I've made the transition. More and more baby boomers and others are doing it, too. We're letting it all hang out on our heads, from pure white to gritty gray, from Richard Gere to Mo Rocca, from Emmylou Harris to Judy Dench. There is a beauty to naked hair. Yet as we forge our way to buck the stereotypes of the evil, icy witch, the powerful bitch (Meryl Streep's character in the film The Devil Wears Prada) and that general image of over the hill, there is a price to pay. Want to rise in the corporate world? White hair will get you nowhere. Women and even men on the bottom rungs are dying to climb up. Don't worry if you're a man at the top. You're seen as mature, powerful and wise when white begins to shade your natural color. (I shall use the terms white and gray interchangeably.)
Those hair color advertisements are for both women and men: Color your hair and you'll be noticed, land that job, and get the guy or girl. Other product ads subscribe to the double standard of who can have white hair and who cannot. White-haired women in ads are either retired, passive or crazy grandmothers at the family table, or seeking a cure for some illness. You'll never see men with natural-toned hair socializing with white-haired women. When men in ads have gray hair, the women beside them do not. Unless you're Mrs. Santa, the mean witch or a kind Grandma with an apron and a tray of cookies, you are cast on your way to the grave.
When male celebrity 60- or 70-somethings date or marry women who could be their daughters or granddaughters, they proudly walk down the red carpet or the aisle with or without concealed white hair. When female stars date younger men, they make sure their hair is anything but white. George Clooney's gray hair looked hot at the Oscars. Was there one female star in the crowd whose white hair was glimmering under the bright lights?
Besides age, having gray to white hair diminishes the number and variety of roles women actresses acquire on film -- unless the actresses are in their 80s playing women dying from a stroke, struck with Alzheimer's or in an ensemble piece about aging. In television, male anchors and reporters have natural or chemical colors in their hair, but where are the female broadcasters with white hair?
A recent trend has brought the hipsters of the world into the world of white. If white is alright for 20-somethings who bleach out their natural color, why isn't it cool for the older crowd to wear their naturally white tresses as a crown of glory? Make-up artist Jay Manuel, the pop singer Pink in her white hair phase, Kelly Osborn, with her lavender-tinted locks in what appears as an homage to the ladies of centuries ago with their bouffant pastel helmet hair, have all gone chemically gray. Andy Warhol and The Fly Girl dancers (in an episode of the outrageous TV comedy series,
In Living Color
) donned white wigs and strutted their stuff to the tune of shock and awe.
Going white is crossing into the last hair taboo. You can color your hair green, blue, orange, tint all of it or parts of it, you can wear what's called an hombre by creating the look of dark roots above lighter lengths of locks, but wearing white roots with dark hair is a No-No. You can buzz cut it, leave the crown long and clip short the undersides, make it asymmetrical, you can even shave it all off, but don't try to grow out the gray!
As for my personal story, in my 30s, I went from natural brown to auburn after a few grays started showing. I loved being a redhead for years, but the more white hairs that grew out, the more I covered them up. I colored my hair myself or I had a colorist do the deed. As time passed, I began to feel like a slave to the image and the expensive, time-consuming procedure. Before I made the change, I read whatever I could find on the subject. My daughter's first reaction to my decision to go white was,
Why? You don't have wrinkles, you don't look old! Wait till your face is like an old woman's....
Now she loves it but she was shocked by my initial announcement. As for my second husband, when I first met him my curly hair was still red. After a few months of dating and things were going well, I decided to reveal my plan to eventually grow my hair out by age 60. It didn't seem to shake him so I knew he was a keeper, this man with a full head of salt and pepper hair, a feminist and radical at heart. Two years later, after I married him and was on my path to natural hair, I grabbed my hat and we went to a local café. A woman came in with white, shoulder length straight hair with bangs. I could not stop looking at her, admiring her, wanting what she had. She was beautiful. I had to go over to her and tell her so and tell her of my journey. She was supportive and encouraging and that made me smile.
Of course, this path is not for everyone. It takes watching the white emerge inch by inch, wearing head coverings to feel more comfortable, if you choose, being patient as the color gets cut off little by little as your hair grows. I thought about striping out the color to make the growth less obvious, but the stripping of color damages hair so that was not for me. The quickest way to get this done is to cut your hair very short and keep it short until it's all grown out. For me, I'd rather go naked than have short hair, so I wore it chin length and wore hats and wigs until it was all white, since I didn't want to draw attention to myself. I had to tell my friends immediately what I was doing, since the first sight of a wig brought concerns from one of them that I was undergoing cancer treatments.
I see wearing my hair white as standing tall on a snow-capped mountain. Changing my hair back to white doesn't change who I am. I have no need to hold onto another time and place. This is more than natural hair color for me. It is about celebrating who I am on the inside and out. If white hair for men means wisdom and respect, I'll embrace that concept for myself along with an increasing number of women who have stopped coloring or have chosen not to color at all. Now I save money and time to do other things I want to do. Don't think I'm trying to put hairstylists out of business. Hair will always need to be cut, styled, and colored for some.
With a glance and a nod and a smile, those of us in the world of white and gray pass on the street and offer each other an unspoken acknowledgment of this choice we've made. CNN journalist and broadcaster Anderson Cooper, filmmaker and TM advocate David Lynch, actor Leonard Nemoy, physicist Michio Kahn, former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, and former Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius are others you know who are notable members of this group.
We all have choices and this one is mine. Ultimately, our best choice is to be the best we can be, no matter what color hair we choose. Still, more and more women are saying, I can still be vibrant, sexy, strong, and full of life with white hair. In spite of the brave new world of white, many people may still view us as a strange lot from another planet infiltrating the earth. We are growing in numbers and changing what white hair means. Gray hair may not be for everyone, but aging is. The question is: To dye or not to dye; where do you stand?