I was already having a bad hair life when I decided, six months ago, to grow out my gray.
I had dyed my hair at other, pregray stages of life — usually burgundy or an attractive but unnatural copper brown, essentially decorating, not covering, my hair. Hair dyeing was liberating, an easy way to reinvent or renew myself. And, amid the unruly cowlicks and frizz, I just liked the way it looked.
But now, at age 45, because the dark-brown-to-gray ratio had shifted in favor of the gray, I got it dyed in a salon, a temporal and financial drain; it felt like I was choosing vanity over the college fund or spending quality time with my kids. Though the ombre trend had exploded in the years before, and women everywhere had one hair color abruptly transitioning to another, my black-meets-gray roots never looked deliberate. Instead they looked like an exposed secret, something no one was supposed to see. And I’m not good at secrets, especially my own. I’ve made a career out of sharing them.
As the grays escaped in greater frequencies, hair dyeing stopped feeling like self-improvement and more like hiding — fighting a Sisyphean battle against time, scrambling to outrun reality. So despite my preference for dyed hair, I stopped.
It required a pact with my hairdresser, who was so tired of me asking about whether or not to dye it — and how to handle the awkward growing-out phase —that she told me no matter how much I begged her, she would not color it for an entire year. I perused Pinterest for inspiration about how to make that awkward phase less awkward — like cutting the bangs once a few inches had grown out (I hate bangs), cutting your hair short (I don’t have the face for that), or stripping it and dyeing it gray. My hair was too dark for that, my hairdresser said. It would disintegrate.
There was no way around it. It was going to be an awkward year.
As the grays were unleashed, I embarked on a philosophical and psychological journey. On the one hand, gray hair is an achievement: The only alternative to aging, after all, is dying, and I’d already seen plenty of untimely deaths among friends and family, reminding me of the privilege of living. Plus, there are more encouragingly beautiful role models out there than ever — Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Glenn Close, and Maye Musk, just for starters.
On the other hand, Shakespeare described gray hair as “the ashes of his youth.” In Kurt Stenn’s book Hair: A Human History he wrote, “When does gray hair connote experience and wisdom and when does it imply old age and irrelevance?” Notice how the latter two things are lumped together. It’s all well and good when millennials take to Instagram to show off their dyed gray hair, but when your aging face and your graying hair match, it’s another story.
Think of all the cultural connotations of gray, the way it’s wielded as an insult. Gray is bland, gray is colorless, gray is withered. To undye my hair was to leave the colorized city of Oz and head back to old, washed-out Kansas. No matter how first-world-problem it was, I felt a sense of loss.
By week three, when almost a quarter-inch of gray-threaded black poked through, I noticed something curious: People began to talk to my hairline. I’d be looking at their eyes and they’d be looking at my scalp, drawn there involuntarily. I could feel them wondering, though I wasn’t sure quite what about — maybe why I was suddenly letting the color drain?
I started taking note — not necessarily on purpose — of every woman whose gray roots I could espy. (I would have taken note of the men, too, had there been any.) I had some kind of visceral reaction when I saw them, as if I’d seen toilet paper stuck to their shoe, spinach in their teeth, the hem of a dress accidentally tucked into their underwear. I felt I’d seen their secret too — something I shouldn’t have seen, like plumbers’ butt of the scalp.
Suddenly, it seemed gray grower-outers were everywhere. I wanted to both congratulate and interrogate them: Why were they doing it? Were they pregnant and avoiding hair dye (though no one knows for certain how safe it is to dye your hair while pregnant)? Did they suffer from an illness or sudden onset chemical sensitivity? And when I saw a woman with six inches of gray cutting into half a mane of brassy orange, I could only think one thing: You look insane.
This next tier of my vanity consumed me: Did I look crazy as my gray grew out? Cheap? Poorly kempt? Low class? (I’m not saying that I’m not any or all of those things, just that I don’t want to look like I am.) While I grew almost fond of the talking-to-the-hairline experience, I just couldn’t see my surrendering to gray hair as triumphant.
Never did I wonder if the going-gray women thought to themselves: “You can’t make me feel bad about this. I’ve earned it.” And, sadly, never did I feel that way myself.
Six months later, at the point where people are looking at my eyes again, I realize that if I really had a big stash of disposable income, and if I weren’t scrambling to work, raise children, occasionally have fun, and every once in a while take care of myself (I’ve heard of this thing called exercise), I would go back to dyeing my hair. All the time. I would pour the paycheck into the hair fund. Because I like the way it looks. Though perhaps I have also been influenced by my daughter’s 6-year-old friend, who asked me last week, “Why do you look like a gramma?”
My grown-in gray is not particularly remarkable. The gray streaks along my temples aren’t fully noticeable unless I pull my hair back. But while I covet the shiny copper, the soft highlights, or the saturated purple stripes of people with dyed hair, I don’t have the guilt about the time and money I’d spend getting it. I don’t have the fear of my secret being discovered.
In some ways, not dyeing my hair is a privilege, too. Thanks to the malignant combination of sexism and ageism, some powerful women feel compelled to color their hair, while the men can let theirs fade into the color of wisdom, minus the irrelevance.
I am still surfing the complicated feelings, the struggle between feeling pride in and gratitude for aging and depressed at the physical changes wrought by it. I want a Zen-like embracing of the process and not a sense of giving up on myself. Is there any way to return to the decorative endeavor of my pregray days, without that feeling of secret-keeping?
I don’t know yet. I bought a container of purple Manic Panic. It sits on my dresser, kind of like the glass-encased cigarette in War of the Roses, taunting and daring me to open it. Either way, I have to wait another six months before I do.
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