A few years ago, in my mid-40's, I decided to stop dying my hair. Like many women, I’d been coloring my hair since my 20's. Every few months, when I’d see flecks of silver appear at the roots of my hair, I’d go in for another touch up or go in for an entire overhaul of color, a little more auburn here or a little magenta there. I lost the memory of having my natural hair color long ago.
The journey to gray — or returning to my roots — has included coming to grips with my own emotions and thoughts about aging and mortality; adjusting to the transformation in my appearance and learning to recognize the grayer me; and dealing with questions and negative comments from others that dredge up old fears and insecurities.
My hair saga actually started about seven years ago — post-partum with my first and only child — when my hair began falling out and didn’t stop. I had nightmares of thin cottony wisps of hair on a shiny scalp and imagined having to resort to a female version of a combover or shaving my head entirely bald and taking up wearing bold head scarves.
At some point, as I struggled with what I perceived to be massive hair loss, two thoughts occurred to me:
- I’m not dying. I should be grateful that the worst that is happening to me is that I’m just losing my hair.
- I’m fascinated and appalled by how much emotion I’ve attached to my hair and how I’ve come to think of my hair as an important part of my identity.
So I cut my hair.
At the time, I blogged about it:
I can’t explain how liberated I feel. I thought I’d feel as if I were missing a limb, reaching for my long locks and finding nothing there, washing my hair and feeling a loss. But I don’t. Other than the occasional reflex to pull my hair out of a ponytail — which isn’t there anymore — I am not missing the length at all.
If I am going to cry about this at all, it is that it took me so long to just cut away the sad reminder of my 20s and 30s and to embrace my 40s with gusto.
I am not my hair. My hair is not me.
The decision to let my hair go gray was less momentous of an event. I think I simply told my hairdresser one day not to hide my grays anymore. The process of actually “going gray” took longer than I thought, and the moment the “skunk strip” of roots appeared down the middle of my head, I almost caved. Then a hairdresser suggested that she add “lowlights,” the opposite of highlights, to soften the rigid lines of incoming gray. Maybe that was a semi-cave, but easing into my natural hair color — out of my unnatural hair color — helped me get through the hump of returning to my roots.
When my hairdresser finally announced one day that she was cutting away the last of my gray, I had been living almost a year with my salt-and-pepper look, but not without incident.
The Good, Bad and Kinda Ugly of Gray
For many women, going gray can be a complex decision. On the one hand, it can be liberating to no longer feel the need to cover up a natural aspect of oneself. On the other hand, the attitude of others about gray hair on women is remarkably fraught with misperceptions and mixed emotions. No matter how much we want to say that we don’t care what other people think, we’re human, and we do. Even I fell into the trap of considering what other people thought about women and gray hair.
I was asked about my gray hairs for an article titled, Gray Hair: Job Asset Or Liability? Here’s what I said at the time:
I don’t actually mind them, but … no one takes women more seriously because we have gray hairs on our head…Women who are gray are considered ‘tired’ or ‘old’ or … ‘She’s not going to fit in,’ Gray-haired men, on the other hand, are seen as ‘seasoned,’ ‘experienced’ or ‘distinguished.’ It’s so subtle in a sense, because no one ever talks about it. I just think that we look at the gray hairs as making women lesser.”
Today, I’m at the stage where I’m owning my gray hair. I no longer look in the mirror and do a double take wondering who is looking back at me, straining to recognize myself beyond the gray frame. Sometimes, I forget I’m gray, and then am surprised when someone says something about my hair. And they do.
I’m often stopped on the street, at the store, at conferences and events, by women who literally run up to me, then lean in and whisper, “I love your hair!” They inevitably punctuate their compliments with “I wish I was brave enough to do that.”
Going gray conjures fear. Fear of aging is only part of it. Fear of not recognizing ourselves. Fear of rejection. Fear of disappearing. Fear of becoming irrelevant.
For some women, my gray seems to be a beacon that they watch from a safe distance as they contemplate their own appearance.
Just the other day, I walked into a board meeting, and a woman, 50, who also sits on the board came up to me and squeezed my arm saying, “I just wanted to tell you how much I love your hair. You walk into a room, and it just shines!” She ended by saying she and her husband were talking about her going gray. He is for it. She is still on the fence. (For the record, my husband says he loves my grays, or “platinum,” as he calls it.) I encouraged her to give it a try.
Just the month before, I was getting my hair washed and styled. The woman who was washing my hair said loudly, “You know you can get rid of that.”
“Rid of what?” I asked, thinking to myself that there was no possible way she could be talking about my natural hair color.
“The grays. You can get rid of that gray hair.”
What I wanted to say was, “Really? Oh my gosh, REALLY? I had NO IDEA that I could dye my hair and get rid of my gray. WOW!”
What I ended up saying was, “Oh,” and left it at that. I made a decision that day, however, that I want to address misperceptions — as well as compliments — about my hair.
From now on, if someone implies that I could or should dye my hair, my response will be: “I love my hair just the way it is, thank you.”
And from now on, if a woman compliments me on my hair then admits her own trepidations about going gray, my response will be: “Do it. Own it. You’ll love it. And if you need help getting through the tough part, just give me a call, and I’ll talk you off the ledge.”
Sometimes, we just need permission to do something we fear — and a support network can’t hurt. Because there will be naysayers. The person who says you look “ tired and dull,” and that a little hair color could do a lot to perk up your look (yes, said to me). The article about women embracing their gray that just has to throw insome advice from a Manhattan stylist that if your haircut is not precise, “you’re going to run the risk of looking haggard.” Or our own inner voices expressing every fear we have of going gray, real, imagined, rational and irrational. “I will no longer be attractive or sexy if I let my hair go gray.” I’m pretty sure that one is not true.
We have almost no role models as women for going gray with gusto.
Those of us who have stopped coloring our hair can do a great deal of good by being visible and vocal about our choice to embrace our gray. Going gray is a choice. Choosing not to let the gray show is a different kind of choice. Most of us are blessed with an abundance of choices in our lives. Hair color is such a small one in the whole scheme of things. Be thankful you are still alive and in a position to even be able to consider such a choice. First world problems, you know?
If you’re considering going gray, I say:
Do it. Embrace it. Own it.
Repeat after me: I am not my hair. My hair is not me.
And call me if you need me to talk you off the ledge.
(WOMEN: Please take a moment to fill out my survey about going gray. I’ll publish the results in a future post here. Thank you!)
PHOTO CREDIT: Clark Mishler, Anchorage, AK