One of the few bright spots of the past year has been forcing myself to slow down and appreciate living in the moment while riding out long, drifting days with nowhere to go. Working from home full-time is a privilege that comes with many benefits, the more frivolous of which includes spending dramatically less time on appearances. While some of my friends have given up bras and makeup, I’ve ditched the hair dye. In facing all this change and confronting what’s important—and what’s not—self-isolation has finally allowed me to sort through my unsettling feelings about aging and the relationship I have with my hair. It’s been an opportunity to contend with the discomfort of going grey in the privacy of my home and away from the judgment of others. This is a diary of what I learned about myself along the way.
It’s been six weeks since my last hair appointment, and the first time in 16 years that I’ve had the mental space to deeply consider why I get it coloured in the first place. I’m 42 and have been dutifully dyeing a spreading streak of white to its original dark brown roughly every six weeks since I was 26. Doing the math, that works out to 151 dye jobs, 226 hours sitting in a chair and $16,380 dollars spent on colouring. And, despite all that time and money spent at the salon, gleaming white roots seemed to sweat out of my temples within a week of dyeing them, taunting me every time I looked in the mirror. In the past, missing a root touch-up appointment would have set me off into a mild panic, resulting in my running out to the store to buy a box of at-home hair dye, handing my husband, Dmitri, a pair of black plastic gloves and a squeeze bottle and asking him to get the spots in the back. So it almost felt like a joke when he texted me an article about the world entering the hair-colour hoarding phase of the End of Days, after the stockpiling of toilet paper, cleaning products and yeast. Next to basic hygiene and baking bread, greeting the apocalypse with good hair is our greatest priority.
Ugh. I’m about one inch into my grey growth. I’m avoiding the mirror and burning out from home-schooling my two kids. Seeing myself with white roots makes me feel old, or at least older. When I was colouring, people often told me I looked young for my age, which I found flattering, but am now realizing may be problematic. I’m grateful for the ways I’ve grown as a person since my 20s and 30s, so why is it so terrifying to reflect that on the outside, too?
Martha Truslow Smith has some thoughts on the matter. She’s the 29-year-old artist from Charlotte, N.C., behind the Instagram account Grombre (a play on grey and ombré), a community of 220,000 followers that celebrates photos and stories of women who have decided to grow out their greys. “Going grey is scary on all fronts. It’s scary because it’s different. It’s scary because women are told that we shouldn’t change, that after 20, we are just a shadow of what we once were,” she tells me.
Truslow Smith was just 14 when she found her first grey hair. She didn’t know how to handle it. “So I hid it,” she says. “It made me feel ashamed.” (When she was 24, she finally started embracing her grey hair—and started Grombre.)
I can relate. I hated being self-conscious every time my white roots reappeared, and I tried to hide them with root touch-up sprays that stained my pillowcases. I’d been floating the idea of rocking my white stripe for years. “What do you think of the Stacy London look?” I asked one of my colourists pre-pandemic, referencing the iconic co-host of What Not to Wear. Her answer was not what I wanted to hear: “Stacy London has a streak of silver. Yours is white. Think Cruella de Vil.”
“There’s a reason why 40, 50 and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye,” Nora Ephron wrote in her 2006 memoir, I Feel Bad About My Neck.
In the early 1950s, only seven percent of American women coloured their hair. By the ’70s, that number climbed to more than 40 percent, and, in Canada today, it’s estimated that around 60 percent of us colour our hair. But throughout history, even before the advent of at-home hair colour, the status of hair, for women in particular, is an instant visual cue for value judgment.
Even the people who love you most aren’t immune. I had a socially distanced porch visit with my parents today, and while my mom knew what to expect because I had talked to her about growing out my grey, my dad was caught off guard. He was stunned when I took off my toque in the sun: “My love, why would you want to do that to yourself? You’re so young!” Hair is a sensitive topic for my dad. He dyed his own prematurely greying hair in his teens and wore a wig for decades as an adult. When he decided to embrace his baldness in his 50s, we all praised him for it. I reminded him of this. He realized his mistake within seconds and apologized. But it still hurt. If I couldn’t count on my father to accept me for who I was, why would anyone else?
