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Caryn Brooks Headshot

Live and Let Dye: When Will TV's Women Show Their True Colors?

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NBC news anchor Matt Lauer will do something most women on television try desperately not to do. He will age before our eyes.

Of course there are women of a certain age in strong powerful roles on television -- Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Katie Couric to name a few. But none has gone there without fighting to stay younger looking.

Lauer, who just announced a new multi-year, multimillion-dollar deal with NBC's Today, seemed nonchalant about aging on the small screen. The 54 year-old news anchor even poked fun at his longevity on the show when he talked about the new contract.

"Truth be told I was developing an idea for a new show, where viewers could tune in every morning and see someone they know lose a little more of his hair every single day right in front of their eyes. But then I thought, I could just stay here and do that," Lauer joked.

Women on television don't get to show their age, they are expected to conceal, cover and conquer it. Paula Dean is an exception. She wears her gray hair proudly on her cable cooking show and guest appearances here and there. The only other woman on network television who is top of mind, is not a grandmotherly, sweet little old lady type and has gray hair, is Jaime Lee Curtis.

Along with her Activia yogurt ads, Curtis has a recurring guest role on the CBS show NCIS as a vibrant, sexy character. She is a potential love interest for the gorgeously gray-haired Mark Harmon character.

But, while Dean and Curtis are anomalies, Harmon and Lauer are far from the only men aging gracefully on the small screen. Ted Danson has gone from the hunky bartender on Cheers to the silver sleuth on CSI. And how about Law and Order?

That show has had more than its share of gray-haired legal eagles and detectives who would rather die than dye. Sam Waterston's character aged so well that he went from a dark-haired assistant D.A. to the platinum-headed grand poo-bah of the office. The detective played by Dennis Farina had to be my favorite silver fox. That man can rock a full head of shiny hair and an expensive suit!

I don't understand why women can't do the same. Law and Order has a powerful woman in charge. S. Epatha Merkerson plays Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, who is strong enough to deal with a squad of detectives and to battle cancer, but bows to social norms when it comes to her hair color.

The list of strong women on TV who prefer to hit the bottle for their hair color is a long one. Just a few include Kyra Sedgwick from The Closer, Dana Delany and Jeri Ryan from Body of Proof, Christine Baranski from The Good Wife, Joy Behar from The View, Joan Rivers from Fashion Police, and Dancing With the Stars contestants Gladys Knight and Martina Navratilova.

Certainly our culture has role models elsewhere who dare to go gray. Bonnie Raitt, Barbara Bush, Helen Mirren, Dame Judy Dench and Emmylou Harris come to mind. Comparing the two lists -- those who dye and those who don't -- you have to wonder if dying your hair is a preference, as L'Oreal would have us believe, or an expectation.

The 2010 census found 11.4 million women age 50-54 in the U.S., up 26.6 percent from the 2000 census. I suspect the majority of those women subscribe to my sister's philosophy of, "Why would you look older if you don't have to?"

The numbers confirm my suspicion. Among the "major findings" of the 2010 Professional Salon Haircolor Study by a beauty industry data source called Professional Consultants & Resoures, "hair color makes a big comeback and is projected to grow to mid-to-single digit numbers by 2015." Basically that means as the population of older women in the U.S. grows so does the use of hair dye.

I admit to only embracing my gray roots when I was laid off from my previous job and couldn't afford the $200.00 trip to the fancy salon every six weeks (yes, I realize that seems crazy when I could by a box of hair color at the drug store for 10 bucks, but when I did that my hair came out orange and I swore I'd never do it again). Even though I quickly got a job I love and could have gone back to the salon, I didn't. I now wonder why I didn't stop hiding my real hair color sooner. The time and money I would have saved is only part of the reason. There's something to be said for being free to be me -- gray hair and all.

I am happy to watch Matt Lauer lose some hair, but I am pulling for Jaime Lee Curtis. She recently said she hoped her role on NCIS became more than a guest appearance and talked about being the face of the anti anti-aging movement.

"We're aging from the moment we're born," Curtis said. "It's going to happen. It's much more about the content of my character than the contour of my face." And I would add the color of her hair.

When more women feel the same way as Curtis they will dye their hair by choice, not by expectation. In the meantime I propose a tax on the $10 box of hair color and the $200 trip to the salon. The money collected could go to a national mentoring program where the next generation of women learn that aging is something they don't have to hide, just like their roots.