The case for gray hair.

The language of style.
Aug. 2 2006 12:52 PM

I'm Gonna Keep That Gray

My decision to stay silver.

(Continued from Page 1)

Andre Nizetich, president of the California-based American Board of Certified Haircolorists, agrees with the more conservative numbers and believes that about 35 percent of women ages 18 to 60 color their hair. He said that most start in their 30s to cover the first signs of gray. They stop in their 50s because they're tired of the hassle and expense, have been married for at least 20 years, and figure "my husband loves me the way I am."

To me, it feels like 80 percent of women my age cover their gray. Perhaps it's my upbringing. Growing up in Texas, blondes ruled, and when I visit today, most women my age appear to dye, frost, bleach, highlight, or lowlight. More likely, though, my sense of membership in a hair minority reflects society's prejudices against silver-haired women, especially those who go gray early. In women's magazines and on beauty-product Web sites, premature gray hair is something to be disciplined or exiled. It's the pushy gal of hair, often described as "stubborn" and "pesky." The contrarian in me loves that my hair is a troublemaker. Who wants wimpy hair?

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But the women who stop me about my hair seem to have internalized the negative associations. Most start with a compliment, but many go on, unprovoked, to explain, justify, and apologize for coloring their gray. These are women I've never met, with whom I find myself playing the silent partner in a fraught internal debate. I don't mind serving as a short-term therapist, but I feel sad that they're so defensive—and torn—about going, or not going, gray. I don't judge them either way.

Take the woman who confessed her ambivalence to me while I shopped at a local boutique. "I love your hair," she said. "I wouldn't dye [my hair] if it looked like yours, but mine's that ugly gray. My husband keeps saying, 'Why do you dye it? You look nice in gray.' But I just can't. I don't think it looks good."

I understood her struggle. The media praises men for going platinum—Anderson Cooper, George Clooney, Richard Gere, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. But can you name any fortysomething female movie stars, TV news anchors—or politicians—who are silver-haired? What's the likelihood of Katie Couric emulating Dan Rather by going an elegant gray?

Most days, I feel confident and hip in my silver hair. I've earned it after going through the death of my father, divorce and remarriage, my mom's two major surgeries, and the long illness and death of a best friend. But more important, I like it—the way it looks and what it says about my independence and rebelliousness.

Like any woman who changes her handbags with the seasons (I do), there are moments I want to dye it a bright, Reba McEntire red or luscious auburn. Then it's not about my hair, or whether I feel attractive or sexy. It's a Thelma-and-Louise fantasy of breaking out of my responsible, adult roles as mother, wife, and professional—of being truly carefree.

That's when Mai sets me right. A beautiful brunette stylist who cuts my hair, Mai earned my lifelong loyalty one day after I lightheartedly suggested coloring my hair. "You'll have to go somewhere else," she said, not missing a clip. "I'm not touching it."

Neither am I. Like any gal worth her Texas roots, I trust the wisdom of my hairdresser.

Beth Frerking is a Washington-based writer and journalist. Most recently, she directed the University of Maryland's Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families.

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