Hair is a thing for the rest of my family, too. My mom, aunts and grandmothers all dyed theirs dark brown like mine, or used a messy henna paste to give it a reddish tint. Growing up, I only saw widows or great-grannies with grey hair. In a Jewish context, in which I was born and raised, the beauty and splendour of a woman’s hair is seen as a divine gift, and, after marriage, Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair in public for modesty and propriety. A more romanticized explanation is that these women do so to conceal and channel that powerful attractiveness for their husbands’ eyes only. Even though my family wasn’t religious, the message still resonated that hair is a valuable asset and expression of femininity. As a little girl, my hair—especially my long, thick braids—was the attribute for which I was complimented more than any other.
Why is letting go of that youthful image so difficult? I reach out to Caterina Gentili, a PhD candidate and research associate at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England in Bristol, who studies body image—and notes that people from all genders battle with it. She brings up the oft-cited feminist objectification theory, an idea put forth by academics Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts more than 20 years ago that is, sadly, just as relevant as ever. In a nutshell, it suggests Western society views girls and women as objects, or bodies, that exist for the use and pleasure of others. In other words, how we’re perceived by other people has a lot to do with how we look.
“Being objectified means that the easiest way to get positive feedback is to look a certain way. The [number] of social situations where a woman feels gazed at is extremely high, so appearance is conveniently going to be at the forefront of how she presents herself and is going to partially undermine her value,” Gentili tells me. Not only is this unfair to start with, but it also carries mental health risks that disproportionately affect women, including depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and eating disorders.
Everything feels as though it’s spinning out of control, beyond my four walls and within them. While my daughters are clingier than ever, in moments of weakness I question whether my husband still sees me the same way, now that my grey strands are on full display. He’s been wonderful about it, but I’ve caught him staring at my hairline—which he denies. And it makes me wonder if I’m making a mistake. I did, after all, marry a man three years younger than me, who still gets carded regularly. Do I owe it to him to at least try to maintain my youth? “Am I still f-ckable with grey hair?” I ask him out of nowhere while loading the dishwasher, flipping my part to show off the white stripe, which is now coming in strong. I give him the full-on Larry David detective-style stare down as I wait for his answer. “Yes,” he replies, after a few seconds of hesitation. “You still look like yourself.”
It’s not lost on me that, were the tables turned, he would never ask me the same question. We don’t see men as losing their sex appeal and self-respect when they go grey. “Ageism is much, much more damaging for females, because the female body is valued against the sexualization of a youthful body rather than a mature body,” says Gentili. “The way we perceive beauty in the female population is extremely narrow.”
Damn double standards.
I’m still not feeling myself with my greying hair, which only exacerbates how bad I feel about the whole package at the moment, including a few extra pounds. Like everyone else, I’ve been basking in the sheer comfort of carbs.
After losing my once-stable income from a contributing editor gig at the start of the pandemic, I’ve been applying for jobs that I’m not even sure I want. Today I had an interview on Zoom. I put on a simple black dress and a bit of makeup, raised my laptop to a more flattering angle to make my chin look more slender and even tilted the camera to cut off the top of my greying hairline. And, to be brutally honest, in that moment, I felt better about my appearance. I’m not ready to embrace going grey in public just yet. Job interviews are the epitome of making snap value judgments based on looks. My father, who owns a suit store, always repeats the motto that you have to dress for success, but the thing about grey hair is that no matter what you wear, it’s probably going to be the first thing people notice about you.
With the chaos of September around the corner, deciding whether or not to send the kids back to school is overwhelming. I keep telling myself to focus on the moment, which is something that this process has forced me to reckon with: accepting myself in the present and not trying to turn back the clock.
