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The Gray Area Regarding Dying Your Hair

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder

My mom found my first gray hair when I was 7. Slowly but surely, my original brunette hair morphed to white. I quit coloring it in my mid-20s and had a head fairly full of silver hair by the youthful age of 30.

Having gone through the decision-making process to let my natural hair color show itself at an early age, I truly understand that many seasoned women don’t want to face the transition of letting their hair turn gray naturally. Yet I’ve come to realize that this transition can be a part of a metamorphosis into greater authenticity.

Standing Up to Societal Pressure

Admittedly, society isn’t always so open to the perspective that gray hair is beautiful and that women don’t need to hide it. If you look at social media, television shows, movies, magazines, and fashion shows, the emphasis traditionally is on maintaining a youthful appearance for as long as possible.

Recently, it’s been interesting to watch women such as Andi McDowell stand up to the criticism of their decision to go with their natural hair color. But I’d suggest that McDowell’s mane is elegant and mesmerizing; it enchants rather than detracts. The same is true for other older women, such as Glenn Close, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, and Maye Musk. And now even younger women—think recording artist Lizzo and model/influencer Chrissy Teigen—are intentionally opting to have gray hair.

Women’s willingness to embrace the gray seems to be growing. A Facebook group I’ve recently joined, Going Grey Gracefully, encourages women to give voice to the gifts, challenges, and concerns about this life transition. Many struggles with the decision, often taking years to decide to let their hair go au natural. It’s wonderful to see women post stunning pictures of themselves—and then watch all the love that group members offer. It’s also amazing to see women be just as lovingly supportive for those who opt to continue to color their hair. 

I think women also are beginning to realize that gray hair isn’t just one drab color. Instead, it’s a range of tones, ranging from bright white that resembles the moon to the pale gray of an athletic t-shirt. There’s also darker gray, which can resemble elegant pewter or gunmetal. Like woman, each gray is not the same.

An Early Path to Gray

Admittedly, the decision to forgo dying isn’t an easy one. When I reached high school and wanted to fit in (and try to catch the eyes of boys), I started coloring my long tresses, using semi-permanent hair color to try to remain a brunette. However, it often became a challenge when playing athletics, as the dye would leave dark stains on the collar of my basketball jersey. And even then, I still periodically heard heckling calls of “grandmother” from the opposing stands during games.

My commitment to dying my hair continued throughout my college and early professional days. I started to have a shift of perspective, due in part to my new professional position creating the first-ever public relations office for a conservative Texas school district. I was in my mid-20s at the time—and the rest of the administrative staff was much older. I soon realized that looking “more mature” might be beneficial to my career.

I am fortunate that I have really thick healthy hair—and that also meant that it grows very quickly. As my natural brunette hair increasingly changed to white, I faced a growing challenge in maintaining the overall brunette color: the need to spend more time (and money) dying my hair. I wasn’t enamored with the idea of using my precious time or resources in this way; I preferred to spend the time playing tennis, traveling, going to cool restaurants or movies, reading, or pursuing a hobby. I also wasn’t excited about increasingly using harsh chemicals to perform this regular bit of magic. 

So slowly and surely, I let my hair go natural. My hairstylists reveled in the change; one of them even went so far as giving me the same haircut that Meryl Streep so elegantly wore in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

My hair color soon became part of my persona. I am sure that I befuddled many because my young face didn’t match up to societal norms of white hair. It also meant that I was rarely overlooked for leadership positions because of looking “too young.”

The funny part in all this is that in my head, I still considered myself a brunette. When a colleague told a “dumb blond joke,” it slowly dawned on me that he might have been referring to me.   But my experience also suggests how we see ourselves is important and that those perceptions are what create our personal world. 

A Life Transition

Ultimately, the decision to let your hair assume its natural color is a transition—and transitions can be difficult to navigate. We’re letting go of what’s comfortable—what we’ve become used to—to step into the unknown. It’s just like any transition, whether that’s having an empty nest, getting married or divorced, or retiring after a long career. You’ve got to navigate the “new normal.”

And that new normal can be exciting and uplifting. “Following that liminal period, the individual eventually reassimilates back into ordinary society, but in a different, better ‘position,’” I Start Wondering Columnist Rhonda Collins (another amazing woman with white hair) wrote in a recent column.

Rhonda also pointed out that many cultures create a ceremony that incorporates special clothing, food, or other traditions to mark the passage through this liminal phase. So how can we mindfully create the transition from dying our hair to letting it show its true hues? Many new ideas come to mind, such as getting a new haircut and new make-up. But what about treating yourself to new earrings or a necklace that sets off the silver tones in your hair? How about redefining your wardrobe by adding new styles in different colors that are a better complement to your gray hair? And you could always binge-watch movies or television shows featuring some of your favorite silver-haired actresses who are playing vital and sexy roles! Or more importantly, proudly go out in the world and let everyone see the authentic you!

Photo by Bash Visual on Unsplash

Energy Speaks

Finally, I’d also suggest that it’s more important for seasoned women to focus on energy than their hair color. Think about it—you probably have met someone who just “feels old.” These individuals may be stagnant, grumpy, pessimistic, blaming, critical, or in continual victim mode. And maintaining that type of energy ages you, no matter your chronological age or hair color. I know some gray-haired women in their 70s and 80s who have a more youthful presence than some 20-year-old women I’ve met.

Because I have learned to regularly bring positive and engaged energy into daily life, people that I talk to on the phone who have never seen me in person often think I’m younger than I am. When I told one woman, who is in her 80s, what my chronological age is, she was very surprised and responded, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing that.”

Energy doesn’t lie. I believe that our enthusiasm for life and interest in pursuing our dreams—not our hair color—ultimately determines how most people treat us. What if we spend more time considering the energy that we put out in the world instead of constantly worrying about whether our roots are showing? Perhaps by increasingly doing so, we could become ageless.

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