Be comfortable in your own skin, and your style will come out.
– Ikram Goldman, Ikram boutique owner, Chicago
When my sisters and I were going through my mother’s photographs to put in a slideshow for her memorial last January, I came across ones of my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary party. My mother was a month shy of 31 when she got married to my father. So she was nearing 56 when we celebrated their anniversary at a restaurant with our family and all of our relatives. In December 1984, when my sister, Heidi, my mom, and I went to the Philippines – to commemorate the end of my college career and also to embrace my heritage after taking many Asian American Studies classes – my mom was 58 years old.
I marveled at how in the pictures from those two events, my mother looked incredibly young. No sign of gray hair. My middle sister Joyce recalled that she berated my mom for plucking her gray hairs, telling her she would go bald. It was around the early 1990s that Joyce introduced my mother to coloring her hair. So at the time of her 25th anniversary and our trip to the Philippines, my mother had plucked her grays – but clearly still had a healthy production of melanin.
No doubt, genetics played a major role in her youthful looks. But at some point, she did color her hair. I, too, plucked at the gray hairs, and when they multiplied to the point where potential baldness had to be considered as a real risk, I faced the decision of either coloring or leaving the gray strands alone. I had always thought I would be the kind of woman who would eschew coloring her hair. Just age gracefully, I argued in my head. But at the age of 44, when the gray hair began exposing themselves around my hairline and at the crown of my head, I succumbed to the practice.
Does she or doesn’t she?
In my neck of the woods – the Berkeley area – more women than not embrace their gray. Was it a defect on my part that I did not? My hairdresser, who has been cutting my hair since I was 29 and whom I have followed from salon to salon through the years, has been badgering me in the last few years to stop coloring my hair. He tells me that “modern women” can carry off gray hair. He also insisted that the owner of the beauty shop where he worked had developed leukemia from having undergone too many Japanese hair-straightening treatments. In all honesty, I don’t know anything about the pros and cons of the treatment and can’t comment on whether the chemicals contributed to her death. I do worry about the chemicals that are seeping into my scalp, which is one of the reasons why I don’t color that often and traded permanent color, which made my hair dry as straw, to semi-permanent color, which seems less harsh, relatively speaking, and fades in a more “natural” way.
My husband, David, whose hair is salt and pepper, keeps reminding me that there’s nothing wrong with gray hair and he’d prefer that I go au natural. Some people look distinguished with a head of gray hair, but I don’t put myself in that company just yet. One of my good friends from college feels that gray hair makes women look older than they are, which is true depending upon how the hair is styled, how the woman dresses herself, and the coloring of the gray. While dull gray is not a flattering color, white or silver can be stunning.
Comfortable with gray
While one can argue whether or not a woman looks better with colored hair, I’ve come to see it as a personal decision, which should be respected and even celebrated. My sister, Heidi, who turned 53 in mid-August and noticed the gray in her mid-30s, has never colored her hair, which is even more dramatic and pronounced given the longer length of her locks. She prefers low maintenance when it comes to grooming, which was especially critical when she was an elementary-school teacher (she has since retired this past year). She doesn’t blow dry her hair because she feels it’s a health hazard and has the same health concern about hair coloring. My sister grows her hair long so she can cut it every three years and donate it to such organizations as the American Cancer Society and Ulta, which require hair to be free of chemicals. She tells me that they don’t accept donations with too many gray hairs, so this may be her last contribution.
“There have been a dozen women who have told me that they are following my example and are not coloring their hair anymore,” Heidi wrote to me in an e-mail. “They just don’t like the look when transitioning from not coloring to going all gray. I think they are becoming more comfortable with the idea of having gray hair. I think they also got tired of coloring their hair and they’re doing it for themselves and not for appearance anymore.” (Although I feel compelled to note that you can color your hair and do it for yourself and not for others.)
A friend of mine, who has a lovely thick mane of silvery hair, decided to dispense with the many years of maintenance, time, and expense associated with hair coloring. “You’re finally comfortable with it, and you just grow into your gray hair,” she told me in an e-mail. Through the years, she had gotten close with her colorist, whom she considers an adopted daughter and also followed as her colorist changed salons. While my friend doesn’t get to see her former colorist on a regular basis anymore, when they do get together it’s “for coffee instead of coloring,” she wrote.
Hair as an ‘artistic medium’
One of my colleagues from my company, Diana Manos, 53, who is a senior editor with Healthcare IT News, said that turning 50 has liberated her to experiment with hair color. “I like hair as an artistic medium (involving color),” she wrote to me in an e-mail. Diana doesn’t believe that hair color should be age-related. She sported a big bright fuschia stripe, noting that getting the flash of color was something she has wanted to do her whole life. “I feel that being my current age finally freed me to do it,” she wrote, although she has since moved on from pink because it fades too easily.
“Color is color. If you don’t like the color gray – and I don’t – you don’t have to wear it, in our day and age,” she wrote. “I feel hair is a very distinctive aspect of our outer selves. If we want, we can use our hair to represent our inner selves. How you feel about your hair is very important to how you see yourself. No one at any age should accept hair they don’t want to wear.”
While Diana noted that she doesn’t like the color gray on her, she recognizes that some women can carry it off. “I am always fascinated by and on the lookout for women who wear it like they mean it,” she said. “Emmylou Harris is one famous example, but I see good examples around me all the time. If I had to one day wear gray hair, I would probably put some black stripes in it to spice it up.”
What feels right
As for me, I’ve made the tentative decision that I’ll go completely gray when my wrinkles become more pronounced. I’ll admit that I raise my eyebrows when I see an elderly Filipino man or woman with jet-black hair and wrinkles to rival an elephant because it seems like a disconnect between hair and body. I can’t imagine that I’ll do anything to my face, so when the wrinkles deepen, the gray will be let loose.
I’m always fascinated by other women’s opinions about and reasons for coloring or going gray, but the bottom line is: Respect other women’s decisions and do what feels right for you. Whatever you do, first and foremost, do it for yourself. Once you embrace that, the decisions come – of course – nice and easy.