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.

Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada

At my first glimpse of boss-from-hell Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, I had to stifle a whoop of delight. Forget her ruthlessness, her put-downs of trembling underlings, and her obsessive need for hot Starbucks. Here, in big-screen glory, is an attractive, powerful woman who wears her silver coif with élan. As Miranda, Meryl Streep commands every room she enters—and her stunning platinum hair plays no small part.

For women like me who wear their premature gray proudly, this represents progress. I should know. I've been an involuntary participant in my own little field experiment for years now.

Advertisement

Consider this typical encounter: While straining to hear an anesthesiologist explain how my mother's cancer surgery would proceed a few years ago, I felt an urgent tap on my shoulder. The surgical nurse, swathed in blue scrubs and cap, leaned toward me. "How old are you?" she demanded. "Forty-six," I whispered back, assuming she was asking for an official hospital reason. "Why?"

She was staring at my hair, which is long, straight, and mostly silver—a flamboyant, just-shy-of- Emmylou Harris shade that I inherited from my late father.

The nurse pulled back her cap to reveal a thick crown of salt-and-pepper tresses. "My mother and sister think I'm crazy, but I won't dye it!" she said, beaming as if she'd found a new best friend.

I wasn't surprised: I started going gray in my late 30s and ever since, strangers, mostly women, stop me on the street—in department stores, at restaurants, even at church—to remark on my hair. In one recent week, I logged four hair comments: "You have inspired us here, if you don't do anything else today!" said one attractive middle-aged woman whose dark brown hair was dyed a bright, coppery red.

Sometimes the praise comes with an edge. "You're so brave!" one woman told me. (Brave? Oh please.) And others are incredulous. "Wow! Is that yours?"

Maybe it's the contrast that throws them. Except for my hair, I'm vain enough to think I look younger than my 49 years. I also consider myself "prematurely gray," although that is open to debate: A Singapore biopharmaceutical company says you're prematurely gray if your hair is 50 percent gray by age 50, while an American team of medical researchers who studied the relationship between premature graying and diminished bone density pegged it as going mostly gray before age 40. My hair turned mostly platinum on top by my mid-40s, but it remains dark brown underneath.

Whatever the technical specs, women have been covering their gray for millenniums. Ancient Egyptian women used henna as early as 3400 B.C. And by the time baby boomers came of age in the 1960s and '70s, Clairol's ubiquitous "Does she … or doesn't she?" ad campaign had catapulted hair-coloring into the mainstream and, more important, into home use.

Today, estimates of how many women color their hair vary widely. Hair-product manufacturers place the number as high as 75 percent. Independent market research reveals significantly lower numbers but is often incomplete. In its spring 2005 adult study, for example, the New York-based Simmons Market Research Bureau found that 16 percent of women over 18 reported using hair-coloring products at home. The proportion rose with middle age—a quarter of women ages 45 to 54 dyed—but dropped back to 16 percent among women 55 to 64. However, the survey did not include women who have their hair colored at salons.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.