To Dye or Not to Dye and Questions About Aging Gracefully

I had never noticed them before. I’m sure I would have noticed them if they had been there just a few weeks ago. Without a doubt these were new, unwelcomed and unwanted – several white hairs peeking through my fashionably coiffed look. Maybe they were lost and on their way to someone else?

I had no problem with turning 30. By the time I celebrated my 30th I had been married 7 years, had two children and made a career change. It seemed right.

Turning 40. Well, I’m having a tougher time with that because friends who are telling me not to worry because 40 is the new 30 also had a tough time and are probably in denial as well. I don’t feel like I’m falling apart, but the warning signs are there. The knees actually call an audible when I’m headed up and down the stairs. Late nights require more and more recovery time. And I’m just waiting for the day when the words on the page make me wonder if it’s a lighting issue or if the copy is actually blurry.

But seeing those white hairs in the midst of my brown roots and reddish dyed hair made me stop to think about aging and what it means to age gracefully. So much of what I imagined has been internal – a growing and deep winsome wisdom akin to Erma Bombeck and Madeleine L’Engle mixed in with a touch of Obi Wan.

Our culture’s emphasis on external beauty is extremely unforgiving and unfair, especially but not exclusively to women (those “Just For Men” beard and mustache dye kit commercials are horrible). But I think we can agree that the scales are tipped against women more often than not. An older man on television communicates trustworthiness. An older woman on television is Betty White in a commercial. HD technology makes certain TV shows and movies come to life, but it has also meant that then evening newscasters will never look quite as glamourous. A nip and tuck or a chemical peel to the face in HD – well, you get my point.

But the crazy tension I find myself in is that Asian culture honors its elders. We have a thing about age. Now, I realize that Asia proper is changing and, the way I see it, not all for good. Women in parts of Asia have a thing for cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams, and the market for men is increasing as well. Eyelid surgery. Nose surgery. Chin implants. Nothing is off limits. But there is still a reverence that is reserved for our elders, and that value came in the hearts and souls of Asian immigrants. When my extended family and I sit down for a meal, my parents or father-in-law will always be seated and served first. On New Year’s Day we bow to them, acknowledging their place and the roads they continue to pave for us. We defer to them.

Aging in the Asian American community brings a special status of honoring and responsibility. Next week I head off to our national Asian American staff conference and what I hear over and over again is that I am one of the senior Asian American staff. Instead of waiting for an invitation to lead we are extending the invitations. Living in the tension of Asian and American I’m finding that with age comes experience and opportunity.

What does it mean to age gracefully? So much of my life was drawn out between absolutes – Christians do this and not that. Success looks like this and not that. Children should be like this and not that. Americans do this, but Koreans do that. I suppose that is why my knee-jerk reaction is to make a list of do’s and don’ts. Aging gracefully means letting my hair grow out in shades of gray and white and redirect my DIY hair dyeing skills to my daughter’s locks. Maybe? Maybe not?


  1. Lisa February 26, 2010

    I have been thinking a lot about this too, though not because of the respect for elders issue. I’ve never dyed or highlighted my hair before. It’s an expense I’d rather not take on and I’ve never thought of myself as anything other than an all natural (no highlight) brunette. Grays keeps popping in. Ones I can’t see, but sister seems to notice every time she’s in town. Once in a while, I’ll ask Jeff when my sister is not here. “Do you see any gray hairs?” The quickness with which he says, “Just this one,” is a statement of what is to come.

    On the one hand, I’d rather not dye my hair and somehow sport a white or silver hairstyle in the future. On the other hand, In five years, I don’t want to be a 35 year old who looks 50 because of my hair. I’m not a very vain person, but the in-between stage of the uncontrollable wispy gray hairs scares me and I don’t want to end up on that TLC show 10 Years Younger. Then again, why do we think a few gray hairs = a 50 year old? Only because our sense of age and beauty is thrown off by all the cosmetic changes we can make these days.

    As for you, you are so stylish that if you go gray you will make going gray look stylish too.

