There is one thing that we all have in common. At some point, we will have at least one gray hair. Whether in high school or in old age, this fact of life is one that many women struggle with.
For most, it’ll happen in your thirties, and that rogue gray hair could usher in fears and insecurities about what it means to age as a woman in today’s society.
“What will my family think?”
“What will my co-workers say?”
“Will my significant other still think I’m attractive?”
The good news: More than 25% of our planet has gray hair and 100% of us will experience this in our lifetime.
The bad news: There’s a whole beauty aisle dedicated to making you think you need to cover your gray and hide all signs of aging.
So what’s it like to put society’s standards aside and embrace the gray? I spoke with women from different walks of life about their perception of gray hair; the hesitation they felt not complying with today’s beauty standards and what life is like on the other side of going gray.
For Tennille Murphy, author of the lifestyle blog The Tennille Life and private flight attendant, her grandmother set an example. “I always thought [my grandmother] was beautiful with her rich cocoa skin and fluffy white hair. She laughed easily… I never thought she looked old.”
For Ronnie Citron-Fink, Editorial Director for Moms Clean Air Force, dyeing was the norm. Her mother colored her hair into her eighties.
Paula Doherty, an HR Benefits Specialist from Boston shared an anecdote from her mother’s 40th birthday. “I remember observing her hair and seeing not much gray at all, thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to be in great shape.’” Each woman I spoke with had vivid memories of seeing the women in their family deal with gray hair, one way or another―but that wasn’t the only thing that shaped their perception of going gray.
Between commercials, magazines, and movies, we are flooded with messages telling women how to look. Women have always been told to ‘beautify’ themselves in order to keep their sex appeal, their vivacity, their job. “We are constantly told that we should defy aging, as if that’s even possible,” says Murphy. Women are fed the lie that if they allow themselves to be natural, they will lose everything. A lie passed down through the years, one that Citron-Fink hoped would end with her generation, “I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women’s and the environmental movement simmering to boiling points. To my generation, the personal was political, and we wanted to be counted for more than our looks.”
Despite recent progress, perceptions of men and women still vary greatly in society. In today’s society, a woman’s sex appeal is tied to her value in social and professional environments, and going gray appears to be a direct contradiction to that. For many women, going gray is synonymous with becoming unattractive and unwanted. “Gray-haired women are perceived as grandmas, while men [are considered] distinguished,” says Donna Freeman, spiritual healer and grandmother-to-be. The double standard is glaring. “Gray-haired men are perceived more as senior management,” Doherty adds, believing that gray-haired women are undervalued in the workplace. Doherty admits that she feels “trapped as long as [she works] in a professional environment.”
Freeman, on the other hand, has had gray hair since childhood and loves it despite the criticism she’s received. “I believe my unique hair is a sign of the age of my soul,” she says. Her family constantly told her to cover the gray, which she disliked because of the chemical burns. Ironically, this negativity triggered an eventual positive embrace for Freeman. “My community looks up to me for the fact that I keep it real with my natural hair. I would feel like a fraud now by processing my hair,” she says. Rather than shame, Freeman now feels support.
Murphy, too, covered up for a time when her gray appeared at twenty-three. “In the beginning, I was super self-conscious to the extent that if anyone even took notice of the gray hair, I felt mortified.” She tried dying her hair for a while, but it just wouldn’t take. Worried about the damage to her curls and remembering “the dingy, dirty, and yellow” results, Murphy quit cold turkey, but it wasn’t easy. When personal circumstances jolted Murphy into recognizing that she needed to care more for herself, embracing her hair became easier. She was relieved to receive support from her company for her white locks and she now uses social media to encourage others on their journey. “As I’ve grown in age, something magical clicked in me and I feel more confident overall.”
For Citron-Fink, it was about product safety that really sealed the deal for her against hair dye. “It was unnerving to learn that most of my products were untested and unregulated,” she says. After 25 years of “labor-intensive and expensive” routines, Citron-Fink realized that the more knowledge she had, the more resolve she felt to quit the dye, but as we’ve seen, resolve doesn’t negate scrutiny. Citron-Fink received countless unsolicited comments from friends and strangers, but armed herself with a mantra—upkeep, cost, chemicals—to stand strong. “The health concerns settled any lingering thoughts about going back to coloring,” she says. Her book, True Roots, chronicles her silver transition and investigates the Beauty Industry’s culpability in promoting unregulated products.
To those who are considering taking the plunge, be patient with yourself and look for silver-haired communities who will encourage and support you. “Feel good, express yourself, and please stop trying to look good for others!” Freeman reminds us.
As these lovely ladies have made clear, no matter the color, lets embrace beauty in every stage of life.
Thinking of going gray? These Instagram accounts will give you inspiration!