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Hair Dye

Many years ago, when Gloria Steinem turned 40, someone complimented her on how remarkably young she looked, and she replied, "This is what 40 looks like." It was a great line, and I wish I'd said it. Here's another thing Gloria Steinem said: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." (Actually, the first person who said that was Irina Dunn, but Gloria quoted the remark far and wide and she got credit for it.) I wish I'd said that line, too, even though it isn't really true. "This is what 40 looks like" led, inevitably, to its most significant corollary, "Forty is the new 30," which led to many other corollaries: Fifty is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, and even, restaurants are the new theater, focaccia is the new quiche, etc.

Anyway, here's the point: There's a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don't look the way they used to, and it's not because of feminism or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye. In the 1950s, only 7 percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all. (Once, some years ago, I went to Le Cirque, a well-known New York restaurant, to a lunch in honor of a woman named Jean Harris, who had just that week been released from 12 years in prison for murdering her diet doctor boyfriend, and she was the only woman in the restaurant with gray hair.)

Hair dye has changed everything, but it almost never gets the credit. It's the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture, and because it actually succeeds at stopping the clock (at least where your hair color is concerned), it makes women open to far more drastic procedures (like facelifts). I can make a case that it's partly responsible for the number of women entering (and managing to stay in) the job market in middle and late middle age, as well as all sorts of fashion trends. For example, it's one of the reasons women don't have to wear hats anymore, and it's entirely the reason that everyone I know has a closet full of black clothes. Think about it: Fifty years ago, women of a certain age almost never wore black. Black was for widows, specifically for Italian war widows, and even Gloria Steinem might concede that the average Italian war widow made you believe that 60 was the new 75. If you have gray hair, black makes you look not just older but sadder. But black looks great on older women with dark hair—so great, in fact, that even young women with dark hair now wear black. Even blondes wear black. Even women in L.A. wear black. Most everyone wears black—except, of course, for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.

But back to hair dye: I began having my hair dyed about 15 years ago, and for quite a while I was categorized by my colorist as a single-process customer—whatever was being done to me (which I honestly have no idea how to describe) did not involve peroxide and therefore took "only" 90 minutes every six weeks or so. Whenever I complained about how long it took, I was told that I was lucky I wasn't blonde. Where hair dye is concerned, being blonde is practically a career.

Oh, the poor blondes! They were sitting there at the colorist's when I arrived, and they were still sitting there when I left. Their scalps were sectioned off and dotted with little aluminum foil packets; they had to sit under hair dryers; they complained bitterly about their dry and damaged hair and their chronic split ends. I felt superior to them in every way. For the first time in my life, it seemed, there was an advantage to being a brunette.

But then, about a year ago, my colorist gave me several highlights as a present. Highlights, as you undoubtedly know, are little episodes of blondeness that are scattered about your head. They involve peroxide. They extend the length of time involved in hair dyeing from unbearable to unendurable. As I sat in the chair, waiting for my highlights to sink in, I was bored witless. Hours passed. I couldn't imagine why I had been conned into agreeing to this free trial episode. I vowed that I would never ever even be tempted to have highlights again—much less to pay money for them. (They are, in addition to being time consuming, wildly expensive. Naturally.)

But—you will probably not be surprised to hear this—those highlights were a little like that first brandy Alexander Lee Remick drank in Days of Wine and Roses. I emerged onto Madison Avenue with four tiny blondish streaks in my hair, and was so thrilled and overwhelmed by the change in my appearance, I honestly thought that when I came home, my husband wouldn't recognize me. From that moment on, I was hooked. As a result, my hair dyeing habit now takes at least three hours every six weeks or so, and because my hair colorist is (in her world) only slightly less famous than Hillary Clinton, it costs more per year than my first automobile.

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