Going Gray: It’s Not Just for Old Folks Any More

Laurie and Debbie say:

Stefanie sent us two related links, one to a blog called Going Gray and one to a discussion on Pandagon about gray-haired young women.

Going Gray is a celebration of women who don’t dye their hair, liberally illustrated with pictures of women spanning a range of ages. Amanda at Pandagon is discussing how she feels about graying at 30, and citing some experiences of others, with a long and fruitful comment thread.

Amanda’s post spins off of this article by Anne Kreamer, who has written a book about women who go gray. Just the article title, “Women Who Go Gray and Stay Sexy” tips the reader off about what’s going on here.

… having gray hair when you’re merely middle-aged instead of elderly says that you’re a hippie and willing to question cultural norms. Being a bit rebellious helps you in the sexual marketplace for sure – most people like the idea of sleeping with a free-spirited sort – but what about in a work environment? Not dyeing can be as alarming as having visible tattoos. On the other hand, having gray hair does convey a certain authority, which could offset the fears that the gray-haired woman is a dangerous rebel. I would probably trust a woman with gray hair more than not to be competent at her job, figuring she’s been around long enough to have made herself an expert, but I’ve long learned to understand that my gut instincts are not necessarily shared with others.

The struggle here can be recast as “how can I go gray without losing anything?” The ideal is to 1) not dye your graying hair; 2) not lose your sex appeal; and 3) not lose your working power.

The anonymous blogger at Going Gray says about herself:

This blog is dedicated to all the powerful women who have made the choice to honor their authenticity, joyfully embrace the aging process and simply go gray. This blog is also written for women, like me, who will some day be confronted with a similar choice. Perhaps this blog will make the decision to go gray a little easier.

We applaud her sentiments, and appreciate her activism! The articles on her blog are generally about successful gray-haired women: the governor of Kansas, for one; a 65-year-old woman who dyed her hair on and off, observed the trade-offs, and then let it go gray and stay gray. The pictures are … a little idealized? Almost defensive?

Aging gets mentioned here and there, and yet somehow the reader comes away with the conclusion that going gray is somehow not about aging. It’s about bravery, it’s about self-expression, it’s about being genuine.

The two of us had to talk for a long time before we could figure out what was bothering us: 1) going gray is not something that happens in a vacuum, 2) aging is not something that happens suddenly toward the end of your life. At 19, you are aging. At 28, you are aging, and your first gray hairs might be showing. At 42, you are aging, and maybe there’s more gray in your hair than its original color, or maybe not. At 63, you are aging. And if you’re fortunate enough to be alive at 90, guess what? You’re still aging.

The worst thing about the cultural norm of dyeing out gray (as Amanda points out) is that we don’t see the range. We don’t know that some people are gray at 30 and others are not gray at 75. The worst thing about turning aging into something between an affliction and a sin is that we fight its visible manifestations everywhere, and we are encouraged not to talk about its actual course. Culturally, we have defined aging as “falling apart,” and gray hair as a sign of falling apart.

And the current celebration of going gray, wonderful as it is, runs the risk of separating going gray from aging, because of the underlying belief that aging is bad, even when gray is beautiful.

aging body image going gray gray hair feminism women, Body Impolitic

21 thoughts on “Going Gray: It’s Not Just for Old Folks Any More

  1. My husband and I are going to be 24 this summer; we’ve got got grey hair. It’s obviously because yes, we’re getting older. He refuses to do anything about it, saying he wants to be distinguished looking but I’m not sure what I’ll do a little further down the road. A woman’s looks are so tied to her worth in this world.

  2. I started getting gray hair at the age of 17, and by age 27, I had what looked to me like a gray hairnet perched on top of my dark brown hair. The gray hair had a different texture, so it alarmed me. One grandfather had gone totally gray by age 30, so it was not unheard of in our family, but people remarked on it and I hated it, so I began a 29-year interlude of dyeing my hair. I never got very good at it, and once I had a Goth kid come up to me on the bus to ask how I got that layering of Auburn, Rosewood, and Nutmeg. Not on purpose, that’s for sure.

    For years I never even toyed with the idea of letting the gray that showed up on the roots of my hair take over because I still had a kind of dismay about it. Libraries must be Ground Zero for Silver Foxes, and I remember seeing saw large masses of gray-haired women at a librarians convention. It made me uneasy and I couldn’t say why. It embarrassed me to feel what must be ageism, so I never mentioned it.

    Well, I did complain to a hairdresser that everyone says gray haired men are distinguished, but not gray haired women. He suggested, if I decided to let it go gray maybe I should go around and tell everyone it was distinguished. I decided to get another hairdresser instead.

    Finally a few years ago, it became increasingly clear that I was doing a worse and worse job of coloring my hair—invariably missing whole sections in back. I couldn’t afford to have it professionally colored. I felt quite rebellious–and a little curious when I let my hair grow out. For one thing I had no idea what color it was under the dye.

