Going Gray

Making peace with the realities of life and career. 

March 25, 2019

Last week,  I went to the hairdresser determined to make the most dramatic change in my appearance since, well. . . ever. Instead of trying to cover, mask, hide the gray hair that was taking root, I was going to let go and let nature have its way with me. Nervously, but also defiantly, I informed my stylist that is was time to go au naturelle.

For many (but certainly not all) women, hair is an extremely personal issue. African-American women, in particular, have written extensively about the ways cultural, emotional, social, and professional attitudes and beliefs get entangled in hair. As a white, cishet woman, I have never had to deal with society reading my choice of hairstyle as a political statement as, say, lesbian women often do when sporting “butch” haircuts, or African-American women (and men) do when wearing their hair in Afros or braids. But my decision to go gray does make a social statement—it says: “I am embracing my age and eschewing the male gaze’s demand to pursue youthfulness at any cost” (and as any one who has colored their hair knows, the actual monetary cost is also significant).

Lest you think this is a beauty blog, let me get to it. Letting nature, life events, professional moments take their course has not been a strength of mine. At the beginning of my career, before I was tenured, I wrote an essay entitled, “Can You Put Your Kids on Your CV?,” wherein I ruminated on the fact that my decision to have children was slowing down my professional progress. Cheekily assigning my then six-year old the moniker “CV” and my infant “Promotion,” I ruminated about how some members of my graduate cohort were churning out an article a day while I was struggling to find time to shower.

I’m mercifully tenured now. “CV” is in his first-year of college and “Promotion” is in middle school. Most of my graduate cohort are full professors; I am an associate. Over the course of the last fifteen years or so, life has happened: I’ve changed jobs multiple times for child-custody reasons; I’ve gone under the surgical knife six times and been hospitalized at least a dozen more; I’ve survived workplace bullying, the emotional turmoil of losing a father I wasn’t particularly close with, and serious financial hardships. These personal challenges used to enrage me: how could I possibly be a good scholar, teacher, and administrator if my personal life is a constant state of chaos and my kids—love ‘em to death!—sap all my time and energy?!?!

But in my late forties, as I settle into middle-age, I have noticed a softening in my attitude. It is true that I have not been as prolific as I would have liked, but my sons are growing into amazing young men who are a constant source of pride and a kind of everyday contentment that a peer-reviewed journal article could never be. My chronic medical conditions have opened up a completely new research area for me—disability studies—and my workplace, financial, and personal struggles have made me a better scholar, teacher and administrator as I have developed a rich and deep understanding of the complexity of people’s lives and the futility of a “one-size-fits-all” approach for supporting the embodied teachers, faculty, students, and colleagues I work with.

Like accepting the natural gray that is as much a product of my life struggles as genetics, I am making a certain peace with the realities of my career. The chance to be the young academic superstar has long since passed, and I have accepted that embracing my medical condition means that my body is going to determine my pace.

When I told my stylist about my intention to go gray, she surprised me with her enthusiasm and told me that every client she had who went gray never went back. Upon reflection, this makes a lot of sense to me. Deciding to accept the way my life and career have unfolded allows me to see how the personal and professional have never been at odds but rather how I have been the one trying to artificially cover the one to mask the other. Accepting the paths as braided actually opens the future to exciting possibilities. Instead of viewing the midpoint of my career as a time of mourning for what I haven’t done, “letting myself go” gives me the space, time, and energy to focus on what this next chapter brings. Naturally.

Melissa Nicolas is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Director of the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced.



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