Amazing Gray-ce

Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Stranded high on a cracking vinyl cushion, I tried not to blink, eyes filling with regret. I’d picked the pixie cut after browsing waiting-room Glamour magazines, but watching six inches of my dark locks lopped off, I thought, Mistake, and as the minutes passed, Disaster. Attractive hair is oxygen to a thirteen-year-old, and my looks defined my nascent personhood. It’s easy to forget the Lord values the heart when living in a community of “mortals look[ing] at the outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7).

This began my hair battles, evidence of my feelings of self-loathing. As soon as I got home, I tried fixing the cut by plastering pink Scotch hair-set tape on every wavy chopped tress in futile attempts to get my natural texture to stay down. This proved to be a disaster, showing in the mirror as an odd bubble-gum-pink crown of Band-Aid-sized strips above a tear-streaked brown face.

The difficulties of becoming friends with one’s self are real. During college I experienced the added hardship of undiagnosed depression and often forgot to take care of my hair or even brush it.  But I kept praying, Help me, Lord. I made baby-steps towards self-care as I turned my struggles over to Christ and was given the joy of looking outward. My lifelines became the incredibly interesting people I met and loved, even as I secretly hated myself.

Fast-forward past years of studying, living alone (and lonely) with my nose in a book or my eyes fixed on index cards with Bible verses, growing (as Thoreau says) like corn in the night. Then, at twenty-nine, I was blessed as one of the incredibly interesting people I had met and loved became my husband, and his agape love helped teach me slowly, surely that I could love myself.

So when my hair began curling in my thirties, I let it curl and loved it. Getting ready became simple. No more blow-drying, just wash it at night, air dry, and wet it in the morning. But a new problem arose — I couldn’t tweeze out the too-many errant gray hairs anymore. I then did the unthinkable when my daughter entered kindergarten: coloring my hair at a salon. When the stylist asked, “You want red highlights to match your natural ones?” I saw I’d missed appreciating my original God-given gift. My hair has always been a symbol for my life.

Photo credit: Katherine Butcher

That first salon bill persuaded me, a stay-at-home mom on limited budget, to color my hair in the bathroom. After a decade of that overpowering ammonia, I started using non-ammonia dyes, and we got along well for some time, apart from the mess. But recently I was pushing a cart down Kroger’s hair-dye aisle, passing the neatly lined up boxes with their life-enhancing promises — Clairol’s Perfect10 and L’Oreal’s Excellence — when I realized I was totally fed up with dyeing my hair. I wanted gray hair. My hunger for perfection starved to death some time ago, and I realized I also no longer cared about the culture’s obsession with youth. I wanted simplicity, freedom, joy in being who I am.

So I did what most of us do before we make a decision — I googled “going gray.” Then I visited my hair stylist Crystal, who had years ago solved that decades-old mystery of why-did-my-pixie-cut-look-so-unbecoming-on-me, explaining, “You and I have the same long face shape. It doesn’t work with short hair.” I was somewhat apprehensive to tell Crystal I wanted to go gray because she had been dyeing my hair on occasion, when I wanted it to look extra professional before talks, workshops, and retreats; however, she was delighted, said my “sterling silver” hair would do well, and described ways to handle the transition, agreeing that letting it grow for eight months would be the best start.

I’m excited about this new companionship with something as simple as my hair. It shows a huge change in me wrought by Christ’s grace. I no longer experience the intense self-hatred I did for decades, nor the depression, which through counseling I came to understand as a serious medical illness like heart disease or high blood pressure, requiring medical treatment. And I learned (and learn anew today) to honor God’s gift of life, no longer apologizing to everyone for everything but saving apologies for real occasions of injury. I am embracing the music of my life that will always have a strong bass line, like good jazz.

So as my perhaps culturally-questionable gray adventures unevenly across my head, I’m dancing inside, a fifty-something woman happy to be alive and flawed, praying to become softer-souled. My life’s journey is in each strand of gray — the good, the bad, the raw — and I’m thankful for each one. This new peace is both hard-won and also God’s amazing grace.

Proverbs reminds, “Gray hair is a crown of glory, gained in the way of righteousness” (16:31). This “way of righteousness” means my gray hair flourishes — not as a diadem of human accomplishment, but as time’s prize to a much-loved beggar walking the path of forgiven fallenness. So I press ahead, covered ever more in graceful gray, praying daily for wisdom because “God . . . gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).

Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)

7 comments

Oh, Carman. This article touched my very soul. I kept thinking as I read along, "No! The fabulous Dr. Butcher did not have so many of the same dark and sad days as I did. Coloring my hair started turning it a funny see through orange, so I stopped. Your stylist is right - it took about 8 months. I had my shoulder length bob layed as much as it could ce layered to help the growing out phase look as normal as it could look. Accepting grey hair and accepting my age and accepting just me has been the kindest thing I've ever done for myself. As Churchhill said, "The black dog of depression," has followed me around for quite some time, as well. To God be the Glory for the miracle of healing and sustaining grace. I'm so glad that you were brave and carried on. The world needs you. You will always be the friend who helped me when everyone else was taking care of themselves. I love you, dearly.

Jun 25, 2014 5:54AM by Deborah Burrell Smith

I can relate to this! Still not ready to go gray, because I did that in my forties and it just made me look older than I felt. But now, closer to sixty . . . Thanks for a great article!

Jun 18, 2014 8:37AM by Vinita Wright

What a wonderful article! I appreciate your transparency and can identify with so many points you made... After chemo, I embraced my baldness as well as my new short gray/white hair, at least for a short time! But now I'm enjoying even more my dyed locks of brown and looking forward to highlights later this week. Our society (most of us) put way too much importance on outward appearance, neglecting the inner self. Especially me. I so admire your courage, fabulous writing skills, and willingness to share!

Jun 17, 2014 9:26PM by Beth Bradfield Wright

Loved reading this. These self-loathing tapes we replay in our heads certainly make seeing God's gifts difficult. When I was 10, my mother lost all of her hair due to an infection. The doctor assured her that all her hair would grow back, but it might come back gray. My mother said, "I don't care if it comes in pink!!!" That made a huge impression on my 10 year old self centeredness (oh the hours I used to preen and stare at myself in the mirror!!!). So hair color hasn't been much of an issue for me - but body size and shape, now that's another matter altogether. God bless you and Mr. Rogers because "I like you just the way you are."

Jun 17, 2014 2:26PM by Treva Whichard

I'm looking forward to seeing your beautiful silver hair! I was apprehensive at first too...I worried about the silver strands sticking out like a sore thumb in a bed of dark hair. But I learned it's not such a bad thing!

Congratulations on your dye-box liberation!

Jun 17, 2014 1:26PM by Danita Clark Able

You are beautiful, intelligent (hard working) and inspiring inside and out!

Jun 17, 2014 11:01AM by Anna

What courage !!! You are actually going gray? No matter what color your hair, your are beautiful!

Jun 17, 2014 9:02AM by Nelle Reagan

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