Embracing Gray by Mary Sharratt


Five years ago, before peer pressure made me reach for the henna.

When I turned forty, my hair started going seriously gray. Fearing that this would make me look “old,” I drank the Koolaid and hopped straight onto the wheel of hair dyeing samsara, getting my hair professionally colored every six to eight weeks. This, alas, proved to be a very expensive and time-consuming obligation. I am not one of those women who views going to the salon as “pampering.” Quite the contrary. I would much rather be writing novels or pampering my pony.

The salon I frequented in those days, which has since gone out of business, had an alarming tendency to play nonstop Miley Cyrus videos. Sitting under a heat lamp with dye on my hair, I was truly a captive audience and could not run away, and the volume was so loud, it was impossible to read or even think. Subjected to such horrors, I could feel my brain cells slowly and painfully dying off, even as my hair was being dyed. I tried changing salons, but they all seemed to have the same loud, annoying soundtrack.

To compound this, my hair grows so fast, the gray roots would be visible two weeks after each dye job and then I had use root concealer to hide the evidence. Finally my scalp would take no more and I developed a skin intolerance to commercial hair dye. That, and one Miley Cyrus video too many, tipped me over the edge. I decided to jump off the hair dyeing merry-go-round and go naturally gray. By this time, I was approaching fifty.

After reading numerous blogs and websites by other women who were also fed up the dyeing, I made the long, awkward transition of growing out my roots for nearly a year, then getting a pixie cut and growing that out. I thought I would be free. My husband fully supported the natural me. My noble steed loves me no matter what I do to my hair. Young women didn’t have any problem with it. But women my own age and older were giving me a very hard time with such undermining commentary as, “Ooh, you’re so brave! I could never just let myself go like that,” or “You looked a lot younger when you were dyeing it,” or “I’m not ready to look old yet.”

Why are women so horrible to other women? Why would any woman get so worked up about another woman’s hair choices? Did my gray hair come as an unwelcome reminder that they, too, were aging and that no amount of salon appointments could ever reverse this?

On the other hand, I understand that some women genuinely enjoy the whole salon experience and do indeed consider professional hair coloring to be pampering. Power to these women! Just please don’t hate on those of us who wish to walk another path.

My darkest gray hair experience was encountering the ugly specter of age discrimination for the first time in my life. My gray hair barred me from a Vienna night club I wanted to visit with my friends. The door person said I was refused entry because I was wearing trainers, but they were letting in countless young people with trainers. I also discovered that every time I went to Manchester city center, I became a magnet for aggressive charity muggers, or street fundraisers, who apparently view older women as soft targets. It’s a different form of street harassment than the sexualized harassment younger women face.

Eventually all this pressure wore me down. I also had my 2016 novel The Dark Lady’s Mask, which was about to be released. I was worried my novel wouldn’t do well if its author looked too “old.” So I leapt back onto the wheel of hair-coloring samsara, but this time with a natural blend of organic henna and indigo that didn’t irritate my scalp. Since I put the henna on myself at home, it was much more affordable and there was no forced subjection to brain-destroying music videos.

My acquaintances who had been so uncomfortable with my gray hair were much relieved and complimented me on looking so much “younger” again. The henna made my hair strong and shiny. I grew out a long red witch mane that became my trademark. But my hair was still growing so fast that the roots were visible after two weeks of hennaing and I still had to do the same dance with root concealer.

lithuania witch throne (2)

My witchy henna mane. Just don’t look too closely at the roots! 

When I turned fifty-five in November last year, something snapped. If I didn’t have the courage to go gray now, when would I? Would I still be faffing around with henna and root concealer in my eighties? I decided I was done. I would use up my last box of henna, but that was it. I don’t know any man who has ever been bullied into coloring his hair because his friends said he would look too “old” otherwise. So why should I cave into bullying and shaming?

My last henna job was in early December 2019. After three months of growing out the roots, I bit the bullet in early March, marched into a salon with no annoying music, and asked for a short, choppy pixie. The enthusiastic young stylist was excited to take on the challenge, for it was a radical transformation. My hair had become quite long. She spent a full hour cutting and chipping away to give my super short hair texture. In the end I had a cut that was radically stylish and freeing.

It felt quite liberating to let all that hennaed hair fall away, as though I were shedding an old skin, an old identity that no longer served me. It’s staggering to contemplate the price I had to pay for buying into the collective delusion hair color can bestow eternal youth. The belief that I had to play along with this charade to win the approval of other women.

I hope I can stick to my resolution this time. I do intend to grow out a long witchy mane again eventually, but this time in silver.

Gray liberation, five years later!

 

 

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her most recent novel Ecstasy is about the composer Alma Schindler Mahler. If you enjoyed this article, sign up for Mary’s newsletter or visit her website.

 



Categories: Aging, female friendship, Feminism, General

Tags: ,

26 replies

  1. Yea you! Will be turning 51 this year. About two to three years ago, I started being motivated by all the beautiful silver haired crones that I had started to see (mainly on social media) and decided to stop dying my hair and dreading the signs of silver I had started to see. I said, ‘Bring it On!’ I’m going gray! And then I did not go gray. A few hairs here and there, but mainly brown. I am still trying to encourage its arrival. We shall see how I am when it arrives! But meanwhile, think of all the women you will motivate with your long silver witchy mane! Or the beautiful silver pixie cut.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just did a blog post last week on this same topic! I’ve started growing out my gray too.

    The decision seemed so monumental, I was a wreck over it, until I discovered there are a number of Facebook groups devoted to women on the same journey. I joined several of them (Growing Gray Gracefully and Silver Revolution to name a few), and have found so much encouragement and inspiration, it has totally changed my perspective.

    As I said in my blog post, I’m now excited to discover the “new” me.

