By Jane Parent
For the past twenty-one months, I’ve been participating in a fascinating sociological experiment. After years of dyeing my hair, I decided to let it go grey – and everyone seems to have an opinion about it. I had no idea that grey hair was so controversial.
I wasn’t surprised when I began to grey early. My grandmother and aunt were both completely grey by the time they were thirty. I was twenty-six when I first noticed those grey hairs. I remember gripping a pillow and bending over while the anesthesiologist inserted the epidural needle in my spine during childbirth with my first child, as my husband exclaimed “Wow, you have a lot of grey hair.” That revelation was almost as painful as labor.
By age forty, I was completely grey at both temples and had streaks on top that resisted all attempts to hide them. That’s when the helpful comments started. Friends, relatives, complete strangers seemed to let me know it was high time to cover those greys, their eyes wandering almost involuntarily up to that silvery growth. My own mother greeted me every time she saw me with “When are you going to do something about that?” or “Grey hair will really age you.”
Soon I was having my roots done every four weeks. Then every three weeks. It was expensive, time consuming, and an endless source of aggravation. You spend $100, and two weeks later, there’s that line of grey again. I even tried doing it myself. Setting up a “Dexter”-worthy “kill room” in my bathroom every three weeks with towels and plastic gloves became as natural a household chore as vacuuming.
My husband, who is very practical and a problem solver by nature, couldn’t understand all the effort involved in keeping it at bay (“Why deal with that? Let it go.”). He is, after all, completely grey, and it’s been a non-event for him. In addition to being a professional plus for him (grey hair magically conveys upon men instant gravitas and competence), men get all those “silver fox” compliments.
So why is it so different for women? All our ideas of attractiveness and self-esteem are embodied by our hair. And why does it seem that this pressure to stay young forever is almost completely self-imposed by women, on ourselves and each other? For my part, I admit it’s vanity. It ain’t easy growing old. Accepting the aging process and watching yourself in the mirror lose your natural hair color is a confidence-shaking experience. There is also enormous societal pressure on women to look youthful, whether it’s for your job, or for your kids, or to stay as close to that youthful societal ideal for women as possible. And then there are the market forces. Total sales of U.S. hair coloring vendors in 2016 totaled $1.46 billion. That’s a lot of pressure.
So I let go. I’m 50 now, and I figure that I’m past the age where I have to care about things that don’t really matter. I’m not gonna lie: There were some pretty ugly months there. But here’s the surprise: I kinda love it. It’s incredibly liberating. Watching new hair grow in, and not quite knowing how much grey would grow in, or what color grey it would be (steely? silvery? pure white?) has been a wondrous discovery. For the first time in years, my hair is soft and shiny. I can recognize now that my flat, unnaturally monotone brown helmet was far more aging. I began to notice all the beautiful, stylish older women around me, proudly rocking their natural grey, and thought “If they can do it, then I can, too.” And if my math is correct, I’ll save about $20,000 over the next three decades!
In the two years it has taken to emerge from my dyed brown chrysalis, I’ve learned a lot. First, all the things I said to my teens when they were complaining about their appearance (that enormous nose pimple, how goony they felt wearing elastics and braces, that accidental buzz cut) weren’t all that helpful. My standard line of “It’s always more obvious to you than to anyone else” wasn’t nearly as comforting as I had thought, which I noticed when one of my kids said it back to me about the three inch ring of grey grow-out encircling my head.
Second, giving advice is much easier than living up to it. All those times I told one of them “Be yourself – everyone else is taken” or “What do you care what anyone else thinks?” came back to haunt me. When a stranger’s eyes drift up to your hairline in that judgy, almost pitying way (“Oh honey, haven’t you been to the beauty parlor lately?”), it was a real effort not to care, and to remind myself that we are all about more than how we look.
Lastly, self-acceptance and gratitude. I’m not 25 anymore, but life is still pretty good. I’ve a lot for which to be thankful, and many people have far more physical problems than going grey. This process has taught me patience, a trait for which I have never been known, and a little humility, too.
Last week, a woman in the grocery store stopped me to tell me she had been following me through the store working up the nerve to ask me about my hair. “Your grey hair is so pretty! I’ve just summoned up the courage to grow mine out – could you tell me how long it took you?” It felt like a real “Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants” moment. Being able to encourage and reassure another sister in grey? Almost worth eighteen months in a baseball hat.
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.