Growing Gray with Intention: Why is it so Hard for us Women?

by Megan Taylor Stephens

You’d think that letting yourself grow gray would be easy. You just sit back, relax, and watch your hair follicles die a slow, sure death. There are so many excellent reasons to feel good about the decision to go gray, and—if you are like me—you can list them all:

  1. You are delighted that you can free up a few hours of time on your calendar every few months.
  2. You feel vindicated that you are saving big on your hair coloring bills.
  3. You relish the fact that you don’t have to breathe in toxins or let them soak into your scalp.
  4. You feel smug for not being an eco-hater who flushes chemicals down the drain and eventually into our groundwater.
  5. You gloat in revolting against society’s images of female beauty that reek of toxic patriarchy.

Deciding to go gray means consciously disregarding societal norms. In a culture that undervalues all things old and overvalues all things young, letting oneself age without concern for one’s plummeting status is both terrifying and liberating, as Gloria Steinem put it so aptly:

“In a general way, women become more radical as they get older. The pattern is that women are conservative when they’re young. That’s when there’s the most pressure on us to conform, when we’re potential child bearers and sex objects. An­d we lose power when we get older. Which is a very radicalizing experience.”

On a technical level, is there anything not to like about going gray? I don’t think so. So why haven’t I fully embraced it? I set out to figure out what my problem is and I learned some stuff along the way.

Side note: I’m not shaming people who make the decision to dye their hair. The societal messaging about beauty that pushes women into covering up their gray is real, and the messaging resides deep in our bones. Ageism in the form of employment discrimination is also a real thing, especially for women. Above all, women certainly have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, whether for medical or aesthetic reasons. Period. Full stop.

A Faint, Gray Memory

We spied her bent over the bathtub with a box of dark brown hair dye. She was about 40 years old. She was half upside down and her butt was unceremoniously in the air as she awkwardly rubbed in the dye around her temples, which were the main areas going gray. She looked up at us through the bathroom door. We snickered at her. We actually probably guffawed.

Why did my sister and I tease our poor mom so many years ago? I remember thinking it was stupid of her to try to beat back the encroaching tide of gray. In my young mind, she was old, and she should just succumb. Enough with Jazzercise, Tab, Melba toast, and Vidal Sassoon hair dye. Who was she trying to impress? One of those dull suitors who would come by once in a while? She raised us to be feminists, intellectuals, athletes, and pragmatists, and this seemed just plain vain and stupid. What happened to “Free to Be You and Me”? Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” (Hear me Roar)?

Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

Let’s review why my mom found herself draped over the bathtub in that unglamorous state in the first place. What makes hair go gray?

According to a 2021 article on WebMD, your hair color comes from melanin. Melanin comes from pigment cells in your hair follicles. As you get older, the pigment cells die and never regenerate. The reduction of pigment leads your hair to slowly turn to gray, and the eventual absence of pigment turns it to white.

The extent to which you’re likely to grow gray is largely governed by your genetics. Parents who go gray prematurely spawn kids whose hair goes gray early. Race also plays a role. White people go gray earliest (in their mid-30s), Asian people go gray next (late 30s), and Black people go gray last (mid-40s).

Health issues can speed up the graying process. Thyroid diseases, insufficient vitamin B12, vitiligo, alopecia, and smoking are some of the things that can expedite gray hair. And menopause, which involves a decrease in estrogen, also contributes to thinning hair. Thin hair breaks and falls out more easily, so if you’re older, it’s more likely to come back in gray.

Gray hair feels more stiff, coarse, and thin compared to nongray hair. Gray hair has a thinner cuticle, which gives your hair less protection from the sun, wind, humidity, heat, and chemicals, which in turn makes your hair lose water. This causes it to be thinner and frizzier. Let’s face it, it’s hard to embrace.

My Hair is my Identity

I always liked my hair, and others did too. It received many compliments. It was long and wavy and golden chestnut brown with hues of red. When I didn’t brush it, it was thick and curly. Sometimes I colored it, usually with a cheap box of Sun In. I played around with every hair style that grabbed my fancy in my youth: the flower child look of Jan in The Brady Bunch, Lady Di’s short and sassy do, Annie Lennox’s shocking flat top, and the ill-conceived mullet inspired by…I really don’t know. Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe?

Even when I didn’t like my outfit, my flat chest, or my big butt, at least I always had my hair as a flowing asset. It was one thing that I could fully control and that had a good return on investment.

Fast forward to my forties, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the approach of gray. It seemed premature compared to my friends, though, so I started dying my hair and carried on with my life. I didn’t like the toxins and always asked the hairdresser if there was a less poisonous alternative. Not really, unless I just wanted henna. The henna didn’t cover my gray hair well, so I was resigned to the poisonous products.

As my forties went on, my natural hair color became shockingly gray shockingly fast. (PSA: I found out later that my undiagnosed hypothyroidism played a big role in that.) I dabbled with letting my hair do its own thing, but always went back to coloring it. I honestly felt more youthful with brown hair. I carried myself with more confidence, dressed with more pizzazz, and truly felt younger in my body. I think seeing brown instead of gray reflected back in the mirror tricked me into thinking I was younger than I really was. And since younger is synonymous with prettier, in the patriarchal scale of valuation, it’s no wonder that brown hair boosted my ego.

What are the Stats on Dyeing?

Our society endorses a number of anti-ageing practices and products, all of which are fully backed by the beauty industrial complex. Wood (2019) estimates that 60% of Americans have gray hair by age 60. Imagine the beauty industry drooling over such a large market segment—all those people in need of rejuvenation products and services! Especially those poor, past-their-prime womenfolk.

