“You look tired!”
“You don’t want people to think you’re letting yourself go.”
“What a shame! You have such a youthful face.”
“No, really…how old ARE you?”
All of the above statements have been made to me by friends, relatives and surprisingly, complete strangers. What they are all commenting on is the color of my hair; not a complete head of grey, but a village of silver and white that sprang up at my sideburns and crown beginning at the age of 19. Yes, 19. This early onset of grey is genetic; both my sister and I inherited the premature greys from our mother. Three traceable generations before her went grey in their early 20s. I remember a story about my great grandmother almost becoming an “old maid”. As her male relatives haggled with potential husbands over her dowry, her dark hair became fully grey. By the time she was married at age of 30, which was considered over the hill in those days, she was perceived to be much older due to her hair color. It probably didn’t help that her husband was also almost 60.
Speaking of perception, societal pressure for women to maintain a “youthful” appearance is evident in the way we react to graying hair. A recent UK news story spoke of scientists isolating the gene that causes hair to lose its pigment. The end goal would be to eventually create a pill that would target that gene and “stop the clock” on the greying process.
When I saw my first white hair at 19, I promptly plucked it out. At the time, I was also dyeing my hair to match my moods (thank you, Manic Panic). As a result, I never allowed enough of the grey to come in to be noticeable to myself or anyone else. Paradoxically, a baby face with a head of silver had become a beauty trend. Girls and young women purposely dye their hair different shades of gray before their biological clocks have them looking so au naturale. So, where is the disconnect? Going gray is only acceptable if you choose to do it and are visibly in your 20’s as opposed to it happening naturally. J-Lo is 46 years old with amazing skin and body fitness. If she stopped dyeing her hair, she most certainly would have some greys. Would that make her any less of a sex symbol? Would her younger boyfriend leave her? Would the world tell her that she was letting herself go?
I wanted to see how long I could go without reaching for the L’Oreal bottle. I decided to stop dyeing my roots in June of 2015. I was already sporting a tan and the village of grey coming in on my head was being oxidized by the sun giving it a reddish and blondish hue depending on the light. My clients complimented my “highlights” and my deepening bronze skin tone. It was still all positives once September rolled in and I started my semester. Within the first three weeks of school, I got my first comment. It came from a girl who had a penchant for blurting out whatever was on her mind in the middle of class no matter how inappropriate (social pragmatics = 0). Sitting outside our classroom, she looked at me and said, “What’s up with your hair?” I asked what she meant. “You don’t dye it,” she replied in a flat tone. While I was mildly annoyed in the moment, it didn’t deter me from maintaining my decision to keep it REAL. I told her I liked how it looked and kept reading my textbook.
By the end of October, there was a solid inch of grey hair from my crown downward. The tan was also fading and as the semester became more rigorous, my hair was going up in a bun most days to be out of the way. I arrived to school sometime around Halloween and the security guard in front of the gate stopped me from entering. He asked for my ID and when I showed it to him, he did not believe it was me. He kept saying that it did not look like me. I took my hair down and shook it out to match the style in the grainy image on my card. Still, he was adamant that it wasn’t me in the ID. He then called over the other female guard to show her my ID. All this time, there were young people filtering past us and none of them were being stopped for IDs. So, I made mention of that. The answer: They’re students. Before I had a chance to answer that I, TOO, was a student, the female guard playfully hits her colleague and tells him it is my ID, it’s just my hair that was throwing him off. They both laughed and instead of apologizing to me for all the trouble, he thought it would be a good idea to compare me to the bride of Frankenstein with her grey streaks and wild up-do. Your Halloween joke was not funny.
As final exam time approached in early December, I had experienced a few more incidents. The post office worker who told me I was “brave” for leaving so much grey. The 20-something year old boy who made a crass comment about the color of “other hair” on my body. And the handful of much older gentlemen who complimented my hair and asked how I take such good care of myself. More than anything else, the little comments were wearing me down; things like you look so tired, school is aging you, stop putting your hair up if you don’t want people to say anything. I found myself near tears as I wrestled with the urge to dye my hair again. In the end, I made an appointment just after Christmas and dyed my locks back to black. What broke me was the idea that major judgements that could affect my future, both personally and professionally, would be made based on the “age” of my hair. I left the beauty salon feeling like I had my armor back, not my youth.