Hairs to Ya
An essay on living, (not) dyeing, in the gray areas of life
By Maria Johnson
It’s been a year since I stopped coloring my hair.
Almost all of the chestnut dye has grown out.
The last time I sat in my stylist’s chair, she combed up a long swath to trim — wet hair clamped between her fingers, scissors snipping at an angle — and I could see the line of demarcation, the zone where faded brown gave way to translucent strands.
“Only a couple of inches to go,” I said.
“You’re almost there!” she said enthusiastically.
Last year, when I first pitched the idea of growing out my gray, she smiled and crinkled her nose: hairdresser-ese for “oh-hell-no.”
I made my case, using a variation of what I tell myself whenever one of my sons wears his hair in way I don’t like: It’s only hair. Eventually it’ll grow out — or be cut. Maybe. At the very worst, if I didn’t like the gray, I could start coloring it again.
I was ready to walk on the wild side. Woo-hoo.
What tipped the scale?
First, my boss’s wife — who’s also in her late 50s. I hadn’t seen her in a while. She’s a radiant woman, and she looked even more so when I saw her around the holidays.
“You look different,” I said.
“I’m letting my hair go gray,” she said.
Honest to God, she looked younger because of it. Her pretty brown eyes took center stage.
Then there was my brother, who for a while experimented with “touching up,” as they say when men color their hair.
I launched into a treatise: The only men who color their hair are car salesmen and news anchors, and you’re neither, so stop it.
Why is it OK for women and not men? he pressed.
Because, I said, most women color their hair as they age, so it looks normal. Most men, on the other hand, don’t color their hair, so it jumps out when they do.
It’s stone-cold sexism, I continued, but take advantage of the fact that no one expects you to color your hair.
He listened and reverted to his handsome salt-and-pepper self.
I listened, too. To myself.
If I really believed hair-coloring was a sexist expectation for women, why had I been meeting it for 20 years?
Was it to look younger?
Or did I — Ms. Independent-Won’t-Be-Herded-Like-a-Sheep — do it because I feared standing out?
I looked in the mirror.
It was time to find out how old I really looked. And I won’t lie. It was tough, especially for the first few months, a.k.a. The Skunk Period, the time when you have a white stripe running down the center of an otherwise dark head.
During conversations, other women didn’t look me in the eye. They looked me in the hair. I knew what they were thinking: “Doesn’t she realize how bad her roots look? Should I tell her?”
Of course, they never did.
One white-headed woman had the courage to bring it up the first time we met.
“Letting your color go, huh?”
“You’ll never get whistled at again,” she said flatly.
Wow. Well. OK.
I thought about it for a minute. Really, for years, the only time anyone had whistled in my direction was when I was standing between them and their dog at the dog park.
As the Skunk Period ended, another period began. Just when I thought I was done with periods.
This was the Hurry-Up-And-Dye-Already phase, when it’s clear that you’re doing this on purpose.
This is when your female friends finally will speak up, usually aided by chardonnay.
“Why are you doing this?” they’ll ask gravely.
“Because I want to see what it looks like. Plus, I’m tired of paying to get it colored every three weeks.”
“You’ll look older.”
“Maybe I am older.”
Sometimes, at this point, a look of horror will cross their faces because . . . they’re the same age as you are.
The grayer my hair grew, the more it grew on me. And others. My stylist reported that my silver strands looked good with my coloring — better than she thought they would. Anyway, she offered, going gray is a thing now.
To wit: models of a certain age, and younger women whose idea of “going gray” involves violet tinges to their processed tresses.
Both of my sons claimed to like the lighter version of me. So did my husband, who has a very “distinguished” head himself. My graying male friends joked that they must’ve inspired me.
They did. By being themselves.
Mind you, I’m not without vanity. I hit the gym and the eye make-up a little harder now, and I use snazzy earrings and colorful reading glasses to show I’m down — or as down as woman in 2.5 readers can be.
Occasionally, a woman my age will sidle up and say she wants to stop coloring her hair, too. Inevitably, she’ll say, “But my gray isn’t a pretty gray.”
I feel ya on the fear, sister.
But who defines pretty?
And what is your true color?
You’ll never know until you let it grow. OH
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Her email is email@example.com.