I started going gray in my early 20s, and I thought it was kind of cool. No one else my age was going gray so I guess I felt...special? It began with just a hair here and there -- which I promptly yanked out -- but as they sprouted up more steadily as I got into my mid-20s, I knew I had to make a decision. To dye or not to dye?
I decided not to dye, despite the periodic feedback (always uninvited; usually from women) that allowing my gray to show at such a young age was NOT COOL AT ALL. I was working at the Kiehl’s flagship store in New York City at the time, and certain customers would approach the counter, their brows furrowing deeper as they got closer and my “premature” gray became more apparent. Some chose to leave it at a disapproving look, others had more to say. Listen, it’s totally possible that my handful of scraggly silver strands didn’t look all that hot back then, but jeez!
For decades, the societal norm has been that getting old is bad, regardless of the fact that it’s happening to all of us. Gray hair, hair loss, wrinkles and all the other side effects of aging are regarded as marks of defeat. Those who manage to show age later than the rest of us are applauded for their success.
Regardless of anyone’s opinion, I was committed to letting the gray grow in -– I wanted to see what it would become. Plus, I secretly loved the idea of bucking the system of conventional beauty (that gray = gross). Model Carmen Dell'Orefice, and country star Lucinda Williams were doing it, why couldn’t I?
I didn’t realize that what seemed like a harmless experiment would become such a strong part of my identity. I’m 45 now, and over the years, my gray has grown in pretty nicely. I confess that I am not 100% natural now -- I have lowlights that match my natural haircolor put in on the top (I made this decision after seeing myself on TV and thought I was starting to look like a snowman).
Now that I’m older (and grayer), people, especially women, regularly go out of their way to let me know they approve, even going so far as to shout at me on the street. These comments run the gamut, from the exuberant, “You go girl, ROCK that salt and pepper!” to the unassuming, “I’m so glad to see that you’re gray. Maybe someday I’ll try that."
I admit that the comments make me smile; there’s something empowering about receiving support for doing something that is commonly frowned upon.
Not everyone is a fan of my brazen grayness, however. I was recently gray-bashed by a celebrity hair stylist; a really well-known guy who works with a bunch of A-listers. We were nearing the end of a lovely lunch together and as the coffee and complementary dish of tiny cookies were being served, he asked about my hair. He was quite sweet and respectful about it, delicately dancing around the topic at first, but once I gave the indication that I could handle what he had to say -- good or bad -- he let me know what he was really thinking.
He wanted to know why I wore my hair this way. WHY? He really couldn’t understand. He seemed truly troubled. He said, in his soft, but self-assured way that he thought my gray hair was aging me 10 years. He actually invited me across the street to his salon to "fix" it, right then and there!
I'll admit, I was tempted. Who in their right mind would turn down the chance for a free treatment from someone who charges over a grand per head? I calmly defended my choice, telling him about my “You go girls,” but he replied confidently, “They probably like your curls or your haircut, but NOT the gray.”
I’m a firm believer that when someone shares an opinion that’s controversial, we should listen. I took his comments seriously and used our conversation as a jumping off point to invite several friends, colleagues and any hairstylists who happened to cross my path, to weigh in, just in case I was unknowingly going down the wrong road. The feedback was overwhelmingly encouraging, “Leave it. The big, crazy, curly hair with the shocks of gray…it’s YOU.”
To the celebrity stylist and anyone else who thinks women like me should cover up our gray, I say, “You’re wrong.” This may not be what you think is beautiful, but it’s what makes ME feel pretty, powerful, unique and well, like ME. So you can keep your $1,000 dye job. I’ll pay my $85 for lowlights here in Montclair, NJ and I'm planning on spending the rest on handbags and shoes instead.