I've recently kicked the hair-dye habit. But until I embarked on my experiment in "uncoloring" my hair, I didn't fully realize what powerful associations our culture carries regarding women's changing haircolor.
Search the Internet for "growing out gray" and you'll encounter numerous articles on how "distinguished" and "sexy" gray hair looks on men. Think George Clooney and Richard Gere. Women have Jamie Lee Curtis and Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but those silver-haired role models are rare and elusive.
I've had gray hair for at least half of my 42 years. I dyed my hair for many years, so many different colors that I have to look at photos from high school to determine the color I started with.
And I don't regret it. My fashion esthetic is mainly St. Vinnie's chic, so hair color and styles are my art. As I cruised through the years sporting various shades of reds, browns, and funky highlights, I had fun. But under that riot of color, change was a-brewing.
For the last 15 years, I watched my roots grow out lighter and lighter, and my only response was to run for the salon - or Walgreens. I wasn't "ready" to go gray, and I was amazed at how fast my hair grew out, showing that telltale gray line at the part.
I was hooked. I spent lots of money and countless sessions having my hair worked over, stripped, conditioned, highlighted. Then I bought expensive, organic products to heal my hair from the chemical assault. Yet the telltale gray would pop out: I'd head to the salon and drop another $100 (more, when I lived in New York).
Spending the time and money doing something so purely selfish, I'll admit, held a great attraction. As the mother of twin boys and an overextended multi-tasker, it's always pleasant to have an excuse to sit down and read fashion magazines for a few hours while a stylist plays with my hair.
But elements of my dye addiction disturbed me, too. There were certainly better ways to spend my money than chasing my youth. I wondered if there was a way to be free of the need to dye my hair.
But how? It would have taken the patience of a saint or an-eight-month stay in a hermitage to just grow it out myself, watching "the line" grow thicker and thicker. I considered cutting it all off, like Jamie Lee Curtis, but wasn't quite brave enough.
About a year ago, I talked with my stylist about my desire to see what I really looked like. And even though it meant I'd spend less time with her, she had a plan for growing out my natural color without an ugly phase.
Her plan first involved shifting my overall color from the darker shades toward light brown and blond, to more easily blend with the emerging gray. Adding highlights (chunks that were lighter than my natural color) and lowlights (colors that were darker than my base color) helped, because there wasn't a visible line of gray. And most of this was happening on the top and sides of my head. Meanwhile, chunks of hair - astonishingly silver - were liberating themselves under the surface.
It took a while, but I started to get used to the gray and even looked forward to the day when I was finished with the process.
Many women approached me to talk about my changed look. Some expressed desire to transition their own hair from processed to natural. I talked to a number of women age 30 to 50 about their strategies for living with (or escaping from) the gray.
Because so many women cover their gray - especially if they gray in their 20s, 30s and 40s - I don't think we have a realistic picture of how much gray and silver is really out there.
Cynthia McEahern, 45, a social worker and stay-at-home mom, says when gray hair started showing up, she "started to feel a lot older. I no longer liked the way my hair looked. I think the most difficult thing is that people always thought I was much younger than I was."
For almost 20 years, McEahern used henna. When it stopped covering the gray, she "decided to go for it" and got a salon dye job. Now McEahern has highlights, but lets some of her natural color show through. "I don't want to be a slave to dyeing it. I don't mind going gray; I kind of like it. I think a lot of it is the professional haircut."
Highlights were also key for Jill Jacklitz, a funky 42-year-old activist and mother of two and an instructor at the UW School of Social Work. Jacklitz wanted to stop dyeing her hair but was admittedly "afraid of the grow-out."
She's been coloring her hair for 20 years (minus two pregnancies) and now declares herself done. She remembers discovering her first gray hair in college: "How could I be going gray at 20?"
Jacklitz says she internalized messages from her relatives: "You dye your hair. My aunts, who are much older than me, dye their hair - women in their late 70s, early 80s. My sister, who is 12 years older, became very distressed when she heard I was letting it go gray," she relates. "I watched my mother never embrace her real color and struggle with feeling old. It's kind of sad."
It took Jacklitz a few years to work up the courage to let her true colors shine. She remembers setting deadlines that she would later extend, yet felt frustrated over the expense of time and money.
Jacklitz had her last all-over dye job last year. She had her hair cut, layered, and highlighted to match the gray growth.
Lisa Wilber, 46, a graphic designer at Pleasant Company, always wondered why her mother dyed her hair. "It always seemed vain, a hassle, a sign of not accepting yourself as you are." But when she started graying at about 40, Wilber headed down the same path. "I was in the corporate world, and I was around a lot of women who dyed their hair," Wilber said, "I wanted to fit in and felt like dyeing my hair would help me. Then I woke up one day and thought 'What am I doing?' And I realized I was going to stop."
Wilber, whose thick dark hair is now salted with gray, says she stopped cold turkey. "It looked kind of funky for a while, but I did it before I had much gray, so it wasn't as stark a contrast as it might have been had I waited a couple more years."
Wilber says she receives supportive comments from women who are wistful about not being ready to let their own gray show. But she wishes there were more celebrity role models who let it all hang out.
The silver medal for self-acceptance must go to Jennie Papenthien, who found her first gray hair when she was 15. At 30, she has a lovely silver burnish, and she wouldn't dream of hiding it. "I think it's awesome," says Papenthien. "I stopped dyeing when I was 18, specifically so my gray would be visible. I didn't know anyone else my age who had visible gray. I thought it would be cool and unusual."
When she was 26, she went through chemotherapy to treat leukemia. "I lost most of my hair, and when it grew back, it was more gray," she says. "I like the fact that there was some physical marker about that change. I've always been attracted to the markings and visible signs of how we're moving through time."
Even though she loves her gray, Papenthien says she is still surprised by the amount of gray on the floor when she gets her hair cut. "I'm dark-haired in my head," she says.
As for me: I do look wistfully at photos of myself in my 20s, when my mane was still dark. And I still find myself staring at photos of the "new" me. Like Papenthien, in my mind's eye, I'm still a dark-haired woman. And I reserve the right to change my mind. But for now, move over, Jamie Lee - I'm joining the ranks of the silver-haired.