Like many other women, I quit dying my hair during the Covid pandemic. The TL;DR of why I stopped coloring my gray? The mess, the expense, the hassle, and my journey to self-acceptance.
I remember clearly discussing this decision with my husband. I wanted to get his input and he wholeheartedly approved of my plan.
But first, a bit of history.
I started noticing gray hairs in my mid-20s. The idea that gray hair is only for the elderly is false. Most people begin seeing gray hairs in their 30s, and by their 50’s, 50% of people are 50% gray. The reason we don’t see more gray heads? Hair dye companies have done an incredible job of selling us a product we never needed.
At one point, most women didn’t color their gray, because the habit was associated with “starlets and chorus girls” (and likely, prostitutes), not your average housewife. Effective marketing campaigns convinced women that the box of Clairol could be her little secret to fight the enemy of gray hair. Noteworthy here is this fact: one tactic manipulative people use is phobia induction, meaning they make us fear something we weren’t afraid of before.
The mess of covering gray
No matter how careful I was, I always got splatters of dye in my sink, bathroom floors, and walls. I had countless towels with dye stains. To say nothing of the color dying my ears, hairline, and neck.
In addition to the whole affair being a messy business, when you have very thick hair like mine, it’s an hour-long commitment each time. It would require 15 minutes of rinsing alone just to remove the dye, which stained my shower and required more scrubbing to clean it.
Hair dye also caused my scalp to itch! I didn’t even realize I had this symptom until it completely disappeared.
Only once did a professional color my gray, to the tune of $120. The reason I always dyed at home? The cost. A box of hair dye is under $10, but because my hair grows so fast, I was coloring more frequently. I also bought those root sprays to cover new growth so I could put off the next dye job.
The hassle of coloring gray
I hated coloring my gray! It was a major hassle each time and felt like such a waste to me. Other aspects of personal care are more enjoyable. I don’t hate the minutes I use to apply makeup, for example. Dying was just NOT fun.
No matter what I did, my hair never ended up being the right shade of deep brown I enjoyed in my youth. I could buy a box of color called “Light Ash Brown”, and it would still turn my hair nearly black. It also had no variation in color, as normal hair does.
In order to get a more “natural” looking dye job, I tried a pro once. The end result was indistinguishable from my at-home result, but I was $120 poorer.
After coloring my hair, I would feel happy with it for a matter of DAYS, until re-growth began happening. Then I would hate my reflection.
The dreaded “skunk stripe” would appear so quickly, I was always dreading coloring and procrastinating doing it again. Forget touching up roots every 6 weeks. Many women cover their gray color every TWO WEEKS!
What I’ve learned about gray hair
There isn’t any such thing as “gray hair”. It’s an optical illusion. There is no silver hair, only hair that has lost its pigment and turns white. It appears “salt and pepper” gray if it’s next to dark hair on the head. It looks white if it’s next to blonde hair.
If someone compliments me on my hair, it’s usually a young person! That surprised me. My oldest daughter says it’s because “Zoomers love moms“. I don’t know if that’s the reason. It might be because gray hair is seen as cool after some celebs dyed their hair gray.
Gray hair has a different texture. Far from being a bad thing, my hair isn’t “coarse” at all. It’s silkier and softer than it ever was when I colored it. As we age and our hormones change, our hair changes, regardless of its color.
My hair got curlier as I entered puberty and has been losing its curl now that I’m perimenopausal. The color doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s simply that gray hair is associated with loss of volume because they’re both happening at a certain age.
The Silver Hair Handbook (affiliate link) by Lorraine Massey is a must in my opinion. It has lots of tips for growing out your gray, how to care for and style it, and even includes recipes for homemade hair care products for those who enjoy DIY. I refer to my copy often as my hair changes and grows.
The Silver Sister movement
After making the decision to stop coloring my gray, I found the “silver sister” community on Facebook and Instagram. These groups are filled with women at various stages of growing out their gray, from those just curious and looking for support, to those fully transitioned.
Many women in these communities report that people feel entitled to make negative comments about women with gray hair. This is sad and unacceptable to me.
It’s considered bad manners to make comments about other aspects of a person’s appearance, but somehow acceptable to say that a woman’s gray hair “makes her look old”? I wonder if those people would make that same comment to a man?
It certainly points to the sexism and youth obsession of our culture. But I wonder if the negative comments point to another idea. In the words of this author:
A silver sister is so much more than just a woman with gray hair. She’s part of an international sisterhood of women who are bucking societal pressures and doing her own thing.What Does it Mean to Be a Silver Sister?
