allergic reaction a few weeks ago, and heard the doctor say, "You need to consider your soaps, your hair products, your makeup, and your laundry detergents." Uh, excuse me, but that is a long list of bottles to read the fine print on. Well, why is that such a long list, anyway?

So, besides researching chemicals and hair care and makeup options, I've been facing my vanity pretty directly. I was schooled in vanity as a young girl, and I've worn makeup since I was a teenager and my hair has been chemically altered since about 1980 (except for a two year break during which I got pregnant with Theo, which, now that I think about it, is curious. I mean, I didn't stop dying my hair so I could get pregnant, because I didn't think I could, but I quit dying my hair and awhile later got pregnant. Could be coincidence, but I firmly do not believe I got pregnant because, as so many people helpfully say, I adopted a child and "relaxed.") I've been schooled in vanity, I've been surrounded by vanity in a culture that has a very particular idea of how we females should look and by an industry intent on selling us stuff to achieve that look, I've been encouraged in my vanity by folks who fuss about how I look while I preach, and I've fueled my vanity with fears about how the world will respond to me if it's just me they see.

At the same time I preach the Gospel every week, about how God loves us and how radically this opposes what the world tells us. Spiritually I work at being more and more authentic, whole and healthy and believe that makes me a better pastor, if not person. I love the people in my congregation and in my life and realize that has nothing to do with their hair color, if they are gray yet, or how much makeup they have on their face.

There is a dichotomy here somewhere.

So I'm going to quit putting nasty chemicals on my hair. That means, of course, a difficult transition, because the only way to go from chemical blonde to natural not-quite-blonde is to cut your hair really short, cover it with brown (almost all of which I'm allergic to) or look like a reverse and shaggy skunk. I can use henna, which has unpredictable qualities and is likely to make some of my hair turn coppery. I think I have a few weeks before I'm forced to a decision.

Which should be no big deal. I should be able to change the color of my hair without concern. I should be able to be a coppery redhead for awhile, and then some weird brunette for awhile, and then see how gray my natural not-quite-blonde-not-quite-brown has become in the last several years. But it is a big deal to me, partly because I have to stare down my vanity and my concern about what people will think of me. And, as the helpful young woman at the local co-op who chatted with me about henna said, "It's hard to have a professional look and use henna. It is unpredictable."

I'm a pastor. I've tried to look professional. But I'm not an anchorwoman, I'm clergy. Do I have to look a certain way? Where did I get this idea? Does it help me as a pastor to fit society's idea of what women should look like? Does it matter if my hair is a weird color, or a boring color? Does it matter if I use mascara, or lipstick? Will people hear my sermon better? Or will they hear it better if I am myself, shed of another layer of the fear that is dished out by an anxious culture?

I don't yet know. But we're going to be finding out.


Cynthia said...

Michelle, I love this post. Thank you so much for writing it. I think part of the dichotomy is that, as women in this culture, we're sold from a very early age that consumerism = self-care and self-love. As in, "L'Oreal: It costs more, and I'm worth it." Men may receive the message, too--and more and more in the past several years--but I maintain that women are the chief recipients. We "take care" of ourselves for our husbands, our children, our communities, and--sometimes--even for ourselves.

I very much hope your experience letting go of the blonde ends up in some publication--Mother Jones? Mothering? I'm thinking the left-leaning kind of magazine that's in the check-out lines at the co-op would love this.

Doug said...

I don't suppose you could put your photographic skills to use documenting this journey?

I'm very curious to where it takes you. I hadn't ever realized you enhanced your hair color. :)

Anonymous said...

So I let my hair go gray when it first started turning, thinking I couldn't stand to go in and have it colored. (Those were the years of foil and painful pulling hair through the hole in the "cap" on your head.) I realized I had not dyed my hair for quite a long time, the reason was it was turning gray/white, which appeared blonde to me for a while. But I do wear makeup, and I care how I look. It's hard to go "natural"--there's my image, which I know is now of an old woman--but I don't see this as much.
(I don't know how to get a Google account. I tried once and it didn't work, even though I have Google.