I hate the camera. When that lens is documenting me, my head is so full of what I am not that it’s impossible to relax into what I am.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, where ideal female beauty was omnipresent, taught me to obsess over my flaws. I learned that my value as a woman was not mine to create or validate.
In college, I felt invisible to boys. One of my guy friends explained the problem. With friendly clarity he said, “You’re beautiful, but you’re not cute.”
Ouch. This corroded my self-esteem. Sure, maybe sometimes I was beautiful, but I wasn’t what boys wanted. And yet, all I wanted was to be valued, which required being seen.
Simone de Beauvoir said, “”One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” When I was a girl, I was just a human being. And then, inexorably, I slid into the pressure to become an attractive woman, chasing a resplendent sheen of unassailable beauty and style. I worked my obsession like a worry stone, battling a strident inner monologue that harangued my failures for almost 40 years.
In 2008, when I turned 45, I spent $40,000 in six months, frantic to buy my fading beauty back. I felt like I was watching the glowing core of my value as a woman melt in my hands.
I know it’s obsolete and offensive to women (including myself) to judge myself this way, that writing about toxic beauty standards implicitly endorses and perpetuates them. And yet, despite professional and creative success, a good mind and luxurious independence, navigating the pain, confusion and conflict around my appearance has been one of the profound struggles of my life. We cite foot-binding as a dangerous example of beauty standards devolving into physical torture. But how many women today carry the brutal, invisible wounds of willfully mutilated self-esteem?
In the middle of 2020’s pandemic lockdown, everybody’s hair looked terrible and there was nothing anyone could do about it. We all had roots. Scowling at myself in the mirror one night, an idea sparked. What if I stopped coloring my hair? At 57, wasn’t that OK?
On September 4, 2020, the first day salons could legally open in Alameda County, I walked into my colorist’s tiny new salon, a converted shipping container in Oakland, filled with anticipation and relief. I could not wait to see how I might emerge.
First came the haircut. My stylist removed several inches of old, dry, formerly dyed hair. Within minutes, a white curl that looked like the crest of a wave popped up on top of my forehead. My hair was as exuberant as I was.
After the cut I sat in my colorist’s chair for highlights, because if I was going to have white hair, I wanted it to look deliberate, smashing, purposeful. I’m still vain!
When the foils were removed and my hair was washed and dried, I looked in the mirror and could hear Lizzo singing: “If I’m shining everybody’s gonna shine.”
I left the salon with a shock of platinum silver hair that mellowed into salt and pepper in the back, feeling enlightened, brightened, transformed.
But my delight dampened when I booked a session for new head shots, one of the necessary miseries of business life. With familiar dread, I drove to the studio, put on a bright blue dress and prepared to spend the next hour withstanding my image being captured for cruel evaluation.
This time, though, after about 15 minutes, I felt something surprising, something unnatural. I felt delighted.
It was disorienting to feel happy with a camera trained on my face. I could feel decades of crushing judgements wafting out of my body like mist evaporating in a hot wind.
A light started to glow inside me. I let it loose. It nourished me in a way that the male gaze, which simply consumes, never had. I started to smile without being forced. I laughed. For the first time, I blossomed in front of a camera.
The pictures from that day are my first experience of freedom, my first moments of both seeing and showing myself in a new way.
I didn’t expect that bright white hair would give me the power to joyfully redefine “beauty”, to free me of judgments I’d carried for decades. I didn’t expect white hair to invite me to freely inhabit myself, to celebrate all that I am. But it did. And now I do.