History hasn’t been particularly kind to women who shook their fists at society’s behavior standards for them. Ahem.
In my opinion, gray hair is triggering to women who don’t approve of women “doing their own thing”. It’s also triggering to those who feel forced by society’s unspoken rules to cover up and hide (the horror!) the natural process of aging.
As if a woman owed the world this pretense, and must spend time, money, and hassle to keep it up. Do men also owe this make-believe to the world? It’s an interesting question, to say the least. A man is a “silver fox”, but a woman has “let herself go”? Hmm.
I’ve never experienced rude or negative comments personally, but my mother’s best friend (whose hair still sports a 1950’s style bouffant) was outspoken. She insisted my mom tell me to color my hair.
This is fascinating to me. It would never occur to me to insist anyone do anything with their hair, or even express a strong opinion on the matter, as it can’t possibly affect my life. But I digress.
This brings to me the final, most important reason I stopped coloring my gray:
The most important reason why I stopped coloring my gray hair: self-acceptance
These last couple of years have been a period of growth for me. Learning to accept me as I am has been an important part of that. Why, exactly, was I covering my gray and incurring the mess, expense, hassle and self-loathing every time I looked in the mirror?
Why did I decide that this was something I needed to do for 20 years? It boils down to not feeling good enough about myself the way I AM. It’s a denial of reality, which never leads to wellbeing or happiness.
I haven’t regretted my decision to embrace my gray, not once. I have looked at pictures of myself when my gray is shining in the sun and been a little shocked, but it’s not a bad feeling, just one of surprise.
Honestly, no one else’s opinion matters. No one is asking my opinion before making their personal care choices.
My hair is SO much softer and healthier since I stopped assaulting it with dye. It’s shinier, less frizzy, and more “touchable”.
(I haven’t even touched on the studies showing a possible connection between dark hair dyes and cancer in this post. My conclusion is, we need more research.)
Silver sisters refer to the decision as a journey, and it’s an apt description. It’s common for women to have doubts about whether they’re doing the right thing, whether their gray detracts from their appearance. Sometimes this will happen around another life change, such as marrying off a child.
I wonder if the gray hair isn’t a stand-in for another, deeper question. Who am I, now? That’s something human beings deal with from time to time throughout life, as their bodies change, their relationships evolve, their roles upend.
It’s beautiful to see fellow silver sisters encourage the woman to keep going, that she’s good enough just the way she is. We need more of this in the world, no?
Oh my goodness I’m 100% with you on “one tactic manipulative people use is phobia induction, meaning they make us fear something we weren’t afraid of before.”.
This is how marketers create the need for the products in the market and society makes us feel that we need it. Loving your natural hair. I stopped coloring at the start of Pandemic and it freed me from my own self-imposed restriction of having the perfect hair. When the outside world has tried to put so many restrictions on us, why do we need one more?
Excellent article. I look forward to joining that FB group you mentioned.
I love how your grey hairs look! I’ve been transitioning to grey as well.
This is fantastic. You are fantastic! I’m tickled you’re writing again. I’m 33 and haven’t seen a grey yet, but I also try not to look too hard, ha! I’ve never dyed or highlighted my hair; that’s not to boast, though—it’s to say I truly appreciate all your thoughts here. They convict me never to begin the process!
Thanks Rachel! So glad you liked the article and kudos to you, I wish I’d never started coloring. ?
Thank you for writing this powerful post. You wrote all my reasons and thoughts. I ditched the dye 3 years ago after 23 years of incurring the mess. I ditched it because chronic hair dyeing is toxic to my body, my psychology, our environment. I haven’t had a whole lot of feedback negative or positive. One relative follows the pro-dye-until-I-die-cuz-you-can’t-land-a-job-if-you-look-old ideology and I found that mindset to be very throwback, very toxic, very misogynist. I see my calico mix of silver, white, natural brown (in the back) to be very counter-culture and I love it. I love the freedom of my free-range hair.
And no, we wouldn’t ask any of this from a man.
Love it! Thanks for your comment Elle
I came here from The Frugal Girl’s site, and I’m glad to have ‘met’ you. Just wanted to say that I love your hair; I think it’s gorgeous. I’m in my mid-forties, and the grays are creeping in, and I’m fine with it. I dyed my hair when I was younger, for fun, but I’m not interested in covering up my grays. When people say that it makes you look older, I think ‘so what?’. I don’t need to try to convince anyone that I’m in my 20s!
Precisely how I feel! LOL why would I want to look 20? I’m not.