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.
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?"
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.