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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

6 Things It's Probably Smart Not to Say to a Gray-Haired Person
December 8, 2013 - 3:15pm
A number of these advice lists have been going around social media. Some are snarky, but I have learned a lot from lists of well-intended questions and statements that are troublesome to people who use wheelchairs, helper animals, and so on. I made several of the comments below when I was younger, and I apologize to everyone I might have offended. It is sometimes hard to know what to say when you haven't been in the other person's position. With that in mind, younger people might want to avoid saying the following:
 
Is that your grandson?
Not that it is anyone's business (though I got this job in part because I wrote about it for the Mama PhD anthology) but I had a long (20+ years) string of miscarriages before I had Ben at age 42. I have friends who postponed having children until their careers were stable, or they found the right partner, or could afford IVF or adoption. We are just as much our children's parents as younger people are. Grandparents are great, but please don't make this assumption.
 
It must take a lot of guts not to color your hair.
The implication behind this one is that gray hair is somehow shameful. Maybe you would be embarrassed to walk around old, but the person you are addressing may feel differently. I happen to love the color of my hair. So do my friends and family, and not  incidentally, so do casting directors. If you would have a problem leaving your hair natural, fine, go ahead and color it. 
 
Ditto for wearing it long.
As stated above, I really like my hair, and as far as I can concerned, the more of it the better. In addition, unpigmented hair tends to be less manageable than hair that is either colored or young, and when it is short and less weighty, I tend to look like Reddy Kilowatt unless I take more time styling it than I want to. I sometimes enjoy wearing it up, Grandma style, but not all the time, so I let it flow around my shoulders. Obviously I am not trying to look younger, otherwise I would color it.
 
You don't look [age]!
I do, actually. Everyone looks the age that they are, just like people of various ethnic, racial and religious groups look like members of their groups. By definition, we all look like who we are.
 
This comment is intended as a compliment, but the problem with it is that it assumes that one group is superior to another, and that the person you are speaking to will be flattered by the statement that she doesn't look like who she is. 
 
This might sound weird or disingenuous if you are young, especially in our youth-obsessed culture. There is certainly social pressure, especially on women, to remain youthful looking, through chemistry and surgery, just as there is pressure to be thin. This doesn't mean that heavier or older people all want to be mistaken for younger or thinner ones, though. There are different kinds of beauty from those found on the pages of fashion magazines. Think of a beloved grandparent. Think of Maggie Smith. See?
 
Do you mind if I [push ahead of you on the coffee line, grab the swim lane you were waiting for, squeeze you out of a place on the elevator]? I have to get to work.
 
Guess what? I work, too. I have a job with a long commute, a private practice, and a fairly active acting career. And with a son in college, you can bet I won't be retiring any time soon. Let's just keep our respective places in the lineup for now, okay?
 
It's great that you stay so active!
Thanks. I should get a medal for doing normal things like working, taking classes and going to the gym. I am aware that some people of all ages are not able to do these things, and I am grateful to be among the (temporarily) able. I will also acknowledge that I tire more easily now than when I was young, my joints hurt on rainy days, and standing for long periods gives me a backache, so if you want to let me ahead in line, on a bad day I won't say no. Even so, this "compliment" feels a little like a pat on the head.
 
Again, this is not meant as a lecture. I'm not offended when people say these things, and I definitely make much worse faux-pas on a regular basis (that is another post, though). But hearing them repeatedly gets wearing, and if you have gray-haired friends and acquaintances, I thought you might appreciate knowing that. Naturally, everyone's reaction will be different. Feel free to share your own thoughts and advice in the comments.
 
And by the way, "You look great!" Is always welcome. So is, "Would like you like a seat?"

 

 

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