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Speaking of Gray

July 15th, 1997

I got my first gray hair before I got my period. I was riding in the car with my dad and he noticed it while we waited at a red light. “You have a gray hair!” he exclaimed, pulling the car over. Locating it again on my 13-year-old head, he carefully pulled it out over my face to show me. My dad was delighted. Neither one of us yanked it out.

My father, then 43, had nearly all white hair and I remember the discovery of my gray hair as being a positive one for both of us. I thought of the arrival of gray hair as a connection to my Irish side; my father’s side. I thought it was cool to have a gray hair so young. It was certainly the kind of thing that got kids to ooh and ahh in Jr. High. (Remember, this is a time when seeming mature was a big deal, when kids smoke to look older and boys try to grow those wispy first mustaches.) I didn’t smoke — I didn’t even wear a bra yet. The gray hair was a nice novelty.

One time in my mid twenties, my whole family was going somewhere in the car and the four of us siblings were crammed into the back. I was sitting forward on the seat with my younger sisters and brother behind me. One of my sisters said “Kathy has the most gray hair of all of us!” Since I knew how much my brother Ed had (and it seemed like a lot) I was surprised to have won this title. The thing that shocked me the most however was that I apparently had gray hair on the back of my head too. This was not something that had ever occurred to me before.

Most of the time, I think my gray hair is neat or pretty. While brushing my hair, I like seeing the streak shine along the side of my face. And I love the silvery hairs on my boyfriend, Frank’s temples. They really do look like fine silver threads. And I admire some men and women’s gray from afar. It’s so beautiful, I think, I hope I go gray like that.

But a couple of other factors color my perceptions of my own and others’ silvery locks. Hair dying is so common in our youth oriented culture, especially among women, that it isn’t a question of “Are you going to”, but “When are you going to?” I feel the pressure to dye it, and I resent it. Friends AND strangers have asked questions for years. “How long have you had that shock of gray?” I’ve been asked of my streak. “When are you going to start dying your hair?” I have wondered if people say the same things to balding men (or women.) “How long has your hair been coming out in bunches?” “You know, going for the plugs will make you look so much younger.”

A year ago, an 8 year old girl asked me “are you in college?” Recognizing the compliment (being mistaken for being much younger than I was,) I reacted stereotypically, cooing “oh thank you for thinking so. No,” I added, “didn’t you see all my gray?!” “Oh,” she said, “are you a grandmother?” Whoa! The perception went from college coed to grandmother!

I began to think about the role gray hair plays in our culture. Or rather, doesn’t play. Was it possible that the only people in our culture with gray hair were the very old — the grandparents? Is it possible that those of us who are said to be prematurely gray are just the only ones in our age bracket who are NOT dying? And what is premature anyway? If it weren’t time for my hair to be turning gray, well then it wouldn’t be, now would it!?

It’s true that gray hair does make you look older. But that’s only a bad thing because we as a culture covet youth so much. Because we despise aging so much, it is hard to make the decision not to dye. It is to actively fly in the face of our cultural wisdom — if you can look younger, why wouldn’t you? Recently when I told a man my age, he said “I would have thought older — what with all the gray and all!” (Not exactly a chick-gettin’ line.)

What is the percentage of gray-haired women who choose to hide the gray? Do you think it’s half? Could it be more? Surely gray hair is revered somewhere in the world, but why not here? Something else beyond personal choice is behind the collective desire to dye our hair. It may be fun to play with different colors, but I don’t believe the motivation would be so great if dying didn’t offer that added benefit of getting rid of unsightly gray. Have we all undergone mass brainwashing? (Well, it’s really more of a dye job, isn’t it?)

To her credit, my mother never dyed her hair and it is now a beautiful mixture of silver strands with her original dark brown. But what will I do? I have always thought I would just let it do what it intends to do, but as I get older, I recognize that it may not be as easy to resist as I hoped. I feel the pressure to try and keep a youthful image. In the absence of more silverhaired female actors, politicians, newscasters and other women in the public eye (not to mention the women in your real life,) leaving your hair gray is downright rebellious. It stands out on the street. And it stands out because it is so different.

You can see I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It won’t be long until I begin to describe myself as 35 years old, 5’6″, with hazel eyes and long – gulp – gray hair. But I got a little rush of resolve the other day. I was in New York City and had been working on this essay. I left the hotel and walked out into the stream of people on the street. Coming toward me was a woman about my age. Her skin was smooth and bright and her hair was shiny gray. It was cut short; thick and jaunty. She was absolutely striking; her silver locks standing out so fabulously from the others in the crowd. With more women like her on the streets — well, wouldn’t that be something?


Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. By day she works as a software applications manager for Miller Freeman Inc.