To Gray or Not to Gray: The Problem With Hair Dye 

Should a Modern Mom Look as Old and Haggard as She Feels?

The other day I noticed that I was way overdue for a spring spruce-me-up. And so I made two appointments — for an eyebrow wax and a haircut.

Although I know the eyebrows are something I could technically do myself with a good pair of tweezers and a little bit of patience (plus some self-control, so I don’t pluck out every last eyebrow hair, which I nearly did once before), it has often seemed more effective to get them done by an expert. So off I went to a dark little room to have my eyebrows done.

I’m not sure if it was the dark or if more powerful forces were at play, but somehow the aesthetician managed to create an eyebrow shape that exactly mirrored my dark circles. Which, of course, did not give me the face-lifted effect I was hoping for. In fact, now my brows just drew more attention to how tired I look. “I could have done this myself!” I berated myself on the way home. When he saw me, my son told me that I didn’t “look like Mommy.” My husband tried to say something positive, which only irritated me more. My friend Jess couldn’t stop laughing on the other end of the phone. I felt thwarted by the universe.

That night, I started fretting about the impending haircut. A little over a year ago I began to go gray. I was shocked: Although I must have known intuitively that this was coming at some point, that first gray hair floored me. Wasn’t this supposed to happen when I was fifty or at least forty plus? My mid-thirties seemed too early. I have a young child, for God’s sake! (My research, however, shows me I’m right on track: Most people start to go gray in their thirties — what’s different is the trend of also having children in our thirties.) I walked out of the bathroom and found Dan: “Dan, I have a gray hair!” He looked at me like this was not necessarily worthy of an hour-long chat. “I can’t believe it,” I pressed. Dan is younger than me by about four years, so he tends to have an annoyingly sanguine attitude on aging: “What did you expect?” he said. “We’re getting old.”

“I’m not old,” I retorted, a tad defensively.

Back before I was pregnant or became a parent, I’d smugly issue edicts about how I’d manage things I didn’t know anything about. One was, “I’ll never be a gray-haired mother with small children” — as if I could will my hair to stay honey-colored. Who, after all, wants to look like her kid’s grandmother? There’s something sad about the idea of looking — to ourselves and others — like we’re on the downward slope of life’s hill while we watch our children climb up.

Our hair, it seems to me, is powerfully and inextricably intertwined with our senses of our identity. For most of my life I’ve had long, wavy, honey-wheat colored hair. A couple of times I’ve cut it above my shoulders and felt a little powerless, like Samson when he has his hair lopped off. When I was in my late teens, I went for a summer to be a camp counselor in inland Maine. Waiting for me was a group of mean older girls who liked to tell a joke about me that borrowed from the slogan for Pantene hair products: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” They would murmur this joke to each other as code whenever I walked nearby and run their hands through their hair as I did. (Of course what those mean girls didn’t know that this was a nervous tic of mine — I put my hands in my hair to ground myself; to really get me they would have had to have shaved my head at night.)

According to a fascinating book by Victoria Sherrow called For Appearance Sake, hair and identity have been major preoccupations of both women and men since the beginning of civilization. In primitive times, she writes, people made products made from animal and plant essences and combs from sticks. Hair dyeing, she writes, began at least as back as far as ancient Greece. And we can blame today’s new obsession with hair dye to have originated with the 1930s actress, Jean Harlow, who famously dyed her hair blond with a dime-store product, making other American women desire the same glam, youthful look (blond hair, after all, is associated most often with children who are born with it, since most women lose their blond by the time they enter adulthood). Ever since, more and more American women have colored their hair: Clairol alone makes 70 shades of blond hair dye. In 1969, the designation “hair color” was removed from American passports. Today, according to polls, at least 75% of American women dye their hair.

As Nora Ephron wrote in her memoir I Feel Bad About My Neck, hair dye is about more than just appearance:

Hair dye has changed everything…It’s the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture…because it actually succeeds at stopping the clock (at least where your hair color is concerned)…I can make a case that it’s partly responsible for the number of women entering (and managing to stay in) the job market in middle and late middle age, as well as all sorts of fashion trends.

As Ephron elucidates, there are many complicated forces — late child-rearing, women’s consistently strong role in the job market and the economy, the tug of youth culture, and just plain access to a rainbow of hair colors at the grocery store — that create a strong cultural expectation. If you don’t dye, you’re an outlier.

Be that as it may, over the last year, as more gray hairs have come in on my head — but not in that nice sprinkles-of-salt way, but in a patch of dreary-ness tufting out above my ear like the unruly feathers of (antithetically) a fledgling raven — I’ve found myself wondering whether going gray is such a big deal. It might be better to just let my hair naturally turn as it does and say, “Yeah, you know, I had kids late. And yeah, I’m getting old and going gray on the outside, but inside I’m just so glad I’m here to be a mom that it doesn’t really matter.”

I guess. But would I look old to my son? Perhaps. In his words “Old people have white hair.” Would it matter that I look old to him? Maybe not. Is it more important to model endless vigor and youth to keep him from thinking about my ultimate aging (and, let’s face it, death)? I don’t know. Is it — big picture — more damaging to model a pathetic inability to reconcile oneself with nature? Probably. And is it better for the environment — and, long-term, our kids — to opt out of any chemical you can? Yes, of course.

Hair dyes, according to the American Cancer society, have been shown to probably increase the prevalence of some kinds of cancer, including breast and bladder cancers, and lymphoma and leukemia. As with everything with the chemical industry, the FDA only regulates the newer chemicals used in hair dyes — some older ingredients have been grandfathered in and given a pass into perpetuity. Hair products, however, are such a big environmental concern that the EPA has actually launched a Greener Products website for women to consult when choosing products and hair dye. But if I’m any example, there are very few women out there who are actually reading that site. I certainly didn’t have a clue it existed until writing this piece (or, for instance, a fact the site imparted: hair dye sometimes contains ingredients like lead and formaldehyde.)

Which brings us to a recent Thursday afternoon when I found myself sitting in my colorist’s chair. As he ran his fingers through my hair, I obsessed out loud about my dark, circle-shaped eyebrows and explained that I wanted it both ways — I wanted to go a little gray, but not so much in one spot by my ear and, mainly, that I didn’t want to look old and haggard. I also didn’t want to look hair-dyed — “natural” is my whole ethos. He used some fancy French word I can’t remember to tell me what he suggested — a kind of highlight over the gray spots that, as it grew out, would blend with the gray, giving me a little of both. I assented. The chemicals were applied and shampooed out and my hair was cut and then I paid a car payment for said services. After, as a bonus, all shinily coiffed, I went out on a date with Dan to see our friend Terry Tempest Williams read from her new book When Women Were Birds. Terry has beautiful, long gray hair. As I watched her read and saw how lustrous her hair was, I felt a tinge of shame.

When I got home that night, I stood in the shower and washed my hair again and again to get rid of the metallic, acrid smell of hair dye. When I got out of the shower and combed my hair, I was pleased for a moment that I had successfully turned back time and retrieved something of my youth. But I knew, in that uncanny way one feels the truth before one can even verbalize it, that the cost might, in fact, be larger than the gain.