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.

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.

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?

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.