During the last two-and-a-half months of staying at home and waiting for the coronavirus to seep under my door, I’ve been watching my hair go gray. What else was there to do?
I’m 63. Stylists have been coloring my formerly black hair for about 20 years, since it first sprouted enough silver strands to piss me off. I vowed I’d never fall prey to our youth-obsessed culture but that resolve went right down the drain when my hair betrayed me.
I was persuaded to lighten it to a caramel color with gold highlights (more age-appropriate for a 43-year-old, they said). And, although I’ve flirted with letting the grays take over, I never seriously embraced the idea until salons shut down during the pandemic.
Here I am, nearly three months since I last had those mysterious, possibly cancer-causing chemicals doused on my head, topped off by aluminum foil strips attached like antennae to random sections of my hair.
Self-isolating with my now black/brown/blonde/red/gray hair gave me time to think about why women feel so pressured to mask the aging process. After all, men walk around oozing self-confidence as gray hairs blossom from their heads, ears, noses, and backs. They grow rotund enough to rest a cocktail and a plate of pigs in a blanket on their bellies. Women, meanwhile, dye, pluck, suction, enhance, inject, and otherwise do our best to maintain what we’ve been convinced is youthful femininity.
Does gray hair really look worse than the faux color we all embrace? Apparently British actress Helen Mirren doesn’t think so. Neither does country/folk singer Emmylou Harris. Can Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carole King, Glenn Close, Blythe Danner, Joan Baez, Meryl Streep, Sharon Osbourne, and Paula Deen all be wrong? Lady Gaga gave gray a go. Pink went white for awhile. Even Jane Fonda, who’s fought aging like Attila the Hun battling the Roman Empire, stunned audiences at this year’s Oscars when she appeared with a shimmering silver cut.
Yet mention to female friends that you’re thinking of going gray and prepare for audible gasps and vehement objections. You have to have a young face. The right hair. It has to be the right color gray. You need a great cut. You’ll look washed out. Old.
In fact, just Google the word gray and brace yourself for utter discouragement. Synonyms include bleak, dark, desolate, depressing, dismal, dreary, funereal, dirty, dull, desperate, hopeless, drab. Opposites of gray? Ablaze, bright, rich, festive, buoyant, colorful. Which do you want to be?
Before coronavirus distracted me from normal life, I’d grown weary of coloring my hair. I hated the silver strands that seemed to pop out along my temples even before I left the salon. An avid athlete, I didn’t wash it as much as I’d like in order to preserve the color. And the process itself sucked a few hours and a couple hundred bucks out of my life every four weeks.
Some women I know who allowed nature to take its course admit they too felt anxiety. “Would I become even more invisible than I already felt post-50?” one wondered. “Does going gray make us less attractive to others?” another mused. “Or less attractive to ourselves?”
The answer seems to be a resounding no. These gray-haired girlfriends report they still play hours of tennis, hike up mountains, write lyrical poetry, cook mouthwatering meals. And they do it with the same laugh lines and changing bodies we all face.
Somehow the sight of the gray hair I’ve been covering up for decades forces me to confront my own reality: I feel young in spirit, yet the supporting equipment is showing its wear. But with deaths from the coronavirus now surpassing 100,000 in the US alone, I’m ready to move on from my internal debate. I have graying hair. But I have hair. I’m alive! And if I change my mind about going au natural, I can always place an emergency call to my stylist.
The silver lining to this whole dilemma: At breakfast I asked my husband what he thought about my gray hair. Without even glancing up from the sports section he replied, “What gray hair?”