Do I Dare to Go Gray?

I have been coloring my hair for years. Recent events have made me reconsider.

Posted Jun 28, 2020

When I was in my 20s, my mother often told me how much I reminded her of her older sister—a striking, dark-eyed beauty who had nearly white hair by her early 30s.

Copyright © 2020 by Susan Hooper
Buckeye Butterfly
Source: Copyright © 2020 by Susan Hooper

Even though I could not discern the slightest physical resemblance between my aunt and me, I was flattered; I knew my mother adored her sister. But I secretly worried I might have inherited my aunt’s gene for prematurely gray locks. I disliked many things about my appearance, but I was fond of my thick, wavy, dark-brown hair.

As it turned out, I made it to my early 40s before I was forced to admit I had much more gray hair than other women my age seemed to have. Eventually, I discussed my plight with my hair stylist, who was both gifted and kind. After thinking it over, I decided to let him start coloring my hair. He picked a discreet shade that closely matched my own hair color. 

As time passed, I found people I met would routinely guess I was much younger than my actual age—sometimes a decade younger. I never bothered to correct them.

When I was in the work force—first as a journalist in Honolulu and then as a government press secretary in Pennsylvania—coloring my hair began to seem less like vanity and more like a necessity. Being a woman, it seemed, was already a professional disadvantage. Being perceived as an older woman would have made succeeding in those jobs even harder.

This statement may sound absurd to those who have not faced age discrimination, but it is the brutal truth. Age discrimination is illegal in certain circumstances, but society still seems to tacitly condone it.

In movies, television shows, commercials and real life, older people are made fun of or condescended to; treated as objects of scorn, mirth or pity; and assumed to lack skills, experience, education and training they may actually have in abundance.

By coloring my hair, I felt I was waging my own stealth campaign against this harmful stereotyping. I wasn’t really lying, I rationalized; I just never revealed my age. I let employers, colleagues and strangers I met draw incorrect assumptions based on my appearance, and I silently benefited from those incorrect assumptions.

From time to time I wondered what my “real” hair looked like. But I was never curious enough to stop coloring it and risk facing age discrimination. Even after I left my last full-time job, it did not occur to me to stop coloring my hair.

Then, earlier this year, the coronavirus shutdown went into effect in Pennsylvania, and all the hair salons closed. Because I never had the courage to color my hair myself, I finally had the chance to rediscover my real hair color.

As the weeks passed and my roots became more pronounced, I was not surprised to see there was much more gray than when my Honolulu stylist started working his magic years ago. In fact, it looked as if my hair was now almost entirely gray.

This discovery gave me a confused feeling of “mourning” the hair I had so assiduously covered with color for years. What had my real hair looked like; what had I actually looked like during that time? And would I even recognize myself when my hair grew out?

Strangely, as the shutdown wore on, my hair—and whether I would return to coloring it—became an unsolicited topic of conversation among my neighbors in my townhouse cul-de-sac.

One woman, who has snow-white hair, volunteered that she stopped coloring her hair when she turned 70; she said it got to be “too much trouble.”

I was taken aback; all I could think to say was, “Well, I’m still several years away from 70.”

Another neighbor said she thought gray hair would look great on me because, as she put it, “You have a young face.”

On the other hand, my most eloquent friend—who has known me since I was 17—was unequivocal about her preference.

“I think you should color it because you look sensational,” she said. “If there is a God and she’s a woman, she gave us hair dye so we could prolong our youth.”   

As much as I love my friend, when Pennsylvania lifted its shutdown and my hair stylist called to set up a June appointment, I took a deep breath and told her I could hardly wait to get my hair cut, but I had decided against color—at least for now.

Having gone without color since February, I was, frankly, curious to follow my little experiment to its logical conclusion: a full head of my natural hair.

To my surprise, my hairdresser—who has been coloring my hair since I moved to Pennsylvania in 2003—was enthusiastically supportive. She told me she would give me a stylish cut that would enhance my decision; at my appointment last week, she was as good as her word.

As I sat in her chair and confessed I felt like I was “transitioning,” she offered a profoundly encouraging analogy.

“It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon,” she said.

Her wisdom has helped me see this comparatively minor but still significant life change in a new light: as a beginning and not an end.

I am not vowing to never color my hair again. Nonetheless, a part of me is eager to see the results of my experiment.

Instead of mourning my lost youth (real and artificial), I am curious to meet the woman who has been hiding under my artfully colored hair all these years.

And who knows? I might just find I enjoy her company and her appearance.    

Copyright © 2020 by Susan Hooper