My mother does it, my friends all do it, so I hardly gave a thought to that annoying hour, once a month, when I'd sit in the salon getting my dye job. And then I read Anne Kreamer's book Going Gray and everything changed. The former worldwide creative director of Nickelodeon not only traced her own growing-out process (painful), but she also she conducted surveys, hung out in bars, spoke with image consultants, and interviewed tons of women to try and find out exactly why we submit to this, what we're actually trying to get, and how much we're fooling ourselves. Kreamer's sleuthing was fascinating - the information she came up with both disturbing and hopeful - so I called the author to find out more.
How did this whole thing get started?
A friend sent me a recent photo of myself, and when I saw myself as I really was: a 49-year old woman with a darkly shellacked helmet of hair I realized I wasn't fooling anyone. And suddenly it looked terrible to me.
That's a scary thought. Many of us don't even know what we look like - or whether our "look" is even working.
I'm still not 100% sure I do. What I do know is that hairdressers can tell almost to the year when a woman thought that she looked best in her life depending on how she's dyeing and cutting her hair. If it's a Farah Fawcett, she's still holding on to her 1981 look, or a Jean Shrimpton, and she's fantasizing she's still 19 and it's still 1964.
Are we all trying to get back there?
The chief colorist at Clairol says that women say they color to reconnect with what they imagine to be their authentic selves - who they were at that ideal young age. Problem is that it doesn't really work, you're not really fooling anybody, and it's sad that we've disconnected with who we are right now. It's like we're in Indian summer and early fall - personally, my favorite time of the year - but we're refusing to step outside see and fully experience the beauty of the season. Instead we're spray-painting all those beautiful autumn leaves green to fulfill a fantasy of spring..
Why do you think that, all of the sudden, you could see yourself?
Every once in a while, I think we all get these moments of clarity.
You realize, it's just time to quit smoking or leave that job you loathe. I hated the way I looked, and felt like an addict, and wanted to find out what my natural color really was.
Who do you think that we're dyeing it for? Ourselves? Men? Competing with other women?
There is no simple answer. I interviewed about a hundred women for a Time magazine piece and they talked about their mothers nagging them, "Oh, honey aren't you getting a little drab?" If our mothers are dyeing, do they want gray-haired daughters? It is such a rejection of all they've been doing - at some level. I also found that women think men think gray is a turnoff, although in my research I found that wasn't true. Then there is peer to peer pressure, office pressure to look younger. If 95% of the women in your neighborhood or your office are coloring, it's not easy to swim against that tide. And we're spending a lot of money on it. Turns out that if you're making between $25,000 and $50,000, you are spending about the same amount on dye as women who are making over $100,000 - $200,000. This demonstrates that hair dyeing is a non-negotiable expense item for all women. In a poll I conducted women were prepared to give up eating out at restaurants, going to movies, even buying shoes in order to continue to dye their hair.
Ok, let's get to nitty gritty. How long did it take?
Start to finish, 18 months.
What was the worst part?
About 3 months into it, I ran into an old friend, a guy I'd vaguely flirted with. I could see him looking down at my roots and probably thinking, "Oh my god, look at Anne. Are she and Kurt getting divorced?" I was in my Tourette's phase then, and just blurted out without being asked what I was doing, TMI [too much information] at every opportunity. It was mortifying.
Was it hard when your daughter told you that you'd be the only 8th grade mother with gray hair?
(Long laugh) It was really helpful that I had an assignment for More magazine so that I had to keep going.
I thought your story had a certain mythic quality. Years of faking it, then going through horrible growing out phase, finally coming out the other end as a beautiful gray swan. What if you'd come out the other end with an awful color?
It's a good question. I'd actually hoped that I'd have white hair like Halle Berry had in the X-Men, so I was a bit disappointed with the salt and pepper thing. Back when I dyed, I sort of believed that my hair would distract people from noticing that I was overweight or that my clothes weren't exactly flattering. When I stopped dying, I realized that I didn't want to be a clunky, unfashionable person, and have gray hair, so I needed to look at the whole gestalt - change all aspects of how I presented myself to the world.
How did you figure out what to do?
I lost the weight and then as part of my research for the book happened on an image consultant who made me realize that I needed to change my color palette to navys, grays, blacks, "jewel tones." I used to wear lots of olives, browns, russets but, thanks to her, I realized that anything with yellow undertones doesn't look good on me.
How did she update your wardrobe?
She had me buy two pairs of 3-season slacks, black and blue; a great pair of really good fitting blue jeans - which was an instant and tremendous upgrade for me. A great white shirt, a navy or black cardigan and a sexy black dress. The big change was a mental shift: now I shop for clothes cut to my 5' 3" frame in colors that flatter me.
Do you have to go to a consultant for this info?
No, there are probably ten goods books at Barnes and Noble on figuring out your color palette; then get a friend with a good eye to go clothes shopping with you.
In some ways, your book is threatening because it asks us to accept ourselves more authentically. I read it and think: yeah, well she looks great and didn't have to go to an office during the growing-out process. I can't imagine going into Condé Nast, as my roots come in all gray. So I am stuck, getting the expensive chemical goop poured over my head every three, weeks and being inauthentic.
I understand that my book could be threatening but I wanted to open up a conversation, let women know there are options. In the UK, the majority of women don't dye, and you see this amazing range of grays on all types of women. Our standards of what's acceptable are so much narrower. And then there is the timing issue. If I were a 49-year-old single mother in sales and marketing, I probably wouldn't have tried this right now. And of course, the shorter your hair goes, the easier and faster the process is - my hair was long when I began letting it go gray.
My favorite part was when Ann Lafarge, the 73-year old editor, went to her college reunion and noticed that half the attendees still dyed and half didn't. Interestingly, the half who had gone gray seemed much more secure, confident, and happy with them selves. Did you find the same thing?
I really did. I get about 20-30 emails a day from women across the country who've made the decision and tell me that they love the freedom, the lack of pressure, and all that goes with trying to fool people. I think that Ann twigged to this secret, that if you can stop worrying about what others might think of your hair color, and of feeling obliged to wear camouflage, then you free yourself up to think about other things - that by abandoning the small stuff you may make room for the big.
It used to be that I was constantly calibrating the reaction that others had to me, my roots, possible dye stains on my skin. It wasn't top of mind, but just present. My internal conversation just isn't as anxiously self-centered now.
I've recaptured vast amounts of real time. Some days I spend it just walking around. My friend, Maira Kalman, taught me the value of wandering -- filling the creative well, as she put it. It works -- instead of sitting in the fussy, vanity-obsessed bubble of my hairdressers, I'm traipsing through new neighborhoods, discovering a new Thai restaurant, happening on an exhibition of Rwandan woven baskets. And it's precisely this kind of discovery, that wouldn't happen if I didn't have the time to roam, that might connect me to something bigger like the FairTrade Organization that brings the Rwandan women's work to America. So I get to have more fun, experience new things and maybe do a little good.
Cynthia Kling writes the Adventuress column for Domino magazine.