Going Gray: Not a Black and White Matter

Photo courtesy of www.goinggraylookinggreat.com
Photo courtesy of www.goinggraylookinggreat.com

By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor

Courtesy of genetics, my hair started graying in my late teens. At that point, I had already been initiated into the world of coloring my hair. At 14, I experimented with Sun-In that transformed my bangs brassy orange. Then, I used facial bleach to whiten a thick strip of my shoulder-length hair along one side of my face. Soon after came L’Oréal in various shades of red, burgundy, and violet, and then an extended period when I used only black vegetable dyes. As a teenager, I colored my hair to have fun. To be cool. To experiment with different looks. To discover my own style. Today, I dye my hair for one reason and one reason only: To cover the gray.

My Irish grandmother also started graying in her teens. She had two funky white stripes that started at her temples and flared back like The Bride of Frankenstein. She was pure white by 25. I have to admit that around 19 years old, I felt short-changed when I noticed fresh sprouts of gray hairs. They did not congregate together to paint a gorgeous streak of white like Grandma’s had. No, instead the unruly hairs peppered themselves throughout my hairline, refusing to adhere to any sort of pattern. I wasn’t going to look funky. I’d just look old. I felt as if I’d had no choice but to commit to a lifetime of coloring.

At 41, I have a substantial amount of white and gray hair that, when I allow it to grow in, contrasts greatly against my chestnut-mahogany hair. I’m unsure of how much gray I really have. The thing is the longest I’ve gone without dying my hair was for six months about a year and a half ago. When I reached half a year dye-free I shamefully crumbled to the pressure to conform and covered the couple inches of virgin hair. It’s been just over two months since I last disguised my roots. I am tired of dying of my hair. I resent that every six weeks I have to either do it myself or visit my hairdresser. I would love to see how my long wavy hair would look in its natural salt-and-pepper state. But I struggle with making the commitment to go color-free. I want to challenge myself to see beyond what society says is attractive. But I recognize that my perception of how I look is skewed because of the repetitive messages that “gray hair on a woman equals old and ugly.”

When I decided to stop coloring my hair for those six months, I readily took on the self-imposed challenge to accept my aging hair. I didn’t realize what a body image hurdle it would be. I had good days and bad days. I spent time a fair amount of time examining my hair and how its new lighter shades looked against my pale skin. I tried erasing what I had been instructed to believe and see how it could be pleasing to look at. Even pretty. On good days, I was more accepting of my new silvery strands sprinkled throughout my roots, strongest around my face. I would get excited – and impatient – when imagining what my hair would look like in a year to 18 months. Thick white roots on each temple remained hidden under my bangs. Secretly, I hoped that in time the pure white growth underneath would streak the part I showed to the world.

On bad days, the external pressures to follow the female hair norm clouded my vision and extinguished any positive thoughts I had of my authentic hair. The number of unsolicited opinions and conclusions about my decision to go natural astounded me. Some insisted I was a rebel making a political statement. Others promised I would hook horrible.

“Women with long gray hair look like hags.”

“You’ll have to cut your hair short.”

“Don’t do it, Sharon, you’ll look so old.”

My assertions that beauty is a matter of perception didn’t do much to change their minds. Their arguments wore away at my resolve. If I presented the world with my natural hair I would unequivocally be considered unattractive. Admittedly, I also sought out opinions. My closest friends wanted to be supportive but most would try to hide their grimace and say something like, “Really? But I love your brown hair.” I wish I could say thanks. My brown hair no longer exists. The brown hair people love so much is courtesy of Clairol. My husband, well, he’s dead-set against it. I thought perhaps he would be supportive, especially because my size makes no difference to him. He vehemently doesn’t want me to get Botox or any type of cosmetic intervention. But it seems that he draws the line at hair color. More than one argument has ensued over the dilemma to dye or not to dye. But I haven’t abandoned the idea of showing off my true hair color, whatever that may be.

These days, whether I’m walking or on public transport, I regularly scan the stream of faces – men and women alike – for white and gray crowns. Many more men display their natural silver streaks and white patches than women. I try to imagine what the elderly women with their dyed, coiffed hair would look like with their natural tresses. I do the same for my almost-90-year-old Italian grandmother who still faithfully dyes her hair every six weeks. But for those women who I’ve seen revealing their natural locks, I’m pleased to say that I can see the beauty in their hair. What’s more, I admire it. I hope that when I give up coloring once and for all I’ll be able to view myself—and my hair—through the same loving lens.

