Gray Matters: Why and how to stop coloring your hair
Tired of the time and effort it takes to banish your gray hair? Maybe it's time to embrace it.
I remember how it started. I was at the beauty salon waiting to have my hair highlighted when my hairdresser sighed, "This just isn't going to work anymore." He went back to his mixing room — my situation demanded a new set of chemicals. I was relatively young at that time, in my mid-thirties, and didn't think of questioning what he was about to do.
After applying a potion that cleared my sinuses and made my eyes water, my hair was uniformly brown. Instead of highlighting my hair, which he'd been doing for a number of years to disguise the silver threads that were inching their way into my golden brown locks, he'd masked my entire head of hair with a single color.
It was a bit of a shock but much better, he assured me, than having any gray hair. At the time I agreed. A woman in her mid-thirties is too young for gray hair. (I've since discovered that most women, by the time they reach their mid thirties, have started to find some gray hairs in their head. I was neither a freak nor aging prematurely, simply an average woman growing older.)
Although I was free of all gray, I had entered into a different kind of bondage. Dyed hair may retain the color it's been given, but it is a fact of nature that hair does grow — dyeing is only a temporary fix. At the time I didn't anticipate the long-term commitment I'd unintentionally embarked upon. I left the salon with an appointment in five weeks for a touch-up. And so it has gone for the last 20 years. Until now.
Gray's for me
I've decided to stop fighting Mother Nature and to let my hair go gray (or grey as some spell it).
Luckily for me and others struggling with this issue, there's support in unexpected places. I'm referring to the realm of mass culture, which until recently has promoted the look, attitude, and power of youth. But, the days when gray-haired models could only advertise products for the elderly are over. In movies, magazines, advertisements, catalogs, and even in certain Hollywood celebrities, we see and feel the presence of gray hair as a vital life force. Not only do we see women with short, well-groomed gray bobs, but those who let their long, tousled gray flag fly. The gorgeous gray-haired model with the non-nonsense gaze grabs our attention. She is a beautiful woman and would be no matter what color her hair, but with gray hair, she is grand.
Although the choice to grow out colored hair to natural gray isn't a matter of life and death, it touches many of us at levels deeper than the surface. It can force us to test personal resolve, question self-worth, and examine what makes us feel of value to others. It's nice to pick up a magazine and know we aren't alone.
There are several reasons I chose to stop coloring my hair — the harsh chemicals, the time involved — but the most important was freedom. Freedom to schedule a visit to the hairdresser (or a run to the drug store) when I felt like it, not to have that visit or run dictated by those tell-tale roots. Freedom just to be myself, and not have hair color be an issue.
Funny thing about going gray. Unlike becoming a brunette or redhead, which can happen in a matter of hours, going gray is a process that takes months. There is no hair dye available commercially, at least none that I'm aware of, that lets you open a tube and suddenly become a grayhead. Going gray is not for the impulsive or those who want immediate gratification. Since the project is long term, it takes a significant amount of commitment, explanation, justification, and soul-searching, directed at yourself, and probably at those you know.
Although making the choice to go gray was a personal one, I was surprised at how many people seemed to be affected by it. Showing my gray hair was like letting a secret out, and people were interested. I'd gone public. When I let my co-workers know I was letting the gray grow out, the reactions were mixed. Most of the women in the office were curious, given the fact that this was a path that sooner or later they might tread.
Some reactions were as doubtful as if I had stated that I was moving to Antarctica. "Are you sure you want to do this?" one colleague asked. Another office mate told me, "I wish I were as brave as you, to do this while you're still working. I'd like to go gray too, but I'm waiting 'til I retire." She also told me that when she retires she'll no longer need nice clothes. I considered these reactions from my colleagues. I wasn't really troubled and I knew that my colleagues weren't, either. The subject of me and my gray hair was a diversion, much needed, in the eight hours spent at the office. They didn't take it personally or tell me not to do it. My mother, however, did.
My Mother's view
My mother's hair started turning gray in her early thirties, and for many years she dyed it, or as she would say, "tinted." But by the time she was in her mid-fifties, she had allowed her hair to return to its natural color, a soft melding of gray, slate, and white. Now, at eighty, her hair is as white as snow. It is striking and beautiful. Yet despite her own choice not to color her hair, her advice to me, her daughter, was this: "I wouldn't advise letting your hair turn gray. People will treat you differently. They won't want to drive behind you."
