Last year, I was walking downtown in the mid-sized Southern city where I live, in one of those rare moods where you don’t feel the need to suck in your belly and your clothes hang just right. A man — easy on the eyes, I don’t mind saying — stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Wow. Your hair is amazing. Don’t dye it ever. I mean it. Please.”
I had just been thinking about covering up the gray, authenticity be damned and to hell with Emmylou’s inspirational locks and so what if my husband claims to love my hair. (He let it slip once that he also loves that it’s easier to spot me from across a crowded grocery store.)
Like a lot of women, I still get wishy-washy about my hair, usually after a new acquaintance compliments me on it and then tiptoes into the real topic on her mind: “Uh, and, if you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”
I’m 45, if you must know, of black Irish heritage, and I spotted my first gray hair at 16. REO Speedwagon was on the turntable, and my dark-brown hair was 1980s-big.
It’s always the women who want to know, and it’s always the same: A whispered confession — I’m thinking about doing it too — followed by a litany of concerns.
They worry it will make them look old (read: non-sexy) to their husbands, boyfriends or potential beaus. They worry their silver locks will count against them in the cruel corporate world.
They share my concern that some day someone will ask if my teenage sons are my grandkids or — fightin’ words — if my husband is my son.
It hasn’t happened, yet. But people do say strange things — in interviews, at the grocery, at my kids’ schools.
A drunk old pal at a party — someone I’d known from an old volleyball team (during my walnut-brown, $100-a-month hair-dye days) — actually grabbed a handful of it. “It’ssss gray now?” he slurred.
“Hell, it’sss not just gray, it’sss WHHHHITE!?”
Thanks, Barry. I didn’t know.
The hardest thing about being gray at my age is you never know when somebody’s going to feel moved to share their reaction to it.
It can go either way. Not long ago, an old friend apologized profusely when she ran into me , as if she’d let down the Sisterhood of the Premature Gray.
Her hair was blonde now, and she felt the need to confess, half-blushingly: “Divorced. Back on the market again.”
Go for it, Jane. Seriously! (Although I still think the silver was a better compliment to her beautiful, crystal-blue eyes.)
During a talk I attended a few years ago, the narrative writing guru Jacqui Banaszynski exclaimed mid-lecture the moment she noticed me: “Welcome to the Honest Hair Club!”
“Not everyone gets it, you know,” she said later, explaining that people from southeast Asia constantly stop to ask why a woman her age would not dye her hair. Was she being cheap? Groovy and all-natural? Or just stupid?
How about: Maybe she just likes it gray.
Five years ago, when I endeavored the painful raccoon phase of letting the dyed-hair grow out, I went online searching for “gray hair.” I wanted to know if anyone had written about middle-aged women who don’t dye their hair.
I found loads of Clairol ads and the like — and exactly one blog posting on the subject. (Happy to report, there’s been at least one book written about it since, by magazine editor Anne Kreamer, and many essays as well.)
I also found a few articles about the elegant J. Jill model Cindy Joseph, who in her mid-50s really is one of the most beautiful women in the world.
A while back, I noticed that Joseph had disappeared from the pages of the catalog. Then, in a few months, I saw her on TV . . . in a Boniva commercial, of all things. Whether it was by choice — or whether the clothes company just decided she was too old-looking to suit their image — I don’t know.
But I tell you: Every time the catalog comes in the mail now, I toss it in the recycling. . . even, sigh, the one with the killer after-Christmas sale. Sisters gotta support the Honest Hair Club.
A few months ago I was walking past the same place downtown, when the very same guy said, “Hey, I love your hair!”
I had already passed him and, though I was mid-conversation with a coworker, I turned around to acknowledge his remark.
“How’d you know I was talking to you?” he said, a sly grin on his face.
The truth is, I just did. That day I was happy with who I was, and how I looked, and if he was, too, well then let me say in all honesty:
Thanks for sharing.