  2. elderj February 26, 2010

    Kathy it isn’t just Asian culture that esteems elders; it is a Biblical mandate as well and one place (among many) where the American strain of Christianity is far off the mark. Perhaps it is my own vanity (and the far too rapid proliferation of gray hair in my beard and less and less hair in total on the top of my head), but but there is something about a few wrinkles and gray hairs here and there that speak to me wisdom, or at least experience — on both men and women. The ajummahs and ajossis at my church are the ones for whom I wish I could speak Korean if for no other reason that I would just like hear their stories, whether trite or vain or deeply profound. I am perhaps an exception to the prevailing rule, but I find the elders far more compelling than the youngsters. And of course I agree with Lisa as well that you will somehow find a way to make going gray seem stylish (like a godly version of Meryl Streep in the Devil wears Prada).

  3. Dee February 26, 2010

    This is, sadly, a serious topic here in the deep South. A few years ago my young adult daughter thanked me for refusing to give in to the overwhelming pressure to conform to my fellow believers’ insistence that everyone dye or highlight their hair in order to look as youthful as possible. She is grateful that I am willing to actually look my age, to look like a “real” mother, to look like a real grandmother when there are grandchildren to enjoy. She has watched some of her friends suffer greatly because of their mothers’ vanity and competitiveness, trying to look as young as their daughters.

    Prideful vanity is practically a Christian virtue here, but it’s whitewashed with the euphemism known as “taking care of yourself.” Last year I left a Christian women’s luncheon in tears because the other women got into a discussion of hair, and all agreed that the only women who can get away with having any grey hair are the ones with “good” hair – dark brunette or black hair. According to them, anyone who doesn’t have “good” hair looks terrible if they don’t color their hair. I got their message loud and clear. I have medium brown hair, and a very noticeable amount of white. I couldn’t believe Christian women could be so mean.

    But I refuse to allow the cosmetic/beauty industry tell me what beautiful is. The Bible speaks of white hair as a a crown of glory. My husband delights in my natural beauty, including the greying, white hair, the wrinkles, and all the other things Hollywood and the beauty industry want us to believe are bad, instead of natural and lovely.

    I choose to age naturally, gracefully, and with dignity, by looking the age I am and not trying to hide my so-called “flaws.” If all middle-aged women such as myself are so afraid of aging that we all resort to using cosmetics and hair dyes and dermatological treatments or surgery to hide our real age, young women will have no idea of what normal, natural beauty looks like in our forties, fifties, sixties, and older. Some of us need to have the courage to not give into the relentless pressure. Some of us need to be willing to be different and glorify God by honoring what He created, instead of trying to conceal it.

  4. Kathy Khang February 26, 2010

    @ Lisa, I’ve been playing around with hair color since college when I first let my girlfriend dye my hair bluish black. The funny thing about that was my mother first noticed the newly double-pierced ear before noticing the hair color. But as the white hairs have forced their way into my field of vision I have been wondering if it’s just time to let go of the box of #660 deep burgundy. I’m not sure. It has been quite fun, however, dyeing B’s hair pink and then turquoise and recently purple. I really liked the purple 🙂 Maybe one little streak to frame my face? 😉

    @ elderj, thanks for the reminder that respect for our elders is Biblical and a reminder of how our American church experience affects our understanding of culture…

    But both of you and your flattery – godly version of Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada and making going gray look stylish? You are both good friends to have 😉

    @ Dee, thanks for your honest and personal comment. I have had many conversations with women about what it means to dress appropriately for your age and body type and the fine lines between vanity and style and competition and envy. I find it easier to draw lines for what I will and will not wear even though my daughter and I could probably share just about everything in our closets except our shoes. My 14-year-old can make some of my more classic pieces look fun and young and fresh. There are many pieces in her closet that are fun, young and fresh and best left on her. My personal rule has been “just because you fit into it doesn’t mean you should wear it”.

    It is far more difficult for me to draw those lines when it comes to cosmetics. Admittedly I have genetics in my favor. My grandmother does not look like she’s in her 80s. My mother doesn’t look her age either. Neither of them have ever had plastic surgery or a chemical peel but swear by cleansing and moisturizing. I don’t see the harm in SPF moisturizers or anti-wrinkle cream to keep things at bay. Those things cannot keep the inevitable from actually happening.

    But your comment about being examples of “what normal, natural beauty looks like in our 40s, 50s, 60s” gives me and the rest of us much to think about as ones created in God’s image.


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