A friend and I were recently commenting on pictures we saw online of someone we both respect and admire, (a beautiful, successful woman that has been a mentor to both of us). She had been absent from social media for a bit and her recent pictures look different. It appears that she’s had some cosmetic work done. She has also made some remarks that hint at some of her beliefs about the appearance of women as they age.

I felt a deep sadness seeing her new picture and hearing her remarks as it appears that she does not think she is enough (or as beautiful or youthful as she feels she needs to be in the public eye). I’m driven to understand societal ideals regarding our physical appearance, especially in regards to how we change as we get older.

I don’t want to call attention to this particular person as I don’t know what she did or why she did it, or if she might have a health condition or something else that has altered her appearance. She’s not mentioning it and I want to respect her privacy. I still admire and respect her success and desire to help others. But I keep asking myself how I might possibly play a role in shifting any outdated, unhealthy beliefs we’ve collectively been exposed to and influenced by.

I’ve come face to face with my own beliefs, prejudices, and fears about my own appearance and choices this year. Jumping in at a personal level is almost always the best place for me to start any journey, so here goes…

My hair has been graying for a long time. I honestly do not remember how old I was when it started. Initially, I felt that I was too young to be gray, but didn’t realize that what I truly felt was that I would look and feel old if I let the gray come through.

I tried many different hair color products over the years, always searching for the most non-toxic products that would look natural and keep my hair healthy. I met a local stylist years ago who introduced me to a professional product that met my standards and looked great. And I was happy with that choice for a long time.

Occasionally I’d see a picture of myself that would challenge my idea that I was doing a good job of covering my gray in a healthy and natural looking way. If it was more than 3 or 4 weeks after my last color appointment, I would have a streak in the middle of my hair. When I looked in the mirror, it seemed like the colors were blending fairly well, but the pictures told a different story. And I didn’t like the way it looked.

So I started noticing other women with gray or white hair, and grew conscious of how I felt about their appearance. While I find it annoying that most older women have the exact same haircut, I didn’t find their shades of gray, silver or white scary or ugly. Nor did I automatically think anyone looked old just because their hair was gray.

My observations prepared me for a candid discussion with my stylist. She believes that when you take care of your hair it can be beautiful and attractive, no matter what color or style you have, or what age you are. I took her words to heart and decided it was time for me to allow the real color to come through. I don’t judge anyone who chooses color, no matter what their age or reasons; I treasure the option of personal choice. I just wanted to make sure I was making a choice that was authentic for me. Ultimately, I realized that I was coloring my hair because of the old beliefs I was holding onto that I would look or feel old, but I didn’t know if they were true. I was ready to challenge them and see for myself how the gray looked and made me feel.

I wish I could say that it was smooth sailing all the way. But my old beliefs were strong and there were definitely times when I did NOT like the way the natural color looked as it grew in. I was judging myself and thinking others would judge me as well. I made a video and shared it publicly, which really helped release the negativity I was feeling. And I got lots of positive comments, which helped me gain the courage to stay the course.

The beginning stages were the hardest, but I am happy to say that I haven’t thought negatively about my true color in months! It’s been more than 8 months since my last attempt to cover the grays. I’ve embraced my natural color and currently have no desire to dye my hair again. Some people like it and some don’t, but for possibly the first time in my life, I am more concerned about my own opinions than what anyone else thinks.

I was getting antsy for my natural color to grow in all the way so I ended up chopping off most of the remaining color-treated hair. It is fairly short and will take getting used to since I’ve never had a short haircut in my entire life! I thought I would have a lot of emotions to deal with over the fairly drastic change as I dealt with others’ reactions to it and how I feel about the way I look, but I feel really good about it so far. It will take time to figure out what I want it to look like from this point on, but I’m really happy I found the courage to make this bold move that I had been thinking about for months.

Talking about hair color and length can seem frivolous when addressing a deep and complex issue like ageism, but such beliefs can be subtle. Many people, myself included, don’t even realize they hold these beliefs. Working through my own personal limiting beliefs and sharing my experience with others helps me to think about these big issues in a more enlightened and personal way. And then I feel empowered to actually make a difference in someone else’s life.

My new truth is that it doesn’t matter how old you are or what color or length your hair is. We are all beautiful in our own unique way. We all have gifts and talents that no one else has in quite the same way. We are here to live, love and enjoy life, and to make a difference if we choose to, sharing our unique talents, strengths and knowledge with the world.

For me, aging also now means wisdom and softening into the truth of who I am and what wonders life might have in store for me if I’m brave enough to follow my dreams and my own intuition. It means sharing my journey so that others might benefit from something I’ve learned, as I’ve benefited tremendously from learning from others. Loving openly and unconditionally might cause me to get hurt, but the benefits of deep and truthful human connection far outweigh any risks.

I’m contributing to the world in any way I feel called to do so, and am reaping the rewards of living in a time where so many gifted and beautiful people are sharing their gifts and changing the world every day. I’m human, I make mistakes and I feel afraid, but I show up every day anyway. Life is a messy, beautiful gift. We all age and we all die. But it doesn’t have to be a miserable process, no matter how much we see otherwise. Educated, wise, personal choices can and do lead to graceful aging.

My greatest aspiration is to use the time I have left as wisely as possible. I am under no illusion that all my limiting and outdated beliefs are gone. But I am open to being shown what remains, and to shifting into a more beautiful, open and accepting place. And I pray that we are all shifting into releasing outdated expectations, to embrace the beauty of our diversity, and let the judgments that don’t serve humanity slip away.