    (By the way, I love your new pixie haircut. Very cute and youthful!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo ! Your short gray hair and your pixie haircut look great! There’s so much to say about hair!! I started having my first white hair when I was 30, it was a thin white strand – a bit like Morticia Adams!!! And at that time, I dyed my hair too. Not so much as to hide the white hair, but because I liked the coloured shine it gave to my hair. But about 10 years ago, I started to be fed up with this dyeing and decided to stop it.
    I’ve had grey hair since then, I’m 51 now and I don’t regret it at all, and I have never felt any pressure or any discrimination because of it. On the contrary, I inspired my mother – who had henna – and now she has grey hair too!! My next decision : I’m now letting my hair grow long again (I’ve had short hair for ages!).
    The Crones are on their way…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Holy cow–I don’t even recognize you in that pixie-cut photo! I loved your red, curly hair. And I also respect your decisions. After all, it’s your hair, and we can all look like we want to look. Right?

    I had short, red, curly hair in the 1980s. I still have photos. And then, for some reason I still don’t know, I started bleaching my hair in 1992. I did it myself for a few years, and now my friend Angelo (a wonderful hair dresser) bleaches and cuts my hair every month. I know I have dark roots, but I have no idea what color my hair really is. Both my parents and my brother had gray hair gone white by the time they were 50, but my hair is bleached. So……..I guess we can either be “guided” by society (social media? reality TV?) as to what we look like or we can make our own decisions. (I had a pixie cut in high school, the result of taking scissors into my bedroom and exchanging haircuts with a friend.)

    Mary, good for you! Brava! I’m glad you’re making your own hair decisions. We all should.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Mary, your hair is gorgeous long, short, grey, red…

    I change my color with every outfit! The color of my hat or kerchief that is. I have a few grey hairs but really very little hair at all. My mother who also had very female pattern baldness in her older years wore wigs. Even though they were high quality, they still looked like wigs. I could just say wot the hell and shave my head, or go out knowing/not knowing what part of my scalp is showing. But that makes me feel the way you do in dreams where you show up naked in school. I like my hats and kerchiefs. I get to play with color and i like that I am wearing a hat rather than trying to look as though I have hair.

    The great thing about being sixty-six is that I don’t have to worry about looking old–I am. I dress for fun and comfort and I am happy to be able to walk and hike. A joy I don’t take for granted.

    So here is to having fun with our hair and our lives. Thanks for the post, Mary.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Mary,
    I loved my black hair of youth and use a cheap Asian dye every few weeks to dye it black not caring too much about the white streaks or white roots, all my ages mixed together. Ageism is not just about hair color. Being told you look young is a complement and looking old is an insult. Why? All these creams, botox all to look young.
    It is not easy getting old, being 75 this year, the wear and tear of our bodies. I use to dream I could relax, sit in an arm chair and be wise, respected, not constantly told to go to a gym and ‘be’ young. To find the fountain of youth.
    I was told once by a professor that our society doesn’t accept dependency and we can see it how we treat our children and elderly. Be it an elderly woman or a stay at home mom, neither are respected.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this Mary. The many tendrils of sexism and ageism and the other destructive stereotypes may change in expression but keep telling us we’re not acceptable as we are. I’m so sorry to hear that you too have received such negativity and distress. Marvellous that you’ve found the confidence to try something new – and that you will keep experimenting with the wonderful hair you have.
    Enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay for gray! Congratulations Mary . . . You look gorgeous no matter the color of your hair, and I’ve actually found that being gray is a great liberation in many many ways . . . I made the decision fifteen years ago, after experiencing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I was on the road, frantically making my way north, and I thought: this experience has changed me; I need to not pretend I’m the same person I was before . . . Which is what dying my hair jet black had been, a kind of pretense that I was still 35 or something! In any event, I haven’t regretted that decision. But what always baffles me is when people admire my gray hair and then say, “I wish I could let my hair be gray but . . .”

      Like

  8. Wow, I have to admit this essay blew me away…for one thing I have always thought gray hair was beautiful… and I guess because I wear my gray/ brown hair in braids I just don’t think about it…and I have never been to a beauty salon – this is a whole female world I don’t really understand I guess… when I began to lose teeth at 70 – I cried because I was losing physical parts of my body – if I lost my hair or a breast because of cancer it would be frightening – so when I think of these kinds of things I can sort of create a bridge to hair – I guess each of us has different ways of dealing with aging and gray hair is scary for lots of women. Gosh look at the post responses. I am happy for you because you have liberated yourself!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I am 56 and still have my own natural colour sort of a light brown with goldish and red highlights only in bright sunshine or light. I imagine one day the grey will be there and for me I do not care. I have not coloured my hair for over 12 years having just used a henna that was to add shine even then. I am quite OK with aging. I certainly prefer it that being young again.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have been lucky in that my hair has been gradually fading, but with streaks of white, so I look like I have had an expensive salon job done. My hair is very long and definitely the length toward my waist is much redder than that above. When I did henna my hair I did so as an homage to my dad’s cousin, Cousin Ruthie, who always dyed her hair red.

    I actually much prefer to see women with their naturally gray hair. I find it so jarring when I see an obviously older woman with hair an impossible shade of something and it looks completely out of place. Actually, the same thing with men.

    So, yay for you and your gray hair!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My vote is for the shoulder length curly haircut in the photo with the horse. Go Grey!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have been going gray,and covering since I was 23. I’m 41 now and it’s been 3 months since I dyed my hair. This is The longest time I have ever let myself go between colorings, and it feels wonderful and incredibly frightening at the same time.
    I have many excuses for coloring my hair, and I’m doing my best to dismantle those excuses and fears one by one. Here’s to owning our beauty!

    Like

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