I was fairly sure she had another reason, which she was too sensitive to voice: With gray hair, I might no longer be attractive to men. Mom loves men and is a devoted fan of romance novels; they are a comforting read, ending happily with the heroine finding her hero.
I like men too, and when I was younger played the role of a heroine in search of her hero — nature and nurture demanded it. Now that I'm older, I don't want to play any part other than myself. I hope the gray in my hair will not make me less attractive to men, or anyone. In the meantime, Mom continues to watch my life as she would read a romance novel and hope it will turn out happily.
But beyond the skepticism and doubt, many of the people to whom I've felt the need to explain my going-gray process have reacted with enthusiasm and support, including my sister-in-law, who has never withheld an opinion, and the barista at a local Starbucks. I also got the nod from my brother, six years younger but completely gray in hair and beard. And even my hairdresser, after I made it clear I was determined to do this thing, has become one of my strongest allies. We are a team in the process of going gray. But how to do it?
What is the process?
Despite all the advice in magazines and on the Internet, sensible and not, on how to achieve a full head of naturally colored gray hair, it boiled down to this: I had to let it grow. That is easier said than done. Despite resolving to be free of artificial coloring, the line of demarcation between the color-treated and natural growth made a more dramatic statement than is my style. In addition, there is the vanity factor. After considerable research, I found what seemed to be a reasonable compromise. I could transition to gray hair gradually, and soften the line of demarcation with a process called lowlighting.
This is where my hairdresser, Kay, came in. When I asked Kay about lowlighting, she knew exactly what was needed. Instead of highlighting my hair with a lighter color, she would weave in a darker one, close to my pre-gray natural color, and let the gray hair become the lighter threads, the highlights. I wanted to get started right away, but it's better to wait until at least an inch or more of gray is exposed before applying the lowlights. She recommended I let the gray grow out as long as I could stand it, which I did.
It was mildly painful but edifying. I finally found out after about three months and an inch and a half of growth how gray my hair was. I discovered that my natural pattern of coloring was not a single drab color but a range of interesting tones and shades. Mother Nature must have known what She was doing, because it wasn't so bad.
Mother Nature's pallette
How does nature trigger the transition from a color such as brown or black to gray? Each strand of hair on our head is the product of an individual hair follicle. The color of the hair that grows from this follicle comes from the melanin or pigment that is produced by a type of cell called a melanocyte. These cells act like little pots of paint, tiny wells of color. How light or dark your hair turns out to be is a result of the type and distribution of these melanocyte cells, which in turn is determined by your genetic make-up. Genetics is also a major factor in when your hair will turn gray.
Most women by age 35 have some gray hair. When the production of melanin by the melanocyte cells slows down, when that little pot of pigment begins to dry up, the color in that strand of hair begins to fade, to gray. Gray hair has less melanin than brown hair; white hair has no melanin at all. Because each strand of hair is colored by its own pigment pot, and because these pigment pots dry up at different times and rates, the graying process is usually a gradual one. Today research is exploring the possibility that melanocyte cells that have stopped producing pigment might be convinced to turn the function on again. The future may give us the option of no gray hair, but it is not available yet.
Gray is grand
In some cultures, gray hair represents qualities — maturity, responsibility, wisdom — that deserve to be valued by everyone. Jean Shinoda Bolen, in "Goddesses in Older Women", cites the connection between aging and wisdom revered by these traditions. After menopause, she explains, women are said to retain the blood in their bodies, doing so being a sign of wisdom. The time for us to make babies has passed, but if we've mated and had children, or just grown beyond the reproductive years, Mother Nature gives us a bit of a break. Creative energy is with us still, and can be shifted to tasks other than the continuation of the species. For some of us, it no longer becomes necessary to maintain the look of a woman in her reproductive years. We can let our hair be gray and know we are as vital and full of potential as ever, which may be more attractive than anything else we could do.
Today as I look at my hair, I see it is neither completely gray nor silver nor white. It is a work-in-progress, some natural shades, some not, but the effect pleases and I know where I'm going with the process.
A happy discovery along the way is that the gray I see makes me feel older, but not old. It clarifies who I am and who I am not, freeing me from much that is unnecessary. I am not a young woman anymore. I've been there, done that. What I am now is a woman in midlife, a time I want to experience fully. Accepting gray hair is part of my journey, and as I continue, it's more and more obvious that gray matters.
Barbara Barnes holds a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in English literature from San Diego State University. She has worked in higher education since her student days, spending most of her career as an academic advisor for undergraduates. Barbara lives in La Mesa, California, with her husband, two dogs, and five cats.