    It turned out to be 40% salt and 60% pepper–stripes of iron gray in back and more white in the front. When it grew out to the point where I could cut off the last dyed segments, I made a couple of surprising discoveries.

    The gray hairs do have a coarser texture. But now that there are so many of them, they stand up and wave in an unexpectedly spunky way that my brown hair never did. Also, from the reaction of the outside world, the gray hair increased my already strong FWIQ (Fat Woman Invisibility Quotient).

    Now that I was walking in their shoes, I got what had bothered me all along about those gray-haired women. There’s no one attitude. Some must use hairdressers or style their hair carefully, while others just chop it off short or tie it up in a bun. But once I saw other people being distressed over my having “gone gray” the parallel with fear of fat hit me.

    The social anxiety meshed exactly with the distress I’ve seen in the faces of people I run into who knew me when I was younger and a smaller size of large. One man I hadn’t seen in 20 years and 100 pounds said, “You used to be such a pretty little thing.” The unspoken thought was “Now you’re much bigger and not so pretty.” Or to push it a little further, “I liked you better younger and smaller. What went wrong?”

    An unrepentant gray-haired woman, like a fat woman who has “given up” is trying to lose weight, is seen as refusing to try harder and do whatever it takes to be accepted by the Pretty Police. When i confronted a Gray Wave of Librarians, It had made me anxious to see women who had opted out of trying to please others by attempting to look younger. Just like a fat-fearing dieter, my anxiety was rooted in how hard I was trying to keep my own gray roots from taking over. There is some real danger in looking older if you want something from the establishment. I have a 50-year-old friend who was job hunting and for the first time in her life running up against age discrimination. She makes a point of keeping her hair gleaming blond and she also added Weight Watchers and a gym workout to her routine. (Ironically the upshot of her search was that she was hired by people she’d worked with a decade earlier at a job she had coveted for that long!)

    Now that I have embraced my gray hair, I kind of like it for what it is. It’s lighter colored, which to my mind makes my brown eyes more dramatic. Also I enjoy how it stands up on its own. I think it may be thinning a bit (waaaaay scary!) but it has major waves that my brown, dye-laden hair never had. When I look in the mirror, the stand-up hair reminds me to be more assertive (doubly necessary because of the increased invisibility factor).

  3. Speaking as a blonde, going gray doesn’t really thrill me: instead of going from dark to “steel gray” and “salt-and-pepper” and “silver,” women in my family tend to evolve from “flaxen” and “golden” to “dishwater.” Graying isn’t as noticeable in blondes, but the intermediate stages tend to be quite a bit ickier.

    (On the bright, the lighter shade may mean that I won’t have to bleach my hair everytime I want to have bright pink-and-blue hair…)

  4. That word “authenticity” never fails to make me bristle. I dye my hair. Am I unauthentic?

    I was an extremely blonde child and, as with most women, my hair got darker as I got older. I had highlights added for the first time for our wedding ceremony. Because my mental image of myself is blonde, I really really like the way that looked and have kept it up ever since. I like to think it goes nicely with my extremely fair skin and pale blue eyes.

    The natural color currently is somewhere between blonde and brown; it can’t really be labeled one or the other. I have no idea if there’s grey in it, because who can tell. I have looked closely at my hairs and, individually, they range from dark brown to what looks to be white. And I don’t care really. I add highlights to my hair because it makes the outside me match the inside me.


  5. I have the same experience as Jackie.

    I’ve been coloring my hair since I was a teenager – it’s been blond, red, blond again, and now brown. I don’t think of myself as covering the gray so much as changing the entire color. I’m not going back to my youthful color but going in a different direction.

    Nevertheless, as long as I’m working I’ll probably keep my gray hairs hidden.

  6. The effect of gray hair can vary a lot, depending on things like how even the color change is, what color your hair was to begin with, the texture and thickness of your hair, and how dark your skin is. The pictures on “Going Gray” are all of women with relatively thick hair. My mom has always said that she wouldn’t have minded going gray as a young woman if her hair were not also quite thin.

    I like to be supportive of women who let themselves go gray naturally, but it’s easy for me to take this stance, since I appear to have inherited the non-graying genes from my dad’s side of the family.

  7. I am 33, and am getting some nice grey hairs popping in. I have been using henna on my hair pretty much since I was a teen. Once my son was born and I let my hair come in (and cut all of it off), it came back in mousy brown with no highlights. (I had always been reddish brown.) Now that I am pregnant again, I want to quit messing with my hair AND let the grey come in. When I told my hairdresser what I wanted to do, she laughed in my face and said, “Grey hair would make me look 20 years older. It ages everyone. Why would you want to do that?”