The fact that there are double standards for beauty should come as no surprise. While men who are “salt and pepper” are considered mature, stable, and handsome, women are considered to have let themselves go.

Maniace of Men’s Journal advises a 26-year-old man not to dye his graying hair: “Graying is part of aging—it’s distinguished, it’s sexually attractive, and people dig it. If you color it, it’s like a neon sign saying, ‘I’m covering up what’s happening to me as a man.’” If only this same advice were given to women. 

Data show that men accept going gray at a far greater rate than do women. A survey of Americans indicates that approximately 11% of men dye their hair compared to 85% of women, according to Goldstein’s (2019) article. And these are repeat customers, to the delight of the beauty empire. Approximately 85% of women color their hair at minimum once every two months (Wood, 2019).

In the European Union, ECHA estimates that about 60% of women versus 10% of men dye their hair. I couldn’t find statistics for Asia, Latin America, or other places. I can only assume that the numbers are similar. Although dyeing one’s hair as a woman is in some ways probably a culturally specific phenomenon, it’s also clearly governed by a universal, unwritten code to look young. The stats might vary somewhat from country to country, but we all know that egg-laden, nubile-looking women are held in high esteem the world over.

Let Go and Let Gray

When COVID-19 hit and all the beauty parlors closed, I decided to cut the cord. I was only really visible via video conferencing, so I didn’t fret over my image too much. I figured that when the pandemic was over (in what, a few months?!), I could decide what my longterm hair plan was.

My friends and family said my gray mane looked great. They said it was an elegant, silver gray. I wasn’t so sure about that—it looked pretty drab to me—but the encouragement helped me decide to let it linger. I was already dressed in my dowdy pajamas from the waist down, so who cared if my coiffure was a bit matronly too? I joined an online group devoted to inspiring people to embrace their gray hair. It was empowering to hear other people’s stories. I let go and let gray. Sort of.

In all honesty, I still haven’t fully embraced my gray. It’s pretty lonely here in the gray-haired-50-year-old-female camp. I know that it makes me look older than my same-aged peers. If everyone would stop dyeing their hair, that would help the world see what a woman in her 50s really looks like, but I don’t think my complaints and pleas have much traction. Luckily, there are plenty of celebrity females who have gone gray and are inspiring others to do the same.

Here are some famous gray-haired women: Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Jane Fonda, Whoopie Goldberg, Emmylou Harris, Salma Hayek, Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Andie MacDowell, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Tia Mowry, Bonnie Raitt, and Meryl Streep.

All Aboard the Gray Train!

I know I haven’t completely marketed going gray as an easy act of empowerment with zero side effects or misgivings. But maybe I’ve convinced a few more revolutionaries to join me. Here’s the most important thing to know: You can’t, all by your lonesome, tackle the culture of patriarchy, which indirectly tells women that we are only desirable if we are young and fertile.

You must find your radiant silver-haired (or mousy-haired) people. Perhaps a friend of yours vows to never buy a box of hair dye again and you can be accountability partners. Or you can join a support groups to keep you on your path toward enlightenment and acceptance about going gray. Search up some bloggers or get on all the usual social media sites and you will find your silver-fox-embracing peeps.

Trust me, you’ll need a support system to keep you on your path. It’s very tempting to abort mission as you watch your two-toned hair rear its ugly head. Once your hats and headscarves stop doing their trick, you’ll find yourself desperately calling up your hairdresser in a sudden change of heart. You’ll go in for a trim and come out platinum blonde if you’re not resolute and tenacious.

What are you waiting for? All aboard the Gray Train! We’re on a journey to an exciting, exotic, mystery destination. What shall we call it? I have so many ideas!

Gray is Beautiful – Be Yourself! (GIBBY)

Zen and the Art of Going Gray (ZAGG)

Women Embracing Getting Older Naturally (WEGON)

Silver Haired Eco Lovers (SHEL)

Rage Against Ageism Altogether! (RAAA!)

Smashing the Patriarchy One Gray Hair at a Time (SPOGHAT)

Votes are open. Passenger reservations are accepted and tickets are free!

P.S. Mom, I hope you vote too. Sorry for being mean, and thank you for embracing your white hair and teaching me not to be afraid of aging! 😊

Citations

ECHA European Chemicals Agency. Good to Know About Hair Dyes. Chemicals in Our Life.  https://chemicalsinourlife.echa.europa.eu/en-US/good-to-know-about-hair-dyes

Goldstein, J. (2019). Why More DC Men are Dyeing Their Gray Hair. Washingtonian. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/09/25/why-more-dc-men-are-dyeing-their-gray-hair/

Maniace, S. Here’s Why Guys Should Think Twice About Dyeing Their Gray Hair. Mens Journal. https://www.mensjournal.com/style/heres-why-guys-should-think-twice-dyeing-their-gray-hair/.

WebMD (2021). Facts About Gray Hair. Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on November 15, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/ss/slideshow-beauty-gray-hair-facts#:~:text=Your%20hair%20follicles%20have%20pigment,%2C%20silver%2C%20and%20eventually%20white.

Wood, H. (2019). 27 Hair Color Statistics, Facts & Industry Trends (That Will Blow Your Mind). Hollee Wood Hair. https://www.holleewoodhair.com/hair-color-statistics/

Alexandra Grant, artist and Keanu Reeves’s girlfriend (©2017 Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

                                        

Yours truly

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