My Year of Going Gray

graying hair

Naomi getting in touch with her “roots”

It started 12 or 13 years ago, when I was in my mid-30s. I had two small children, a cool dot-com job with many younger colleagues, and a sprinkling of gray hair. I didn’t mind the gray too much, but sometimes there’d be a wiry one or one that stood straight up from my head. I didn’t care for those. My hairdresser encouraged me to let her try coloring it. I did. It looked pretty. It was fun. So I kept doing it.

But now I’m going to stop. I’m letting myself go gray this year, and judging from my roots, I’ll be way more salt than pepper.

UH…WHY?

First and foremost, to save money. When I first started coloring my hair, I could go eight weeks between touch-ups. But then it scooched to seven, then six, then five, and now I really need to go every four weeks to keep ahead of that advancing line of gray. If I don’t color my hair, I can probably go back to seven or eight weeks between cuts. The savings are not insignificant.

Second, to save time. I enjoy hanging out at the salon. My hair stylist, Stacia, of the marvelous Pomegranate Salon in downtown Davis—not the same person who originally colored my hair—is, in addition to being a true artist with hair, my neighbor and friend. My visits keep me in good hair and allow us to catch up with each other’s lives. Nevertheless, most visits take about two hours. A haircut alone doesn’t need to happen as often and takes about half an hour. Time saved over a year: over 20 hours. I’ll miss seeing Stacia. But that’s a lot of time that this slow writer needs for her slow writing.

And finally, to enjoy the virtues of going “natural.” I don’t want to overstate this one, as I obviously don’t judge women who color their hair, having been one myself for so long. I know plenty of committed feminists who color their hair. Yet my desire to stop masking this evidence of natural aging—to buck the pressure to look younger—does feel like a feminist impulse, and for me, right now, it seems right to follow it. I’ve been inspired by the example of several women I know who are beautifully gray. Anyway, for all the improvements made to hair dye in recent decades, surely it’s still a little better for one’s health and for the environment to not use those chemicals, right?

WHY NOW?

I’d always intended to go gray around age fifty. That’s still a little over a year away, but I decided to get a jump on it for several reasons. One, I’m taking a self-imposed, unpaid sabbatical this semester to finish my book. So the money thing mentioned above is somewhat more urgent now than usual. But in addition to losing income, the sabbatical also means I’ll mostly be holed up at home writing and generally seeing far fewer people outside my immediate family and friends. What better time to go gray than an eight-month period of general non-circulation?

Also, my 30th high school reunion happened in October. It was a blast. I love the people I went to high school with. I actually mean that. But I wasn’t quite up to seeing them with gray hair—by which I mean I wasn’t quite up to them seeing me with gray hair. But now that that milestone is behind me and I’ve reconnected with so many wonderful old friends, it feels okay.

And then there’s the author photo issue. There’s a chance—a chance, mind you—that my book could come out in the next few years. (I need to finish it first, and no, I don’t have an agent yet.) But should that blessed event occur, I don’t want to have to “keep up” with my author photo, if that makes sense. I fear a book jacket featuring a brunette me could exercise a sort of tyranny and consign me to another decade of dyeing my hair. Better to go gray now.

TRANSITIONS, TRANSITIONS

The hardest part of going gray, of course, is the long, awkward transition between being a fake brunette and being authentically gray. The fear of that in-between stage can keep a coloring habit going for a long time.

So what’s a middle-aged gal to do?

In the early days of my graying-in, I could, for bare-headed occasions, apply some temporary cover with a hair crayon or touch-up stick. I learned this trick two summers ago during my residency at Hedgebrook from, of all people, Gloria Steinem. (A great story that deserves its own blog post one day.)

But it’s been three months since my last color touch-up, and the advancing swath of gray is getting too wide for this treatment. And that’s where hats come in. I’ve always loved hats, and now I have an excuse to get more. Here are a few from my collection. What do you think? Kinda cute, right?

Gallery o’ hats

(From left to right, a hat made of men’s neckties from The Wardrobe in Davis; recycled fabric cap by Flipside Hats, available at the Davis Food Co-op; orange cap by Pistil Designs, available at Outdoor Davis; and a Manchester United beanie I’m “borrowing” from my 14-year-old.)

One thing that’s making this easier is having my hair stylist’s support. Stacia’s going to work her salon wizardry on my changing hair by putting some silver highlights through it at my next appointments to address that stark line between colored and natural. I will post an update later this year with pictures.

Finally, I’m being forthright about it, as evidenced by this blog entry. I wore my funky necktie hat (far left in the “gallery” above) to a holiday party last month in Berkeley, and every time I was complimented on the hat, which was every ten minutes, I’d blurt out, “Thanks! It’s covering up my roots. I’m letting myself go gray.” At which point several people could not resist pulling my hat off to have a look. Oh, well. The hazards of transparency.

BOTTOM LINE

Here’s the thing: It’s not irreversible. This is an experiment. If I hate it, I will go back to coloring my hair.

But I don’t expect to. The other morning I was drying my hair before the mirror and pulled back a section to see how the underneath layers looked. And I was  surprised to discover that I actually liked the silvery sheen advancing across my head. It’s—well, it’s kind of pretty. And although I know it’s just a function of time and genetics, somehow it feels earned.

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