Fourteen years ago, I went on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica and came home with the ultimate souvenir: my future husband. Somewhere in our first weeks of dating, I got my hair color touched up to cover the gray, as I did every four to six weeks. Later that night, Nathan and I met up for a date, he leaned in for a kiss… and recoiled. “Whoooaaa,” he groaned, “why do you smell like chemicals?” I confessed that I colored my hair, and he said two little words that would create big changes in my life: “Please stop.”
Letting my hair go gray had never been part of my beauty party plan. My first grays started coming in when I was 23, but they didn’t bother me; I just covered them up with the hair color of the month. I’d started hitting the bottle when I was 15, trying out goth black, Julia Roberts auburn, punk rock purple, Madonna platinum blonde, and everything in between. During my corporate years, I settled down with more natural colors, though never my own. Coloring my hair had become a habit. Every woman I knew did it; who wanted gray hair?
“I use the word ‘silver’, because silver is valued in our society,” said the late Cindy Joseph, founder of BOOM Cosmetics and the first silver-haired supermodel. She wore her silver hair long, flowing, and proud. She looked gorgeous, but I never thought about doing that myself.
Not until I’d met the man I wanted to marry, and that man couldn’t stand to be near me every four to six weeks because I reeked of hair dye chemicals. Being a stand-up, do-right kind of guy, Nathan would’ve put up with the romance-killing stench if coloring my hair was important to me. But I was starting to wonder how important it was, and why I was doing it anymore in the first place.
In my teens and 20s, coloring my hair was fun. I thought of it as being like makeup—something that expressed my personality. Each different hair color made me a different person. The trouble was that I’d been doing this for so long, I now had no idea who I was going to be if I let myself just be. “I don’t know what’s under the hair dye,” I told Nathan. “I don’t know who’s under the dye.” He countered with an intriguing question: “Why don’t we find out?”
Yes, I thought. Let’s find out.
“I used to have this dream that someone on the street would stop me and say, ‘I know what to do about your hair!’” says Lorraine Massey, author of Curly Girl: The Handbook and founder of Curlyworld. “I just didn’t know that someone would be me.” Lorraine was born with wildly curly hair at a time when straight hair was the thing. After years of, as she calls it, “blow-frying” her hair, Lorraine let it go natural and became the leader of a curly hair revolution.
But while Lorraine embraced her curls, she wasn’t as friendly toward her silvering hair. “I was one of those blonde addicts,” she says. “Then a colorist at my salon gave me darker lowlights and I freaked out. I made him come in to fix it on a Sunday morning. That’s when I knew I had a problem.” She also realized she wasn’t practicing what she preached. “Some of my clients had these gorgeous silver streaks that I’d tell them not to color, yet I was still doing it.”
As the owner of a high-profile hair salon, Lorraine had a big audience for her growing-out process. Her patience was rewarded with a mass of deep silver curls that launched Silver Hair: Say Goodbye to the Dye and Let Your Natural Light Shine, a handbook for those who want to transition to their natural hair color.
There are more and more who do, though the fact that I’m writing an article about why I don’t color my hair shows that it’s still considered a slightly rebellious act. (We don’t see many men explaining why they’ve let their hair go gray, do we?) And, while most women color their incoming silver so they won’t look old, the hottest new hair trend for young women is silver. I’ve been stopped on the street many times by envious twentysomethings asking, “How did you get those streaks?” (My answer: Patience.)
In fact, I get stopped on the street, at the supermarket, on the subway, and pretty much anywhere I go at least once a week by someone telling me they think my gray is gorgeous. So much for the fear of looking older. In fact, I’d been running the risk of aging myself even more by having a much darker hair color as my maturing face got naturally paler. (And that’s why the universe gifted us with blush.)
Seeing how others liked and even craved my silver showed me something that made me angry. For generations, we’ve been conditioned by the cosmetics and advertising industries to view signs of aging, like silvering hair, as something to be hidden, early and often. I questioned a social norm that implies a person’s value decreases because they’re showing a natural sign of age. To color or not should be a personal choice, like a shade of lipstick, not expected because otherwise you’ll look unattractive.
Letting my silver come through early on had big benefits. There wasn’t that much gray, so I didn’t have too awkward a growing-out phase. (For a full guide to transitioning, see Lorraine Massey’s book Silver Hair.) I stopped coloring completely, rather than doing increasingly lighter shades of hair color, and got regular hair cuts to chop off the color. At various stages I had a few cute bobs, and then an even cuter pixie to cut off the last of the colored hair.
Then I was just me. Me, all natural. It seemed as though the silver hair heard the good news that it wouldn’t be colored over anymore and started coming through rather enthusiastically. Streaks of white framed my face. Strands of iron and steel shot through the rest. As my hair grew longer, making the silver even more obvious, I would catch my reflection and think: Do I look older?
I don’t know about older, but I definitely look better. That could be because, since I stopped coloring my hair, I feel better about myself in general. Coloring my hair went from being a fun way of playing with my looks to a way of denying aspects of my life and myself. It felt like self-inflicted character assassination. I am getting older—but does that mean I’m becoming unattractive? No. It means I am as attractive as I feel about myself, no matter what my age, or the color of my hair.
I could cite all the benefits of going gray, like not having to touch up my hair every two weeks, or the amount of money I save on salon appointments or home color kits. These arguments wouldn’t last long if I felt unattractive. Also, I’m not trying to persuade anyone to go gray, just as I didn’t claim superiority in my purple hair days. If you enjoy hair color the way I enjoy my blush and mascara, rock on with your hair coloring self. But let that be why you do it—not because you’re afraid of looking older, or because you think you’ll be unattractive.
Another big benefit, for me: Over the past 13 years, my husband has never again recoiled from me because my hair smelled like a toxic waste area. (Or for any other reason, thankfully.)
Ultimately, I let my hair go its natural silver for love. Not because the man I wanted to spend my life with asked me to; I did it for love of myself.
Thoughts on going natural from silver hair guru Lorraine Massey
GROK NATION: Does letting natural gray come through always result in someone looking older?
Lorraine Massey: The model on the cover of my book Silver Hair was 34 at the time that photo was taken. One of my clients started getting gray hair when she was 4. Grey can be gorgeous. It depends more on your attitude, not your age.
What if you’ve become friends with your colorist?
Then be friends outside the salon. Don’t let a friendship keep you from doing what you want to do with your hair, whatever that is. A real friend will understand.
Some women are afraid that silver hair will make their skin look paler and washed out.
Get yourself a bright lipstick and some blush, and wear brighter colors. I have a friend with silver hair who wears all black and then this red lipstick; she looks really cool. You can also have fun with your silver hair, like putting in a temporary streak of red that washes out. Get creative. It’s about how you look out your own window; it’s what you want to see.
Is the growing-out phase hard and horrible?
So many women tell me, “I don’t mind being silver, it’s the journey that makes me uncomfortable.” Let the people in your world know you’re going to do it and tell them you’d appreciate them keeping their opinions to themselves. Then, yes, you may be uncomfortable for a while, but that’s okay; going through discomfort means growing. Ultimately, this is you becoming your authentic self, and you become a beacon of inspiration for other women.