In the spring of 2017, just shy of my 44th birthday, I looked in the mirror and saw the familiar shimmer of silver roots starting to emerge at my temples. I sighed heavily as I thought back to my last time getting painted with chemicals in the swiveling chair, realizing it was only three short weeks ago. An image of my mother, a week before she died, flashed into my memory: at age 64, with short, post-chemo, salt-and-pepper hair on display for the first time, she softly joked, “you’ve waited an awfully long time to see me with gray hair.” As that heartbreaking image faded, I had this very clear thought: I don’t want to do this anymore.
What followed, though, was a quick dissolution of clarity, replaced by a rambling series of anxious questions firing in my brain: How do I start to stop coloring my hair? How long will it take to grow out? Will I look older? Will I be less attractive? Will I feel frumpy? What will people think when they see my gray hair? Will I seem diminished in some way? ... Why do I color my hair? Finally, the sensible part of my brain shook the panicking part by the shoulders. I took a deep breath, and started to think.
The most important question - one I hadn’t ever asked myself - was why I had started coloring my hair in the first place. What was I trying to achieve with this commitment of my time and money, and was I accomplishing it? Cue the crickets. I couldn’t answer the question! I was spending thousands of dollars and almost thirty hours of my precious time every year doing something I couldn’t explain. That felt absurd to me.
I started coloring my hair around age 38, when a stylist caught my eye in the mirror from behind the chair and said, in a hushed, conspiratorial tone: “Did you want me to cover up these grays?” Instantly, I felt ashamed, as if she had noticed a gaping hole in my pants, and I quickly agreed to her plan. What I wish I had done was ask this question instead: “Why would I?”
No doubt, the stylist was well-intentioned and wanted me to leave the salon feeling beautiful. But that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? Her desire to cover my gray hair was the result of two sneaky, pervasive, malignant assumptions in the world of beauty: gray hair makes you look older (does it?) and if you look older, you look less beautiful (do you?). Once these assumptions have crept into your thinking, they spread their slimy tentacles, creating further negative messaging in your brain. Before long, you’re looking in the mirror, criticizing and lamenting every way in which your face is not the same as a 20-year-old with flawless skin. How impossibly boring would life be if we all looked that way?
After answering a few of my own questions, I picked up the phone and cancelled my next appointment. I needed time to think, and the pressure of a looming salon session would muddle my thoughts. I didn’t want to feel ashamed about my gray hair anymore, but I also had to process the shift, and figure out how to recalibrate my own expectations in a realistic way. Just because I didn’t want to cover my gray didn’t mean that I wanted to take the next steps alone. As my husband wisely noted, “Diane Keaton looks gorgeous with gray hair, but you know she’s got people on the payroll.”
I did some research, and found a stylist skilled in the art of helping women transition to gray. She put in some highlights and a silver toner, leaving me with a faux salt-and-pepper situation. As my hair continued to grow, I saw her once or twice more, and she’d do more of the same, though less each time. The result was a gradual, intentional transition to real salt-and-pepper hair, which gave me time to adjust.
Over the last two years, as I’ve let the colored ends grow out (rather than chopping them, which might have been an easier course), I’ve definitely had moments of doubt. Some days I think the gray makes me look a smidge older or a bit faded. Some days I miss the raven look of my youth. And when I’m tired, it occasionally feels a little harder to hide my fatigue.
Working through those moments of doubt hasn’t been so hard, though. When my confidence wavers, I have a quiver of tricks to boost it. Some days I wear a little blush, or change my clothes to colors that work better with silver (less brown, more blue). I frequently put my hair up in a way that accents the gray, which strangely gives me more courage. Often, I think of my daughters, and how they will remember me when I’m no longer here; do I want them to remember a mom who was battling the years or savoring them with gratitude and grace?
As my silver strands approach my shoulders, I can truly say I’ve undergone a transformation that has both everything and nothing to do with my hair color. Some of what I feel is challenging. I’m mad that my beautiful mom felt insecure about her gray hair on her actual death bed. I’m frustrated at how many women wear fear like a straight jacket, practically paralyzed by their terror of looking older when they could be laughing and dancing and drinking rosé. I’m irritated when powerful people in the beauty and wellness industries perpetuate the fear of aging, willingly or not.
But most of what I feel is empowering. I feel like I’ve taken off handcuffs. I feel free from the captive hours in that chair, the smell of chemicals wafting around my head, and the $300 dollar bill for something that didn’t relax or nourish me in any sustaining way. I feel comfortable, vibrant, and beautiful, perhaps more than I ever have. I think I look forty-five, and that’s just perfect because I am forty-five. I take great care of my body, my skin, and my mind because I understand that every day spent living this life is a delicious gift, and I want to be here as long as I can. I think less about my wrinkles than about the life-long laughter that created them.
Most importantly, without the distraction of worrying whether my roots are showing, I feel more deeply rooted in purpose. My work in the beauty industry is not about helping people look younger; it’s about helping people feel healthier and more alive. If coloring your hair makes you feel healthier and more alive, I’m all for it, especially as lower-toxicity options emerge. But if you’re not sure why you’re doing something, from hair color to botox to your makeup routine, I think it’s worth examining to make sure you’re not stuck in a habit that originated from an idea you don’t actually support. By wearing this sparkling silver crown, I hope to lead by example in celebrating the years we are lucky enough to live, rather than fearing the changes that accompany the unstoppable passage of time.
With love and shiny, silver strands from us to you,