The idea of choosing to go grey has even extended to women who wear wigs. Candace Hamilton specializes in fitting wigs for women dealing with alopecia, chemotherapy and hair thinning at Continental Hair salon in Sarnia, Ont. She tells me that 20 percent of her clients are now asking for some form of silver or grey, as opposed to fewer than five percent three years ago. Hamilton herself has worn a wig since being diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. She, too, is embracing the grey trend: She went from a full redhead wig to introducing a few silver “spotlights.” “I’m 60 and I’m ready. I love my age and I want to celebrate it,” she says. Hamilton has a full silver wig, too, and plans to start wearing it in a couple years when she retires.
My friend Lara, an editor at the Globe and Mail, wrote a poignant personal essay about grieving everything we’ve lost during the pandemic, and it explained so much of the low-level anxiety and sadness I’ve been feeling over these last few months. “Slowly and without really recognizing it, we’ve been saying goodbye to life as it once was to make space for the scary and unknowable new normal,” she wrote. It may seem dramatic, but grief also sums up how I feel when I see pictures of my pre-pandemic self with solid dark-brown hair.
Lara scolded me recently for getting ashy-coloured highlights to “soften” the transition from dark brown to white. Many people do this to fast-forward the growing-out process, which involves spending more money (and using more chemicals) to add highlights to the rest of your hair to try to match the grey.
“You are obligated now to tell people who are inspired by your hair that it is not as easy as it looks. Being gorgeous is work.” She’s right. Even going grey isn’t hassle-free, especially not during the awkward growing-out phase. In my case, I had my colourist bleach the daylights out of the bottom half of my front stripe so it would look somewhat more intentional. He tried to lighten my dyed dark-brown hair to as close to white as possible to match my roots. It took three bleaches over a three-hour appointment, which turned my strong and silky strands into something resembling cotton candy. And while the colour came out more platinum blond than the white I was hoping for, I still thought it was an improvement. Going grey is painfully slow, emotionally uncomfortable and one of the riskiest things I’ve ever done.
So maybe I’m stuck in the habit of perpetual maintenance, or I’m still hoping to find a magical style that would make my grey hair look younger. I’ve made an appointment with yet another colourist to fix the last dye job; he specializes in pearly greys and many of his clients are—believe it or not—millennials who want to fake it. He lightens the yellowish tones in my front streak and then colours the whole stripe
a foxy silver. He calls it my “money piece”—a face-framing highlight made popular by Beyoncé. And then we both agree that I should stop messing with my hair.
At the end of the day, I can look at this grey-hair challenge as an endeavour to look just as youthful and attractive no matter what colour my mane is. Or I can look at it as an experience to look inward. To see my white blaze as part of my authentic and rebellious self. Feeling beautiful is so much about attitude and confidence that isn’t necessarily captured in one glance. My beautiful friend Wency, also in her early 40s (but who, annoyingly, has very little grey to show for it), put it this way: “I wonder if a healthy way of thinking about aging and greying is to not see it as taking something away. It’s not about becoming invisible. Instead, it’s about making room for the rest of yourself to shine through.”
In some ways, focusing less on my appearance during the past 10 months has given me more confidence. Other times, I still seek validation from others—which is unfortunate, but I feel I need it. I’ve turned to Silver Sisters, a private Facebook group of nearly 15,000 members, that supports women of all ages giving up the dye. They’ve helped me reject the misconception that letting your hair go grey is letting yourself go. A popular comeback in the going-grey community is that you’re actually just letting yourself be. When I posted pictures of my progress, at six months and now, almost a year in, I was flooded with positive comments about my white stripe, encouraging me to not give up on it.
“That’s the thing that’s so beautiful and painful about the process of going grey. It takes forever. We live in a world where we just want instant gratification. That is not this,” says Truslow Smith. “And it absolutely tests you.”
It’s certainly tested me. Truslow Smith warned me that going grey would dovetail into other areas of my life—and it has. Much like the pandemic, it’s inspired me not only to give more compassion to others but also to treat myself with kindness. Colouring my hair didn’t make me happy. I spent hours upon hours doing something I hated because I was afraid to be judged. It’s liberating to be free of that and to start seeing myself beyond my appearance—even if I’m still figuring it out.