    Well, because A. I adore grey hair, and B. with a new baby, I don’t have time to henna every 6 weeks. I am constantly amazed at our collective fear of aging or looking our age, even. I hope that I continue to feel so comfortable with the stages of my life, and the changes that accompany them. I understand that some people don’t want to have grey hair, and that is an individual choice. My choice is to let it do what it wants to.

  8. Well, I’m 54 and I have a few gray hairs, but not a whole lot (waaaay less than my mother did at this age). Her mother was in her 80’s when she died, and her hair was mostly brown with some gray in it. My mother colors her hair to this day (and she’s 73). I colored my hair when I was younger because I didn’t like the mousy brown it was in the winter or the light auburn it was in the summer (I liked dark auburn so that’s what I colored it). Now, I don’t care. I figure I’ve earned every one of those gray hairs and I’m not going to stress over it. Age is just a number, and as long as you feel young on the inside, who cares how old the outside looks (and my grandkids think I’m a cool granny because I listen to heavy metal and let them crank it in the van when we go places together……..lol).

  9. I’m 46 and have been pretty much totally grey for years. I colored it for a while but I like my grey and I’mm too busy to spend the time and money to maintain colored hair. I’m a professional artist and maybe doing something that unconventional for a living gives me something of a pass on it. I’m also a soccer player and after a recent game a young woman came up to me and started telling me about how her business offered personal training for “older women”. Then I was offended – to my mind “older” didn’t mean me and I assumed my grey is what cued her to approach me rather than my other teammates who are older than I but color their hair. It’s interesting to think about objecting to being called “older” – although I do think that “older” in that context should mean what – 60s or 70s probably.

  10. Leslie, I have to reply with a memory from when I was 24 and asked to describe someone. I said, “He’s an older man, he must be at least 36.” Two women nearby laughed and one said. “My husband is 36!”

    There’s also a lovely passage the French author Colette wrote from the point of view of a young woman describing her older lover–she is half-horrified by how she desires him despite his ageing skin and waning libido, at the end he’s revealed to be 35!

    Lynne – 59 with an inner 19-year-old lurking

  11. I’m sixty two, and my hair is mostly grey, and very short — #3 clipper blade short, except 9in the front. I like grey hair. However, I don’t judge other women who don’t. Go ahead, make all the pretty colors you want. It’s your hair, your body, and you only have yourself and those whose opinion matters to you to please. Especially as I get older, I don’t wish to be a food purist, hair purist, size purist, exercise purist — etc. Not my business.

  12. I’m in agreement with just about everything above, especially Lynne on the “pretty police” and Lizzy’s point about not judging.

    I dropped in mostly to respond to Mary Kay. I support everyone’s right to dye her/his hair any color they choose, whether or not found in nature. The word “authentic” isn’t one Laurie and I used. The Going Gray site does use it. I have to say I never thought about it much in this context–and now that I am thinking about it, it’s not that I think there’s anything “inauthentic” about dyed hair. At the same time, I do think that “authenticity” is a reasonable way to describe letting other people see what getting older or changing your body looks like.

    Do I think that not shaving my (wispy but substantial) chin hair, which has increased a lot since menopause, makes me authentic? Not really, but I do think it opens up a range of conversations and reactions that I couldn’t have if I shaved it, and those tend to be very frank and culturally uncommon and discomfiting conversations.

  13. Deb — yes, I know it was in the quote, not what you all said. I felt I had to say something though. In our culture authentic is a loaded word. Authentic is good and right and to be preferred. If the woman who wrote it wants to embrace her natural hair color, that’s fine by me, but I don’t like her implied negative judgment of those who make different choices.


  14. I just want to invite everyone (whether you choose to go gray or not) to a new website, http://www.goinggraylookinggreat.com. Not only does it have lots of tips for being the best gray you can be, women chatting at the “Café Gray” are talking about exactly the same things you’re all talking about here! No matter how confident we all think we are, this is another journey, like so many in life. We don’t know how we’ll feel, how we’ll look, at the end of it — and that can be a bit daunting. But, armed with enough information, it’s not so scary, after all! If you’re being true to you, no matter what color your hair is, you’re already on the right road! DLJ

  15. i am 44 and have gone completely gray but colored my hair for years,,,, i am fasinated with the 2 inch roots that have grown out, i keep thinking what a pretty color! but then i dont want to look older either, then i seen jamie lee curtis on tv doing the activia comercials, she looks so good with gray hair!!! it doesnt make her look older and the cut is cute and spunkie!! so now i think i will give it a shot, now where did ii put those siccors?????

  16. I’m 73, and I’ve been having a hard time making a decision as to color or not.
    I’ve been blonde for 35 yrs.
    Any suggestions.

  17. I am 63 and a half and only have a gray spot on the top of my head.

    I color just the one spot as my hair is long so I will not even have the mixed gray look.

    If my hair were to go gray in the back and sides then I would leave it alone.


Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.