What To Do About The Gray?

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Chutima Chaochaiya / Shutterstock

I’ve had gray hairs sprouting up in my jet-black hair since I was in my early 20s. The first couple of times I saw one, I gingerly yanked it out (but let me tell you, it hurt like hell!). Then I kind of let it go. There were so few of them, and they popped up so infrequently, I decided to think of them as an early sign of what awaited me in the future—the distant future.

Now, as I exit my 30s, the grays come more frequently and have taken up permanent residence. I still look basically black-haired, but some have playfully remarked, “Oh, look at you—you’re graying!” Others, like my snarky 8-year-old, are more blunt: “Why is there a white hair sticking up on the top of your head?”

My grays are sometimes even visible in photographs, especially when the sun hits my hair in just the right way. And yesterday, while getting a haircut, the woman cutting my hair asked if it was OK to snip off a couple of the grays springing up on top (probably the same ones my 8-year-old noticed). “You don’t want them anyway,” she laughed.

When I came home and looked at my new haircut in the mirror, I noticed that a patch of gray right next to my cheekbones had been revealed, front and center for all the world to see. And it hit me that things were kind of accelerating here—I was graying faster than before—and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do about it.

On the one hand, I’ve always been a “go natural” kind of girl. In high school, I was hippyish. There was even a time when I didn’t shave my legs or armpits. I’m more conventional now, but I still don’t spend much time on my beauty routine. I get haircuts infrequently, and only when the split ends are obvious. The most makeup I wear is a bit of lipstick, and maybe some mascara, but only for special occasions.

I consider myself a pretty liberated woman when it comes to beauty. I don’t buy into stereotypes about how woman’s bodies or faces are supposed to look. I value beauty in all its varied forms, and I sort of cringe when women try to fit themselves into the tight boxes that society has created for them.

I’m also not the type of woman who freaks out about getting older. Growing older has meant growing wiser, thickening my skin, and becoming more and more myself each day. I have accepted many of the physical markers of aging: my squishy belly, laugh lines and creaky bones.

But my hair? My hair feels different than all that. My Snow White look—black hair against pale white skin—has defined me for, well, my whole life. For that to change feels strange and uncomfortable to me.

By the time my mother was my age, she was already coloring her hair religiously. I recently asked her when it started becoming mostly gray. She said that in her late 30s, the gray just started taking over—rather suddenly. On the other hand, my father didn’t get a full head of gray hairs until his 50s.

If I follow in my mother’s footsteps and become mostly gray in the next few years, I think the desire to color my hair will be strong. Although the years are ticking away, I still feel energetic and youthful—not to mention the fact that I’ve got a couple of kids to chase after. It probably doesn’t help that the majority of 40-year-old women around me don’t have full heads of gray hair (or they color it).

At the same time, the idealist, feminist part of me wants to stomp her feet and shake her fist about the idea of altering one’s appearance unnaturally to fit a societal norm. So I might want to at least experiment with being a youngish gray-haired woman for some time. Plus, there’s the question of what on earth I would use if I decided to color it. I’m wary of flooding my scalp with chemicals.

If I don’t go gray until my 50s, I might be fine with just leaving it alone. But then again, my 50s feel about as far away right now as my 40s did just a few years ago. And while I have a pretty good idea of who I am and what my life will hold in the next five years or so, much farther down the road than that feels amorphous and undefined to me.

I’m hoping I have some time to grow into my grays, and that by the time it happens, I will feel the part of a gray-haired woman. But I know life doesn’t unfold as you expect it to, and transitions can hit suddenly, without any preparation. I am open to the fact that I might feel a strong need to stay the black-haired girl I’ve always been.

Either way—whether it happens slowly or dramatically, in my 40s or 50s—I will still have to make a decision at some point whether to color my hair or not. As of now, I have no answers. In fact, when I think about it honestly, I feel nothing but conflict.

But that’s life, I guess. As much as I am the kind of person who likes to know how the future will look, I think I’m going to have to live in the gray on this one—with the option to cover it up if I see fit.

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