I Embraced My Gray Hair — But No One Else Did
Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
At some point, left to its own devices, hair turns gray. And not counting the legions of milky-haired young things chasing the shade right now, women tend to run for cover when that happens, as I had been for more than two decades. Keeping my hair color close to its original dark-brown shade helped me feel I could control aging.
For the last few years, I had gone to my hair stylist every four to six weeks for color. I live two hours north of New York City, and in this neck of the woods my treatments clocked in around $250, including cut, blowdry, and tips. Plus I still needed the occasional in-between root touch-up, for another $50. I was basically a meal ticket.
So I wasn't surprised at how she reacted when I said I was quitting color. “Mark my words, you’ll become invisible,” she warned, aiming her dye-stained wand at me as if to cast a social-expiration spell. But I had had enough. Miuccia Prada once said that women try to tame themselves when they get older, but instead they should be striving to be more wild. I wanted in.
Down the rabbit hole of “going gray” inspiration on Instagram and Pinterest, I found so much silver-haired beauty to covet. Once brunettes, blondes and redheads, this boomer sisterhood were bucking the standard of “age-appropriate” behavior by refusing to cover the gray to stay visible and current. Their swagger and optimism wooed me with the promise of radically honest hair. What I did not predict was that “owning” my gray, and “embracing” it were not entirely up to me. That I would be setting myself up for the reactions of everyone else, and their presumptive, outmoded ideas about hair, youth, and beauty.
When my hairdresser urged me to reconsider quitting, despite my reasons (the upkeep, the cost, the chemicals) by saying, “A young face can get away with anything,” I was only more resolute. I wasn’t giving up, nor was I attempting to get away with anything. I just wanted to be myself. I grew out my long, densely dark straight hair without the intervention of highlights, low lights, balayage or any other enhancer. Cold turkey. Now I can see the attributes of those rebellious women of a certain age coming into focus daily. I wear my reimagined beauty — shiny silver hair — with pride.
It’s now high summer and my Hudson Valley neighbors celebrate the bounty of the season at our local farmers’ market. Sundays are weekly social events. In between discussing the merits of eating squash blossoms and foraging for elusive Chicken of the Woods mushrooms, the subject of my long silver mane slides in. I feel like a pregnant woman trying to avoid getting petted by strangers; it’s open season for comments about my hair.
“Are you doing that on purpose?” an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for a while asked. As I answered that indeed I was, she cut me off to ask what my husband thought about it. Then she went on to tell me why she couldn’t stop coloring her hair: Being single, she can’t afford to make the “mistake of appearing older.” She went so far as to recommend another shade I might try: “Honey blonde. Men seem to like it.”
In my normally progressive town, I couldn’t believe I was hearing such outdated and patently sexist beauty talk, so I tossed off a jokey response about how we have an open marriage — and he’s openly gray, too.
Later that evening, sipping rosé at an outdoor dinner party, I saw my husband in conversation with a male friend. Eavesdropping across the lawn, I expected to hear political banter and was surprised when, instead, I heard: “How do you feel about your wife’s gray hair?” I mulled over why no one had ever asked whether I like my husband’s salt-and-pepper hair — or why the phrase “salt-and-pepper hair” is exclusively reserved for men, while women “go gray” as if in defeat. And then I heard my usually earnest husband jokily respond that it’s like being with a blonde. What the hell?
When the friend's wife and I moseyed over to the conversation, he suggested she "go gray," like I had. “It looks so good on you!” she said, sizing me up. “But I could never stop coloring. My hair is thinning and curly — hair dye gives it life.”
Simmering under the surface of these conversations is an endless source of aging frustration — wrinkles, extra pounds, sagging breasts. If hair color is life-affirming for my friend, I certainly can’t blame her for wanting that. But it wasn’t what I wanted. Nevertheless, the topic of my socially unacceptable hair seemed to follow me around town.
Next, it was the bank. I’ve been going to the same bank for years, and the teller never asks for my ID. But after my hairdye moratorium she summoned my license. She eyed me up and down, checking my much-younger mug in the photo. “Wow, you look SO different,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how people age. Would you like to learn about our retirement offerings?” I wasn’t even 60 yet.
And speaking of working: As a remote employee, I don’t race into the office every day, so I hadn’t yet seen how my un-colored hair would fare in a work environment. At a recent lunch meeting with an executive I hadn’t seen for a while, a women I admired for her intellect and steadfast kindness, I was greeted with a personal question: “You have such a young face, why would you do that to your pretty appearance?”
Sputtering out my going-gray mantra, perhaps a little too quickly, “Oh, I got tired of the upkeep, the…” I pulled back, realizing that being devalued at work was not quite the same as being judged at the farmers’ market or bank. Instead of readying my soap box, I changed the subject.
I got the message, loud and clear, that for the sake of my job and relationships I needed to stay visible — vital, attractive, sexy — by striving for and embracing widely held beauty norms. I guess I had been delusional to think I could age naturally, “gracefully,” without fallout. But if I've got enough life experience to go gray, I also have enough to know that I can’t control other people's opinions or comments about my looks. What I can control is whether I choose to take them seriously.
So, sure, I’m sensitive to judgment from others, and sidestepping all these comments was exhausting. But I’ve gone gray, and I’m embracing it, whether the crowd’s coming with me or not.
Ronnie Citron-Fink’s new book, “True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me about Health and Beauty" will be published by Island Press in 2019.