Call it alabaster, silver, or ice, pewter, charcoal, or salt and pepper -- the truth is I’ve gone gray, gray as Barbara Frietchie (“Shoot if you must, this old gray head!“) and Barbara Bush. Twentysome years ago when I began letting nature take its course, I wouldn’t have guessed that one day strangers would congratulate me for my “courage" in going gray. Purple Heart material I’m not. Cheap, yes. Brave, no.
As we narcissistic boomers age, books about graying are sprouting like -- you beat me to it -- gray hairs. What do you bet that Diana Lewis Jewell, who wrote the rah-rah book, Going Gray, Looking Great! A Modern Woman’s Guide to Unfading Glory, was once a cheerleader? Jewell has a fun website with loads of images and advice about transitioning to gray (http://goinggraylookinggreat.com/). Anne Kreamer fired the opening salvo in what some pundits call The Gray Wars (which they overdramatize as a struggle between the quests for authenticity and the fountain of youth) with Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else that Really Matters. Who’da thunk giving up your Grecian Formula could be so profound?
Kreamer wrote in Time, “…I found to my surprise that by visually challenging my peers (if I was really gray, so must they be!), I unwittingly landed myself on the front lines of a public struggle -- literally superficial but at the same time almost existentially meaningful to American women -- with the vicissitudes of age.”
Philosophy about aging aside, these days many women are foregoing salon treatments for financial reasons, waiting longer between appointments (hence the skunk-like swath along the part) or coloring at home. For me, the choice to go gray is about values as well as money. It’s not that I’m not vain. I wear makeup, adore clothes and make the occasional wimpy stab at working out, hoisting my one-pound arm weights like Atlas shouldering the world. But my grandmother and mother, both stylish, went gray early, so there was little stigma attached for me. After I divorced nine years ago and re-entered the dating world as Rip Van Winkle, a well-meaning friend advised I’d look younger if I returned to brunette, but I figured I'd just look like an older woman who dyes her hair.
That women -- and some men -- hold passionate opinions about what sort of hair is appropriate for older women became evident when Dominique Browning, who wears her hair both graying and long, wrote a piece for The New York Times last fall entitled "Why Can't Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair?" It provoked a whopping 1,256 comments (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/fashion/24Mirror.html). My own favorite silver-haired icon is model Carmen del Orefice, who still turns heads at 80 and never quit wearing big hair.
It’s interesting that in our culture, there are few gray females in positions requiring gravitas -- not Hillary, not Nancy, not Katie. Among the few in the gray sisterhood are Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and songbird Emmylou Harris, both so gorgeous that they could shave their heads and look stunning.
(I don’t count Jamie Lee Curtis, who stopped being sexy once she started coyly hawking yogurt that’s supposed to make your bowels regular in ads that make me squirm). In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s dragon lady had hair that looked like egg whites just starting to peak for meringue; its frosty stiffness was the metaphor for her character.
To women who dye their hair because it makes them feel pretty or helps them compete in the job market, I say go, girl. Gray will never be the new blonde any more than 50 is the new 40. Plus the double standard will always be up to its age-old mischief: a man who goes grey is compared to George Clooney; a woman to Aunt Bea!