The Body I Inhabit

The body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention.

An acquaintance was, as the slang saying goes, ragging on me for the fact that, at age 67, I still regularly color my hair the same red-gold shade that I’ve used for 19 years. I didn’t respond to her banter, merely shrugging and saying that when the effort of coloring became more trouble than the results were worth, I’d give it up.

The truth, though, is a lot more complex than I alluded to her. I’ve colored my hair off and on throughout most of my adult lifetime, and it has become almost a sacrosanct ritual of self-care. Disliking my dishwater-blond natural color, I bleached it to a lighter shade throughout my teenage years. In my early 20s, following a disastrous haircut, I ceased bleaching and dyed my locks back to my natural shade in order to keep it strong as it grew out. For the next several decades, the non-chemical lightening methods of chamomile and lemon sufficed to keep my hair brighter. But finally, at age 45, succumbing to vanity as I noticed the first of what would soon be a deluge of whitening strands, I returned to dyeing my hair once more. I was at the time newly divorced. Despondent and depressed during the final months of my failing marriage, I hadn’t really been taking great care with my personal appearance. Coloring my hair was a self-affirming action.

It still is. And while I suspect that someday, in the not-too-far future, I will at last make the decision to let my hair reassume its now-white natural shade, today is not that day. Not by a long shot. If nothing else, I appreciate the compliments I frequently receive from total strangers, remarking on the lovely color (to which, by the way, I answer in perfect honesty, “Oh, that’s L’Oréal.” The company should pay me a premium for the number of customers I’ve sent their way!)

Perhaps that’s why, reading any number of articles and personal essays during Covid-19, I found it bewildering that so many people blithely discussed their total disregard for personal grooming standards while in lockdown. I simply don’t get it. Hair color compliments aside (and though they are appreciated) I’m not doing this, or any other of my self-care routines, for anyone else; I’m doing them for myself. Pride in my appearance circumvents my readily-acknowledged innate plainness and basic ineptitude with makeup and fashion.

Since I always keep a couple of spare boxes of colorant on hand, I still treated my hair throughout lockdown; trimmed it, as well, keeping my bangs in check and the ends neat; washed and conditioned it regularly. I shaved my legs on my usual schedule. The few times I left the house for necessities—groceries, and the like—I eschewed only lip gloss, since my lips were covered by the mask, but brushed on mascara and a touch of shadow and liner and eyebrow pencil, and dabbed essential oil on my wrists. I continued my weekly self-facials and plucked my eyebrows, trimmed and shaped my fingernails and treated the cuticles, and gave myself pedicures. I may have lounged in my PJs until the late morning, but I got dressed, properly dressed, every day. I skipped none of my self-grooming rituals.

Then, recently, others of my aging acquaintances mentioned that self-care routines, even daily showering, often felt like a time-consuming nuisance; a lot of bother. The remarks made me shudder. “Smells like old ladies” was a frequently-voiced insult during my youth, and it established in me a determination that I would never, ever, be the smelly old woman shunned by those around her. Until I am either too weak or too feeble-minded to do so, daily bathing will certainly not be too much trouble; if I have anything to do with it, my granddaughter will never associate any smells with me except those of wisteria and lilac; rose or lavender.

Looking back now on the years I’ve spent caring for and about my appearance, I understand that, as a young woman, I latched onto grooming rituals in an effort to be something I was not: beautiful, attractive, desirable. But, over time, that desire has melded into a healthier attitude. Caring for my appearance is a healthy form of pride. Each stroke of the hairbrush, each splash of scent, every scrape of the emery board across a broken nail, says to me that the body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention. I am a divine soul having a human experience, and the body in which I dwell, like any temple, needs an occasional lick of paint.

And so as I spend those few hours each month coloring my hair, I remind myself that I am, despite every appearance to the contrary, a Goddess.

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