Girls Gone Gray by Erin Lane

My hair started “going gray” at nineteen. Prophetic, you could say, for a college girl whose life was going the same way.

The gray hair began around my temples, curling around my ears like a vine before following my hairline to the forehead and down the spine of my scalp. I remember calling my mother and telling her between tales of new classes and new boys of my new whiskers. “Oh, and mom, you will not believe it. I found a gray hair. What is that?”

Her laugh vibrated though the phone. “That is normal. I went gray at 19. Your father went gray at 19. Your brother has it coming in, too, nowadays.” She added, “Sorry.” But she didn’t sound it.

Whether or not to dye it was moot. I had been coloring my hair since I was twelve and knew the difference between plum brown and auburn sunset. The boxes always said it would wash out after eight, twelve, twenty-four shampoos but I always chose red-hues that stained like spilled wine. I went from burgundy to hazelnut to espresso to skunk orange highlights before I began worrying about phrases like “full gray coverage.”

In high school, my best friend Lia was an olive-skinned beauty with wavy hair that made her look Jewish, which she was. With my pale, freckled-skin, we had little in our beauty arsenal to be the Barbie-like girls prized amongst boys are age. And so we dyed our hair dark, very dark. Our hair said we were going our own way, that we were mature and intense, never mind that we drank flavored Smirnoff.

When I found my gray hairs it became tougher to keep dying my hair the color of crows. The gray was so stark and obvious and harsh. I slowly started going lighter, even blonder, by the time I was a senior in college. I had seen it happen to brunettes like my Grannie Annie who over time became a buttery champagne, my Nanny whose platinum blonde is as crisp as her navy and white stripes, and my mother whose hair is finally as sunny as her disposition. What were we doing? Living out fantasies of being blondes-have-more-fun beauties? Covering up realities of being aging, graying no-longer-girls?

A few months ago, almost a decade since the first whisp of white appeared, I parted my hair down the middle and put my face in front of the mirror.

“Popping a pimple?” my husband asked as he breezed by the bathroom.

“No. I’m just figuring out what color my hair is. I haven’t seen it for half my life.” It surprised me. It was almost copper, almost dark blonde, like nothing and everything I expected. Like meeting my biological child after giving it up for adoption at the bathroom sink of beauty.

These days I’m letting the grays come in more steadily. I still weave in blonde highlights, to keep things interesting, I tell myself. To brighten things up, I think. There are so many body modifications I’ve protested as a feminist in the name of self-acceptance that I am still surprised when I lay down $100 every four months to bathe what my stylist called “my sparklers” in chemicals.


It’s summer now and there’s no good television. I unwind with episode after episode of the TLC mainstay “What Not to Wear.” My favorite part – even my husband’s favorite part – is forty-five minutes into the show when the woman who has been chosen to shop for a brand new wardrobe finally completes her new look with a hair cut and color. Will Nick cut it short with mom-layers again? Will Ted make her get rid of her punky pink dreads? Will the women with gray hair who have been told they let themselves go, cared too much for their kids and not enough about their looks, look twenty years younger?



It really is so satisfying when the gray is gone. The women, like Dottie above, are pretty pictures. There is renewed richness in their hair and rosiness in their cheeks. They look like the women in my magazines, and I feel at ease. Is it so wrong when their esteem is lifted? Is it so harmless when their age is “shaved”?

I don’t know the answers to these things yet, whether or not I am making it harder for other women to love themselves with each foil. After attending a Quaker meeting with a friend once, she commented, “Did you notice? The women were so beautiful and gray without a stitch of makeup. It felt right.” I wondered if my brush streaks and blonde streaks made her feel wronged.

I do know that coloring my hair makes me feel alive and creative and artistic, palates of blonde, copper, and brown blended with a creator’s brush. I do know that letting my natural hair come in makes me feel salty and serene and wily, unkempt like a verdant garden.

I do know that gray is the color of ground and God.

This article is crossposted at Holy Hellions.

Erin Lane is a freelance communication strategist for faith-based authors and organizations. She received her Masters in Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School with a focus in gender, ministry, and theology. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she blogs about the intersection of her faith and feminism at She is also co-editing an upcoming anthology on the taboos experienced by young American Christian women. She lives in Durham, NC.

Categories: Aging, Body, Feminism, Women's Agency

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. Good for you! Why shouldn’t we choose what we look like? I had red-blonde hair for a decade or two, and now it’s been bleached since, oh, 1992. I don’t even know what color my hair “really” is. You deserve to look like you want to look. Amen.


