BEAUTY DARE: Going Gray on Purpose (When You're Not 25 Like Rihanna)

Sure, gray is the new black if you're a teen or a rock star. I'm a 40-year-old woman who's tired of keeping on top of her white roots for the past decade-and-a-half.
Publish date:
July 25, 2013
beauty standards, tutorial, do this don't, alternative, gray hair

It seems like every six months silver hair emerges as a new trend. Rihanna has sparked the latest wave of Celebrities Who've Dyed Their Hair Gray slide shows with her Instagram declaration that gray is the new black, calling her silver-streaked shade #brrr.

Sure, gray is also the new black if you're a teen, model or daughter of a rock star. Since I'm neither Tavi Gevinson, Kate Moss nor Kelly Osborne (or Peaches Geldof) but a 40-year-old woman who's tired of keeping on top of her white roots for the past decade-and-a-half, I doubt my decision to strip off the no-longer-natural brown and embrace my inner grandma will be equally welcomed.

Everyone seems to remember a first gray with horror, tweezers at the ready. I have no recollection, and by the time I realized what was up plucking errant hairs wasn't an option. All I know was that at 26 I had enough white strands that strangers were compelled to confront me in public. Once on the G train, two teenage boys were clearly talking about me in front of me, a commuter's delight.

"Can I ask you a question?" one of the boys finally said.

"What?" I responded curtly. This opener never leads to anything good.

"Is that your real hair?" he asked.


"Oh, because your hair looks old, but your face looks young. It's cool."

Tell me more, boys. Youth, not so rotten, after all?

But 15 years makes a difference. I can't think of a surer man repellant than white hair (#brrr is the sound of a cold shoulder as it nudges me out the dating pool). It signals that you're past your prime, even when your skin, style and outlook on life say otherwise.

I'm not interested in having children, but I'm also single after ending a relationship long enough that it could've produced a teenager, so I'm hesitant to go full crone even though I love the idea. (My younger sister recently chopped off her hair Monchichi-style and let it sprout back all gray, but she's a married West Coaster who's borderline hippie while NYC runs on vanity, youthfulness and snap judgments.)

My fears might not even matter, though; based on a cursory peek into online dating, women over 37 who aren't clamoring to start a family pretty much only attract empty-nesters (and dudes in open relationships) anyway.

The no-less-radical to a lifelong brunette, but more socially acceptable route would be to go platinum blonde. Light roots show less on paler hair, which is why it's the go-to solution for moms everywhere (after golden highlights blended into the gray). My mom, now 62, who also had grays in her 20s, has had bright blonde hair for decades. It's just her look. Many of my friends' moms, none natural blondes, lightened-up some point. But these were women born in the 1950s and earlier. Haven't we changed since then?

Sort of. I was temporarily blonde for most of June and July, an interim step on my path to becoming a silver vixen. It turned out that my hair was too dark to bleach to the opposite end of the color spectrum in one go. To complement rather than fight the persistent apricot colored streaks, I went pink-y salmon*, a shade that quickly faded to orange creamsicle blonde and then to a lemony shade -- not so different from my mom's hair -- that I actually grew to like (but apparently not enough to take a photo).

(FYI to anyone who's ever said that they'd dye their hair crazy colors when they got old. It doesn't work that way; I've tried. White hair just repels Manic Panic and its ilk. You still have to bleach to make the hair absorb color.)

Half-assed wasn't going to cut it even as I started having second thoughts. With 41 rapidly approaching (I'll be there in less than a week), did I really want to go gray on purpose? I already live alone, have a cat and live the glorious shut-in lifestyle (next up, drinking cream sherry, learning needlepoint, calling 311 on rowdy rooftop parties) do I really need my spinster status declared so blatantly?

Hell, yeah. It's only color. If you hate it, you just dye it again. Or cut it off and start over. (I've also never understood women who cry over haircuts, though I'm trying to be more sensitive because you're supposed to be wiser and more compassionate with age, right?)

It's taking some mental adjustments -- I was just getting comfy with being a blonde -- but so far, I'm digging it. My biggest vanity concern was less about looking elderly and more about coming across as an earth mother. (I was traumatized by NW childhood filled with too many pine trees, mossy rocks and slugs.) Despite my growing fixation on gray power, I wouldn't say I'm a practitioner of natural beauty otherwise.

What I would love to see is women of all ages owning their gray and being more visible. The only reason why it's weird is because we just don't see it. Guys are allowed to gray even in their 30s, becoming debonair, distinguished and all that. And it's not just for Clooneys and Coopers; my Brooklyn neighborhood is full of sliver-templed hipsters and speckled gray-beards, yet their similarly aged girlfriends have hair -- golden, chestnut, crimson -- always unmarred by time (or genetics). Ladies covering grays is what's expected -- and desired.

I recently started collecting images, mostly ads and stock photos, where the men are gray but the women are not. This isn't about imbalanced pairings (i.e. a 23-year-old Kristen Stewart meant to be an on-screen romantic partner for 44-year-old Will Smith; Jennifer Lawrence, 22, matched with Bradley Cooper, 38) but beauty double standards, not to mention a lack of role models. Nothing against Jamie Lee Curtis or Emmylou Harris, two of the only naturally gray celebrities anyone can cite, but they are 54 and 66. Being gray in your 50s and beyond shouldn't be radical -- or on the flipside, only on-trend for famous twenty-somethings.

For now, I plan to ease into middle-age, letting my salt-and-pepper roots slowly morph into a pseudo-ombre style. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself. The moment I get offered a senior citizen discount, I might have second thoughts. Then again, what's wrong with cheap movies and early bird specials?