When the stranger who had been eyeing me from across the coffee house approached, he was nervous. “Uh, I just want to say that, uh…well this is awkward,” he stammered. “I just want to tell you that I think it’s just great what you’re doing!” He fluttered his hands all around my head. “You know, all up here!”
“Your hair! Going gray!” he blurted. “So brave!”
It was a little like dying, that moment, as scenes from my life flashed before my eyes. The guys who back in the day might’ve crossed a coffeehouse to approach me for a somewhat nicer reason. The three other people—Three! Two of whom I didn’t know!—who had also recently commended my hair’s courage. (Seriously, who does that?) My talented longtime colorist Lisa, whom I guess I hadn’t actually seen in awhile.
Mind you, my sudden burst of authenticity was entirely unintentional, springing from nothing more principled than busyness at work and an evident lack of adequate lighting at home. But it got me wondering if going natural might not be a bad idea. The time I would save. The money! (I’m sure Lisa won’t mind working till she’s 90.) The chemicals I wouldn’t want my loved ones to go near—way worse, no doubt, than what I’d long since stopped putting into my body—but which I was apparently fine having smeared across the top of my brainpan.
I am one of the lucky ones whose natural color grows in to the faux color somewhat seamlessly—a function both of my colorist’s skill and the squirrel-pelt tone I was born with. Why not see what happened if I left it alone?
“Just wait,” hissed my sweet hairdresser, suddenly going all crack dealer. “You’ll be back.”
She may well be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that when I look around I see a decided graying of the zeitgeist. Whether or not I believe British celebrity hair dresser John Frieda when he frets that modern women are going gray younger than they ever have—he calls them GHOSTS: Gray Haired Over-Stressed Twenty Somethings—it’s undeniable that grown-out dye jobs are the biggest hair trend going. Oh, save your tweets—I know that ombres aren’t grown-out dye jobs, and that they’re not exactly meant for the gray-at-the-roots set. Still, they take two-tone hair and pronounce it fashionable. What better time for a woman to reclaim her actual color.
I googled gray hair and got a load of propaganda about the splendor of the silvery spectrum, along with radiant photos of graydies like Emmylou Harris and Jamie Lee Curtis. Gorgeous both. And if those flawless metallic hues are their own, then I’m a born blonde. (You can tell something’s trending by the degree to which it’s gone unnatural.) It’s textbook baby boomer—aging into gray hair, then acting like they invented it. But the upshot is clear: Gray, all 50 shades of it, is now practically a color.
This may be especially true in Seattle. Maria Semple, a television comedy writer who moved to Seattle and whose Where’d You Go, Bernadette saw Portlandia and raised it (about 180 miles), included this among the novel’s jabs at Seattle: “There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair. You go into a salon asking for color, and they flap their elbows and cluck, ‘Oh goody, we never get to do color!’ ”
So madly quoted was this line in Bernadette reviews, a writer from The Seattle Times felt compelled to fact-check it. And what do you know: Data from Experian Marketing Services revealed that out of the 31 largest U.S. markets, Seattle women rank 24th for professional hair coloring and 25th for use of do-it-yourself products.
Maybe this explains the jackasses—er, I mean brave strangers—who have flown across rooms to inform me that my hair is gray: Maybe in Seattle that’s a compliment. Most interesting to me is how, in the months since I’ve been graying, I’ve come to accept it as, at least, not an insult.
Because in my heart of hearts, I know it’s neither. That would make my graying hair a statement, and few things are more sexist than making whatever a woman does into a statement. It used to feel most like me to be blonde, it’s now
feeling more like me to be real—and thank you feminism for allowing me the choice.
I have plenty of friends—in media, in sales—who believe that for professional reasons they can’t allow themselves to go gray. I wish that they too felt they had a choice. Because here’s what else that aforementioned newspaper writer found: Seattle women, we bleach-free wretches, actually rank third among women from the 50 major metros in the measure of contentment with our own appearance.
That and a photo of Glenn Close ought to liberate anyone. Except I guess Lisa.