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Could Gray Be the New Black?

To dye or not to dye? That is the question.

Going gray: it happens to all of us. As we age (as dictated by our genetics), we stop producing pigmentation in our hair and what used to be blond, brown, red, black, or some combination, turns white, sliver, or gray. It's a challenge to figure out exactly how many women color their hair to cover that gray - but if you look around at all of the women you know who are ages 40 and above, you can get a pretty clear sense that it is more common than not.

Why do women color their hair? The most common reason is that they don't think having gray hair is attractive... but why is that? Most would say it's because gray hair is associated with aging, and aging in the US is considered to be unattractive. Additionally, it has become so common for women to dye their hair that women with gray hair are considered to be unconventional or even counter-culture. Women into their 80s and 90s color their hair more often than not.

Anne Kremer, author of Going Gray, writes that "most baby-boomer women have held on to the hedonistic forever-young part of their Woodstock dreams a lot more tenaciously than to the open-and-honest part. And in doing so, they have presided over a narrowing of the range of acceptable looks for women." However, when she decided to let her hair go to its natural gray at the age of 48, she researched just how much having gray hair actually affected her attractiveness or her appearance of age. When she posted her profile on a conventional dating site, she discovered that the profile of herself as a natural gray received three times more responses than the profile of herself with colored hair. Furthermore, when she created a large-scale survey asking people to estimate the age of men and women, some with gray hair and some with not, people estimated those with gray hair to be only 2 years older than their actual age. So does gray hair actually effect attractiveness or how old a person looks?

There has been, over the past few years, a slow but steady movement towards women allowing their hair to change naturally. The website Going Gray, Looking Great boasts 200,000 page views a month by visitors from 126 countries, and has a photo gallery of models, politicians, actresses, singers, and professionals who are all naturally gray. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article recently about a local newscaster, Dana King, who had decided stop coloring her hair after covering a story about postmenopausal women in Ghana and feeling she was contributing to our society's negative views about aging.

That same article, however, ends on a negative note. The author quotes hair stylists who insist that while gray may be okay it has to be the right shade of gray and women should get their hair colored professionally to have it meet that shade. They end with the quote from Kathy Peiss, author of Hope in a Jar, who states that "hair is an important part of self-presentation... almost like an index or measure of who the person is," and that "it would be wonderful if there were an acceptance of gray hair, but I don't think the culture has changed that dramatically."

It's difficult to get a read on what the culture thinks or not. Peiss has done her homework about the culture of beauty in our society, but Kremer found a different response when she got out there in the dating scene. And Dana King reported that the response to her decision to go gray was almost uniformly positive.

Ultimately, gray hair, like any decision to alter ones' looks - from makeup to shaving body hair to plastic surgery - is a deeply personal decision and must be made by each individual woman. For better or worse, a woman's self esteem is based in large part by her perceptions of how she looks and how she feels she is perceived, and thus while women make choices partly informed by politics, morality, beliefs or even finances, their self-perception and how they feel are undoubtedly important in the final decision.

There is a feedback loop regarding society's perception of beauty, and it's difficult to know where it starts - if more women "go gray" will that change our perception of beauty, or do we need to change our perception of beauty for more women to feel comfortable going gray? Likely both, just as girls growing up seeing women with gray hair around them will feel more comfortable joining their ranks as they grow up/older.

It seems ultimately that should be the goal - not that all women should go gray or that women should feel old/unattractive if they don't. Instead that women could feel beautiful either way - beautiful changing their appearance in ways they like or beautiful allowing things to be naturally the way they are.

Musicians Emmylou Harris (L) and Kris Kristofferson perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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