Hooray for Gray!
From salt-and-pepper to silver to snow white, more women—and men—are embracing their natural hair color.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Photo by Jim Lomasson
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Older women are showing their true colors.
Hair color, that is.
Think Helen Mirren on Oscar Night. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Could gray be the new blond?
More women in their fifties, sixties and older are letting their hair go gray, hair stylists say. These women leading the hair color parade aren’t afraid to start a new trend. The message this time: “I like myself the way I am, and here’s my way of showing it.”
Some women start thinking about letting their hair go gray in their forties, says Rebecca Erickson, a career stylist and owner of Ultimissimo, an upscale salon in Hudson, Wis. “They ask, ‘What would I look like in gray hair?’” she says.
According to Erickson, as their gray hairs become noticeable, about one in three of her clients shows curiosity about going natural. Women decide to go gray for many reasons. Some grow weary of the time and money―$40 to $150 a treatment, depending on the salon and the method used―required to have their hair colored professionally. Do-it-yourself products cost $10 or more. The process can be messy, and as hair grays it tends to becomes coarser, which often means more frequent coloring.
Sometimes cancer and chemotherapy become the impetus for some women to go gray, Erickson says. “When their hair starts growing back, some will just say, ‘I’m going with it,’ just because cancer is so life-changing.”
“Gray hair is different colors on everybody,” she says. “It can be prettier in some heads of hair.” Some turn the color of salt and pepper, while others turn silvery white. Those variations contribute to the decision, too. Some graying women decide to go gray after trying color and disliking the results. Others are “green-conscious,” deciding to go gray to avoid the chemicals in hair-coloring products.
Mary Kay Blakely was barely 30 when gray streaked her coal-black hair. “Dying it looked artificial,” she says, so she bid adieu to color forever. At age 59, snowy gray hair that falls past her shoulders continues to bring compliments―from both men and women. “For some reason, I get remarks on my hair all the time,” says Blakely, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who splits her time between that college town and New York City. “People are surprised that it looks attractive,” she says. “That’s why I never was never tempted to color it. I was afraid I’d lose my one conversation piece.”
One of those compliments came recently from Dr. Robert Butler, a New York City psychiatrist and gerontologist credited with coining the word “ageism” in the 1980s. Butler, age 80 and sporting a full head of white hair, says he doesn’t see a lot of women with gray hair in his Manhattan business and social circles.
“They may not have a choice if they want to earn a living,” says Butler, founder and president of the New York-based International Longevity Center, which studies and teaches about the ramifications of increasing longevity. “Given the age discrimination in our culture, they feel the pressure to keep looking young.”
Butler’s new book, The Longevity Revolution, due out in 2008, will include a chapter on the youth question. “Everybody is just hoping to turn to the scalpel and regain youth,” he says. “It’s getting to be pretty absurd. It would be very healthy for society to get over it and let people be who they are.”
He points to an example that makers of Dove beauty products are setting in their national advertisements featuring older women―photographed unclad, but tastefully so―to promote the company’s skin care line. Erickson, the Wisconsin hair stylist, says the ads make a powerful statement. “They say, ‘I can be comfortable looking like this.’”
She sees more women with gray hair in “artier communities,” such as Hawaii and Santa Fe. “I think the stigma might be swaying a little bit,” she says.
Still, gray hair hasn’t won out yet, even among women in their seventies and older. “If they aren’t coloring their hair, many of them want a rinse on it,” Erickson says. “Among women who were coloring their hair from early on, I think half of them still color it as they age.” In her salon clientele, says Erickson, “There’s still a much larger percent who say, ‘Forget it. I’ll color my hair till I’m buried.’”
It’s not just women who frequent hair salons for more than a regular haircut. Some men are coloring their gray hair, too. “Sometimes their wives want them to do it,” Erickson adds.
Mary Kay Blakely remains in a gray-haired minority among her friends, though they talk a lot about whether or not to go gray, she says. Is she making a statement with her gray hair? “Maybe more when I first went gray,” she says. “Now it’s just normal. It goes with the rest of me.”
But even the compliments that come her way often mirror a youth-obsessed culture, she admits. “People think they’re giving me a compliment when they say I act so young,” she says. But they’ve got the compliment wrong.
Her idea of what it should be: “You’re an older woman with pizazz!”
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