I got my first luminous grey hair at 40. It caught the light in the bathroom mirror and a chill ran down my spine. It was just one errant grey wire poking through the brown, looking out of place — just one hair. But I was horrified. My eyes bugged out of my head and I went into a tizzy. This couldn’t be happening to me.
Maybe it’s because 40 is one of those birthdays that trigger fear of aging. I felt like getting old was a disease I was going to cure by being a vegetarian and doing push-ups. I pulled out the one hair so I could examine it under a bright light. It was a different texture than my brown hair. It was unnatural. It didn’t look like me.
Mornings became a search and destroy mission to find my alien hairs. I inspected my head in the mirror and yanked out the invaders. When I was spending more time pulling out my hair than brushing my teeth, I decided to take extreme action. I had no choice. This aging thing had to be stopped. I was feeling out of control.
Of course, at 40 I had no idea how out of control things could become. It was eight years before the start of my menopause. This sprinkling of grey was just a taste of the changes ahead. It was the 1990s in Boston and my hair was shoulder length. The colorist told me she could match my natural color so no one would know I was dyeing my hair. I did it for a year without telling anyone. No one said, “Your new hair color looks great. You look so much younger.” I was spending a hundred bucks a month for a secret hair treatment only I could appreciate. Even my husband didn’t notice.
Around that time I began working with a twenty-something woman who had a shining black mane with a thick shock of grey on one side. Her mother thought her grey hair was an obstacle to finding a husband and encouraged her to dye it, but she refused. She didn’t associate her grey stripe with aging. She thought it was cool. The idea of grey hair being cool was a revelation for me. I stopped coloring my hair and no one noticed that either.
It was two decades before my hair went mostly grey. Now I socialize with groups of women online where we compare our experience of aging. To dye or not to dye? That is a common question. Some experience professional pressure to look younger. Some are tortured by friends and family who think giving in to their grey is depressing. Others celebrate their natural silvers, blue-greys, and cloud whites. Here’s what I’ve learned from those women about hair. Flame it red or let it go. Your choice. Cool is a point of view, not a color.