Several Shades of Gray

by Kathleen Duhamel

Like many women of my generation, I’ve been coloring my hair for decades. It started in junior high school when my friends and I experimented with Summer Blonde, a spray-on liquid that was supposed to result in blonde surfer-girl highlights. It never worked well, but it was the cool thing to do. We tried the same thing using a lemon juice concoction, with less than satisfactory results.

In high school I graduated to permanent hair color in an attempt to make my mousy medium-brown hair something it wasn’t. Once I managed to turn it orange, an unfortunate result of cheap drug store hair color in a box. Another time I tried “frosting,” a ridiculous process that consisted of putting a rubber skull cap on your head and pulling out small strands of hair through tiny holes in the cap using a plastic crochet hook. The strands were then covered with a gooey mess that was supposed to make them light blonde, except it tended to seep through, creating blobs instead of the delicate look promised by the picture.

I just couldn’t leave my hair alone. During the punk era of the ‘80s I colored it dark brown, almost black, for a while, then tried out a “cellophane” technique that added an almost imperceptible purple sheen. Pretty, but it never lasted long. So I moved on to henna, which achieved the desired color but made my hair feel like straw. I finally settled on permanent red color, thinking it fit my feisty personality, and it stayed red for two decades, enhanced with blonde highlights. Every six weeks or so I was back in the hairstylist’s chair getting my roots touched up. I probably could’ve paid for a European vacation with the money I spent on my hair over the years.

About a year ago I began to rethink the whole hair coloring situation. It started when I spent a week in Colorado with my best friend, who I’ve known since the eighth grade. One of the first things I noticed was the fact that she’d stopped dyeing her hair. The blonde highlights were gone, replaced by silvery gray mixed with her natural brown. To my surprise, it didn’t make her older. It looked good, and age appropriate. We went out to dinner with her friend Mary, a lively 60-something with naturally gray hair, who didn’t look or act old, either.

Maybe they’re on to something, I thought. My red hair had begun to look harsh and unnatural. Then I began a Pinterest board featuring positive images of older women. Many of them had gray, silver or white hair. And they all looked beautiful.

Fashion magazines insist that “there is no reason to accept aging gracefully” and that “natural gray hair tends to make people look older.” Really? Try telling that to Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep or Emmy Lou Harris, all of whom look fabulous. So fabulous, in fact, that some younger women have adopted the trend. You even see runway models sporting fashionable gray hair.

That was enough to convince me to make a change. A few weeks ago, I took the plunge, went to my hairstylist and asked him to strip off the red color so we both see what was underneath. I really had no idea what we’d find. What I discovered was light brown hair laced with gray, not bad at all. He added some white-blonde highlights to blend it all together. Not quite all natural, but I’m getting closer.

Maybe it’s the aging process that brings us to the realization that we can be exactly who we are. No pretense, nothing fake. And if having gray hair is part of a fashion trend, all the better. People tell me I look younger, another unexpected result.

Several years ago, musical artist India Arie wrote a song called “I Am Not My Hair.” While her lyrics dealt primarily with the cultural stereotypes associated with African-American hair (or no hair), she also made a larger statement about loving yourself as you are.

I’m not my hair, either, but I have to admit that I love my new grayish color. Trendy or not, it suits me and where I am in my life at the moment. “Yeah, I’ve been through some stuff,” it seems to say, “but damn, I still look good!” No longer young, just more myself. An aging baby boomer at peace with herself and her changing looks.