Why I Went Grey

Whether your first grey hairs pop up after 40, or whether your genetics gifted you with premature grey, you’re faced with a decision: let it go or cover up? I found my first grey hairs at age sixteen; “Oh, that’s my side of the family,” my mom remarked. Although I complained about it at the time, secretly I was pleased and hoped it might turn an elegant silver, like Lauren Bacall’s. Such a color seemed to say, “I am powerful and grown up – take me seriously.” But instead the silver threads were barely noticeable, except when they stuck out at crazy angles from the rest of my ‘do.

By the time I was twenty-five, I decided it was time to start coloring. At first I didn’t stray too far from my natural brown, then gradually experimented with auburns, scarlets, even one that called itself “midnight ruby”… which turned my hair a deep eggplant. I spent twenty minutes trying to think of what I could wear that might make my hair look less purple, then finally gave up, put on a purple shirt, and went to work. The oddest part was the surprisingly reactions from my co-workers: everyone loved it. Even my manager, whose response I’d worried about, pronounced it “cool.” Maybe this would turn out to be a good thing after all.

My mom wasn’t thrilled with my accidental new color, but didn’t hold me responsible; after all, I’d been going for something completely different color, more of a dark red than shocking violet. “At least it won’t last,” she counseled upon seeing it. Mom has colored her hair for as long as I can remember, but always a respectable shade of Clairol blonde, mimicking her once-natural color. In his essay “True Colors,” Malcolm Gladwell explains that the success of Clairol’s famous ad campaign (“Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure”) reflected the social politics of hair color among postwar middle class women. For the first time, it was becoming acceptable for respectable wives and mothers to color their hair – a practice that had previously been associated only with “fast” women – but only as long as it wasn’t obvious. “The question ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ wasn’t just about how no one could ever really know what you were doing. It was about how no one could ever really know who you were… It really meant, ‘Is she a contented homemaker or a feminist?'”

For women, hair is more than an accessory: it’s an extension of identity, a doorway to a world of different possibilities and personas. As Miss Coco herself famously said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” This can be taken at least two ways: women may choose to change the color or style of their hair in preparation for (or response to) major life changes such as getting married or divorced, changing or leaving a job, etc. But there’s also the transformative effect caused by the hair change itself: you may feel like a different person, and even feel free to act like one.

Despite being loyal to many of the same brands of toothpaste and paper towels and laundry detergent that my mom favored, for fifteen years I always used L’Oreal to achieve my range of brown-reds. Perhaps some level of my consciousness was responding to L’Oreal’s famous tagline, “Because I’m worth it.” In contrast to the wholesome blonde girl-next-door types that Clairol always featured, L’Oreal women were coolly sophisticated brunettes. And, over time, it became more and more apparent that people would use the color of my hair as a quick and easy gauge to make assumptions about the kind of person I must be.

By the time I turned 40, I was ready for a change. So on a whim I deviated from L’Oreal for the first time, buying a box of punk dye that turned my hair, my bathroom sink, and several floor tiles the color of maraschino cherries. I loved it, my students loved it, I got compliments from my coworkers and strangers at the store. I was proud of doing something adventurous and glimpsing this new side of myself; how many other ways could you buy a new side of your identity for $10.99? My mother, however, hated it.

“I don’t know why you would do that,” she lamented on seeing my cherry-red head for the first time. “You had such a beautiful natural color before.” I reminded her that my beautiful, natural color also came out of a box, which didn’t seem to make a difference to her. As months went by and my bright red faded to a brassy orange, mom continued to worry that I was risking my job, my relationships, and my public image in a late-blooming act of teenage rebellion.

Mom’s reaction was more than just the worry typical of a mother, or a difference in personal aesthetics. She was voicing the ingrained attitudes and social conventions of her generation, the baby boomers who had grown up with Doris Day and Kim Novak as ideals of “nice girl” beauty. Though they might be “bottle blondes,” they at least took care to use shades that could pass as natural – unlike the dangerous temptresses like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. It wasn’t so much the color itself – after all, I teased her, blonde has long been associated with promiscuity, from ancient Greeks prostitutes wearing yellow wigs to Renaissance paintings depicting Eve in the Garden with flowing golden locks. It was the overtness, the public announcement of “Yes I do” in answer to the discreet question posed by Clairol.

Meanwhile, the more it faded, the more I liked it, especially as my salt-and-pepper roots grew out; my hair was now three or four different colors, and each of those colors seemed to represent a part of my personality. My own natural silver, though, was lovelier than I remembered it being when I was 25. Wouldn’t the next even-braver step be to stop coloring it altogether, stop spending so much time and money covering up my “naturals” (as my hairstylist diplomatically referred to my shiny roots) and be free?

Since I didn’t have the patience to wait for my own color to grow to shoulder-length, a bit of internet research and some trips to the beauty-supply store yielded a light ash-blonde, which I soon toned to a deep violet. It was cool, sophisticated, striking, yet still plausible as my own. And my mother is now quite pleased with my new color, even though it’s every bit as artificial as the previous one (and her own); it looks natural, so we’re both satisfied. Now when my roots start to grow out, they blend with the rest of my hair – which incidentally is pretty fried by now. It’s about to have a nice long rest from any kind of processing or treatment. This is a good resting point for all three of us: my mom, my hair, and me. Mom even wonders aloud about making her own transition to grey – with a little help from a bottle, of course.

Albert D. Sant