  2. HI Erin, I appreciate your post as I also started to “go gray” at 18. I am constantly coloring my hair – when I don’t it looks like I have gray highlights! I want to embrace my gray but it looks so awful. So I try to keep up with the color and hope for the best. I keep thinking that once I reach the point of being entirely gray I’ll embrace it then, but I guess only time will tell.

    As of late I’ve been refusing to wear makeup and have not colored my hair in a few months so it is getting out of control. Trying to embrace who I am at my core and not give into societal demands on women – but I can already tell that I’m not going to last very long! I just feel better about myself when I do where makeup and take care of my hair – it may be a symptom of the society but I’m affected and for now cannot figure how to move away from it.


  3. Thank you for posting, as this is something most (all) of us will go through – to color or not to color. I too got my first gray early, in high school! My mom’s hair almost never turned, just a few in her 70’s, but dad also started to go gray at about 17 so I got the genes. The funny thing was, I never cared until a clerk I was training when I was in my late 20’s mentioned it. Standing over me as I was typing something on computer screen, I hear her say .. “oh… OH.. you have grays, a lot actually. Aren’t you very young for that?” She was horrified, I’m sure because she was wondering if it would happen to her! I went out that weekend and started with temporary colors and worked my way up to permanent colors and colorist appointments every six weeks. Just yesterday I realized how really stunningly pretty my gray is — its not yellowed or dull, its sparkly silver. I asked my hairdresser to leave the front, from temple to temple, all natural. Now I have this wonderful arc or accent gray and I feel great about it. I told my husband it was my Cruella DeVille look and he thought about it a minute and said, “No, I think you’re Rogue”…. I had to go look up his comic book hero reference to the redhead with a shock of white in the front. Yep that’s it… we’re all Super! Negotiating our images in a sexist world can be hard …. I tend to second guess … wanting to do the Right thing. But, in the end, its all a path and it’s all… all right… as long as we keep moving and keep it honest.


  4. Was the woman pictured on the left in the “What not to wear” picture supposed to be the beautiful woman? Or was she the woman on the right — the after picture? I loved the woman on the left, and am always in love with women who don’t dye hair, don’t wear make-up, but who have real faces and direct gazes and serious dispositions. I feel at a loss in the midst of women obsessed with hair and shoes and outfits…. oh the energy drain of it all.

    I loved the Olympic swimmers— at last women on TV with no make-up! Just think if all women invested the money they didn’t spend on all this stuff, and used this wealth creation to fund feminist revolution… just imagine!!!


  5. I’ve recently let my hair go completely natural after years of dying it (usually blond, a half of year of beautiful but too hard to maintain red and a good few months of blue in college). And while I do not yet have my grey hair, I still found it such a dramatically different color that I’ve had trouble thinking I look like “me” in the mirror. My hair is ash colored, with a little blond and a little brown. …. Ash. And while I don’t hate it, I do have trouble loving it– though I wish I did love it, even if I also enjoyed my blue, and I am working on accepting my constantly changing body. Thank you for your reflections here!

    And I like what you have to say, Turtle Woman, about the Olympic swimmers! It is refreshing to see these beautiful and powerful women on TV!


  6. I started going gray in high school . . . oddly, the first time I found a gray hair on my head I was immediately joyful. I got so exicted! It wasn’t just gray–it was white. I was so happy because even though I was only 16 I had always dreamed of having white hair when I was old and skipping gray all together. It’s just so beautiful white hair. I love that you call your hairs “sparklers.” I love my white hairs becuase they glitter. My mother was baffled by my excitement and thought that I should pull the hair out. I too color my hair sometimes but never to cover the gray/white, which I love. It is exciting, makes me feel creative as you say. I also don’t wear much make up these days–almost never. But sometimes I get the itch to decorate my face and usually the results are bold, almost costumey face paint. :) I think you can both love your natural unkempt self AND take artistic freedom with your appearance.


  7. Gray hair CAN be beautiful, but it does wash out one’s complexion. About those pix of that woman from WNTW, the before pix on the left she’s wearing NO make-up. Her hair to my eyes is a beautiful gray, all she needed was a good cut & a little blush & lipstick–she would have out-shone the “after” pix w/ her too-dark haircolor.

    My experience with haircolor was it looked okay the first 2 weeks after, then no matter what color “protecting” shampoo and/or conditioner I used my color always faded into something I didn’t like. Also concerned about the soup of chemicals sitting on my head 45 mins. Those chemicals turned my hair into straw, despite careful treatment w/ conditioning, etc. And dealing with the roots that inevitably show up is another factor. No thanks!

    I have finally let my hair go natural & it’s soft, shiny, easy to live with. I don’t have to worry when the wind blows either–no tell-tale stripes showing thru colored hair.


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