The politics of going gray

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That was in 2015. I was a new congressman, my mom had Alzheimer’s, and my dad had a debilitating stroke. My kids were 11, 15 and 17 years old. My life was a controlled mess. I travel weekly to Washington, take care of my parents and little family, and tour my neighborhood at community events.

Something had to be presented. And for me, my hair was dying. I’ve been curious about gray for several years with more silver roots showing, but I’ve never been willing to take the leap to natural. But the time and money it took me to color my hair every three weeks no longer made sense. I wasn’t sure I would like it, but it felt like a personal and business decision.

I was wrong. My decision to dye hair quickly became a political issue. Supporters pulled my staff aside and asked if I was sick because that was the only explanation they had for my age. People told me that I would no longer be able to legislate, that I was shedding my reputation with hard work, and most confusing to me, that the public and my colleagues would not take me seriously.

Democrat Catherine Clark interacts with her supporters as her husband, Rudd, applauds at her election night gala in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Tuesday, December 10, 2013, as she claims to win a special election for the vacant seat in Massachusetts’s 5th congressional district. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

I was astounded. All because I stopped dyeing my gray hair? It never occurred to me that my potency and efficacy are confined to a small bottle of brown hair dye, but it should be.

It was a sore reminder of how deeply ingrained traditional beauty standards are in our culture and the double standards women face.

Gray-haired men have almost exclusively led America for more than two and a half centuries. But as a woman, my career seemed to hang in the balance because I was just behaving naturally. The narrow definition of acceptable hairstyles for women reflects a broader culture of sexism, ageism and bigotry. Black women and girls constantly suffer from racism in the form of hair control—in my area, two high school students were expelled from school and their sports teams for wearing their hair in braids. This is not a rare experience.

Seven years later, and contrary to the many warnings I received, my graying hair did not prevent me from being reelected or serving my constituents. As for my colleagues, I have had the honor of being elected by them to the position of Assistant Speaker of the House of Representatives, the second-highest female Speaker of the House ever.

Your hair should be everything that makes you feel happy, strong or beautiful.

As the pandemic forced the closure of hair salons, more and more women began to go and stay natural – color and style. I am amazed at our growing team. Not because they’ve opted for a cut away from hair dye, but because they’re redefining what’s beautiful, agreeable, and powerful—just like my colleague and friend Ayanna Presley who proudly shared her hair journey with Alopecia.

Like many other accounts brought by the pandemic, women are taking back their time and power, and calling out the inequalities they face, from a shattered child care system to unequal pay and reproductive rights. The injustice built into our economy was born out of the same misogynistic systems that tell us how to wear our hair.

Women are working to break down these barriers that have held us back for so long. Your hair should be everything that makes you feel happy, strong or beautiful. Wear your decision with pride and as a challenge to any notion that women should be anything else unequal and empowering.

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