Read more about going gray in this thought-provoking piece, “Changing Perceptions, One Hair At a Time” at the website Going Gray Looking Great.

Related Content:

Gray Matters

Face It! – What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change, The Book



14 thoughts on “Going Gray: Not a Black and White Matter

  1. So late to this post, which I love. I’m 34 this year and have been going grey since I was in my late teens. I’m naturally dark brown. Like you, my grey sprouts where ever it damn well wants, At my temples (when I go a month without colouring) it’s uniform and appears silvery white-very nice. But I feel cheated. I’ve often been told I look much younger than my age, and I get so down about the grey hair I regularly dye it. I’m a dark shade of ash blonde; my hairdresser has to use a special colour for more than 70% grey, so I reckon I’ve got a lot if I stopped dying it. I’ve toyed with letting it grow out but I’m currently a) a single mum, b) a university student with a whole bunch of teenagers and c) heading for a new profession where I want to look my best-I don’t think that grey will cut it. My hairdresser is lovely. I’ve talked about the grey with her. Next time I get my hair done, she’s streaking one of my temples for me, a silvery-grey. One step in the right direction.

  2. My choice to go gray in my 30’s was mine and mine alone. My mother was opposed to it and fought me all the way. She didn’t want a daughter who looked “older” than her. Now I look younger than my age. I love that my gray hair brands me as unique. When my roots were long enough I did cut my long hair short. Now my hair is long and growing longer. I love the different shades of gray in my hair. You cannot get the colors in my hair from a bottle or a salon. My hair makes me feel very sexy.

  3. My hair started Graying about 10 years ago on the sides. I used to color it, but haven’t in a while. I’m a naturally blond man so it kind of blends in. Until it happened, I really never thought about it. But now, when I see people my age or older I always wonder. When I see women with Gray hair, I think of sophistication and elegance. Why, because generally they seem to know more about who they are and are more confident!

  4. Thanks so much for the encouragement Maya! After speaking to many women who have given up hair dye I realize that a few attempts may be necessary. It makes sense considering the societal expectation to cover it up. All the support I’ve received from Adios Barbie readers has inspired me to go natural and I’m loving the way it’s growing in. Hopefully this time I’ll persevere. Thanks again!!

  5. Sharon,

    I totally understand the back-and-forth about whether or not to go gray–it took me several years of aborted attempts before I actually did it! Now, I have virgin hair to my shoulders, and I cannot tell you what a relief it is to be free of not just the regular dye jobs but the absence of angst about my hair! I absolutely love it–it’s truly unique (it’s whitish in front, darker in back, but not a huge contrast) and I know that in the coming years it will only get more interesting. Still, I know it would be tough to do without the support of a partner–my husband has been trying to get me to stop coloring my hair for years, mostly because he got tired of the ongoing monologue about it–haha! He loves it too and together we make a silvery team.

    Ultimately, it has to be your choice if and when you do let it go natural, but I’m here to say that when you’re ready, you’ll be so glad you made the decision!


  6. I dye my hair violent hot pink. Not because I want to hide my grey (and I’m getting quite a bit of it), but because I want to challenge the notion of what women “should” look like, and because hot pink is currently my favourite colour. And it works well with my skin tone.

    It’s been the best thing I ever did – not only do I love it, but people all around stop me to tell me how amazing it is.

  7. Sharon,
    We all understand where you are coming from. I recently decided to let my gray grow in and it’s been only 5mths since my last color. I’m hoping i will like it but I can’t truly know until more of the gray hair grows in but how will I know if I never step out and do it. I too now take notice of people with gray hair and on a lot of people it is beautiful. Tired of being a slave to color. We’ll see. Meanwhile I predict we may see a trend in the near future of more women just allowing the gray to grow in and be themselves.

  8. Thanks Cherry. I find some of the comments I have received definitely interesting. I believe this piece is about self-acceptance but others have seen it as an opening to offer me advice as to how to eliminate my graying hair naturally. It’s yet another example of how ingrained society’s expectations are when it comes to beauty.

  9. Sharon,
    Thanks for sharing a piece of yourself that many of us can relate to. Seeing the comments your friends made and my reaction to them makes me more aware of how I need to watch what I say when I think I’m “helping” the other person. I was a strawberry blond and so don’t go gray in the way people with darker hair do. It’s just sort of a funny, dull color. Recently cut it very short and wondered if I should highlight it with some blond to brighten it.

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