Aging: Gray Hair Is Still Out, but Sex Is In

Debbie says:

Karen Kay at the Observer has a fine long article on gray hair in women.

Judi_Dench_at_the_BAFTAs_2007Kay starts out discussing the way Hillary Clinton and other women in politics and public life are expected to spend inordinate time on their looks:

Let’s transport ourselves back to 2001 and Yale, one of the world’s pre-eminent universities. New York senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton has returned to her alma mater to deliver words of wisdom to graduating law students. She takes to the podium and begins: “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. Your hair will send significant messages to those around you: what hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”

When we speak in public, Laurie and I often mention the multi-billion-dollar diet industry (which is now somewhere in the high $60 billion range), but hair is an even bigger business, forecast to be $83.1 billion in 2016.  I don’t even know how to think about these numbers, except to imagine them spent on oh, education, agriculture, facing climate change, controlling police violence. Those issues pale before the terror that women might actually show signs of aging …

Only last week the Duchess of Cambridge, a mother to two infant children, whose husband has just started a stressful new job, was publicly rebuked by celebrity crimper Nicky Clarke for allowing a few grey hairs to appear in her hitherto lustrous brunette mane. “Kate is such a style icon that even a few strands of grey would be a disaster,” he commented, rather ungallantly. …

Professor Nichola Rumsey, co-director of the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, says society places enormous pressure on women to conform to youthful ideals. “I’m in my late 50s and feel tremendous pressure to cover the grey,” she admits. “You need to have huge self-confidence to stand up to that and deflect it and know that you are still good at your job and will be loved by your family if you don’t fit a certain youthful stereotype.”

This fits my own experience; going gray definitely changed how people react to me (though because I have always been a fat woman, it didn’t take away my experience of being a sex symbol). I also have very clear memories of a friend being upset a couple of decades ago when her therapist dyed the gray out of her hair, explaining “It’s the only way I can get men to take me seriously as a possible romantic partner.”


On the romantic partner front, however, Marie Lodi at Jezebel has good news, though I can’t say it surprises me …

A new study, published in the latest issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, shows that nearly six in 10 women over the age of 60 and in committed relationships are actively boning down. “People assume as women get older, they automatically become sexually inactive and sex is not as important to them, which isn’t necessarily the case,” Dr. Holly Thomas, author of the study, told Health Day.

More than 2,100 U.S. women between the ages of 28 to 84 were asked a series of questions pertaining to physical and mental health, medical problems, use of medication, relationship factors, sexual activity and sexual satisfaction. A majority of the women surveyed were in their 50s and 60s. The results showed that women in their 60s and 70s experienced sexual satisfaction comparable to women in their 30s and 40s.

Lodi doesn’t say anything (and neither did the study designers) about whether or not these women have gray hair. Clearly, we need a follow-up, including:

  • Do gray-haired women have better or worse sex lives than women who dye their hair? How about women whose hair naturally isn’t gray? (I’ll provide another piece of anecdotal experience; my sexual pleasure seems to be completely unchanged despite my gray hair.)
  • Do women who dye their head hair dye their pubic hair? Does that choice affect their sex lives?
  • Finally, gray head hair changes texture and quality (because it is caused by the death of the cells that color your hair naturally). Mine has gotten curlier and springier; many people’s hair gets coarser. Are these changes reflected in pubic hair?

Inquiring minds want to know.

6 thoughts on “Aging: Gray Hair Is Still Out, but Sex Is In

  1. I think that you have an apples-to-oranges comparison in this article: it looks as though the US diet industry will be in the $65-70 billion range this year, which would be for ~300 million people, while the article you link to cites $83 billion as the global hair care market, for ~7.2 billion people.

    The author doesn’t give a breakdown for how the $83 billion is spent, and that would be interesting to have, as well as information about the percentage of women over [some age] who color their hair, broken down by country, income, etc. I’d also be interested in hair care costs by ethnicity.

    1. That looks right. I’ll try to fix the post later today; thanks for the catch! And I agree that a breakdown of those costs would be interesting (and I bet it exists somewhere).

  2. Yes, I think that $83 billion isn’t necessarily bad: some significant percentage that will be spending on basic hair grooming – shampoo, haircuts – that are largey neutral. (There is the issue about haircuts that you can spend anything from $10 to $1000+ on a haircut, and how much you spend depends on your profession, social class, bank account, generation, etc. I have no idea what female film stars spend on their hair. But there’s variation among people of similar standing, as well. My mother spends a lot less on her haircuts than I do.)

    I wonder whether the author knows what percentage of the total is spent on hair color, and of that, what is for fun (turquoise hair) versus avoiding discrimination by covering gray hair.

  3. The last time I had my hair professionally dyed I remember telling the hairdresser, “It seems like men can have gray hair and be called ‘distinguished’ but not women.” His response, “Maybe you could tell them you’re distinguished.” Kind of a snarky response (I didn’t go back there–or anywhere. I also stopped coloring my hair at home when it became both too expensive and physically impossible). But the hairdresser had a point: gray haired women, like fat women are considered to be broadcasting that the woman involved isn’t Making An Effort to Conform. Which in my case would be 100% accurate. I’ve got other places to use my increasingly limited energy.

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