Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why I don't dye my gray hair

About a month ago, I met a woman at church in the row behind me in her 50s or 60s.  She was cute with a short, very bleached-blonde head of hair.  We introduced ourselves and engaged in small talk until she suddenly interjected:

"Can I ask you a question?"


"Why do you have gray in your hair?"

(a bit stunned, I took a moment to collect my thoughts)

"Well...uh...I'm in my 30s and this is just my natural hair.  And I'd actually be willing to bet that there are a bunch of other women in this room right now who are close to my age who also have gray hair.  I'm just the only one who hasn't covered it up!"

That's about all I could come up with on the spot, having never been asked this question before.  Why is my hair gray?  Is it time for a science lesson??  The conversation ended rather abruptly after some backpedaling on her part, not before leaving me wondering if some of that bleach had perhaps absorbed through her scalp...

Before I continue with the story of this conversation's aftermath, here's the expanded backstory of my own hair.  I started sprouting a few gray strands in my late 20s.  At first, I just plucked most of them out.  At around age 30, with pressure from my hair dresser, I dyed it all over, with a plan to occasionally touch up the roots.

It was uncomfortable, unpleasant experience.  I hated the smell of the dye, which felt like it was burning my nasal passages.  I didn't like the way my hair and scalp felt afterward.  I also didn't like the price tag.  At the time, this was a compelling enough case to abandon the root-touch-up plan.  After all, I didn't have a whole lot of gray, just a few strands at the top and back.  I haven't dyed since.

But at 34, I now have more, longer gray strands, with new ones sprouting all the time.  My surprise conversation with the bleachy church lady* last month prompted me to think about two things.  First, I was inspired to sit down and articulate all the reasons why I don't dye my hair.  I wanted a good answer if this question ever came up again!

It's really actually quite white as opposed to gray.
Here are some of my reasons:
  • I don't want to put toxic chemicals on my scalp that can seep into my skin.  Right near my brain, I might add (and thank you, bleachy church lady*, for reminding me).
  • I don't want to spend money or time keeping up with my roots.  It's time and money I'd much rather spend on other things.
  • I know that as time goes on, the gray only becomes more difficult to cover.  Thus, the more chemicals, money and time needed.  I'm just not into fighting losing battles.  
  • I'd say I'm a proponent of natural beauty, but it really goes beyond that.  Ultimately it doesn't matter if I'm "naturally" beautiful or young or whatever the world thinks I should be to have value.  I'd much rather stand up for character beauty.
  • I aspire to accept myself as I am.  This doesn't mean I won't strive to improve.  I should care for my body, mind, and soul.  I want to focus on improving in ways that matter.
  • I want to be a role model for my daughter for self-acceptance and for where to place value.
  • I have a supportive husband.  He's bald, I'm gray.  We make a good team.
  • There is a societal double standard when it comes to men and women on this issue, as it's much more acceptable for a man to go gray.  What mildy-feminist gal doesn't love a good rage against the double standard?
  • I finally fully accepted my curly hair a couple years ago, learned how to take care of it properly, and have not straightened it since.  This was so freeing, and felt in line with my personality (a bit quirky, but always practical) to embrace my natural hair.  Accepting my gray feels like a continuation of the same mindset.
I could go on...

My second realization from the conversation with bleachy church lady* was that I don't personally know any women my approximate age who show their gray hair.  Not a one.  So first, I did a little fact-checking:
  1. On average, caucasian women start going gray in their 30s.
  2. "Premature" graying is defined as occurring before age 20
  3. When it happens is almost all genetics. Contrary to popular belief, stress does not actually cause graying (despite what people say about presidents going gray in office!)
So, I know there are ladies my age out there with gray hair!   And there MUST be some that show it.  Where on Earth are they???

On the internet, of course!

A google search turned up a few blogs from women who had stopped dying their hair.  A couple of them mentioned a Facebook group called "Gray & Proud." I clicked on over and joined.

And I'm here to tell you that I finally found my people!  Over a thousand of them, in fact.  The vast majority are women, but there are a handful of men as well.  All ages - teens to seniors.  Some went gray in their 50s, others before they hit 20.  Plenty of them are currently in their mid-30s like me.  Some have never dyed, some have dyed for 20 or 30 years.  Most went through or are currently going through a transition growing out the dye.  They post photos of their progress, "skunk stripes" and all, and cheer each other on.  Some have yet to take the no-dye plunge but are seriously considering it.  There are lots and lots of other naturally "curly girls," embracing and taking care of their hair using the same methods I do.  Curly or straight, they call each other Silver Sisters.

What is most inspiring and amazing is the overall attitude and vibe of the group as a whole.  The members are universally positive, supportive, and encouraging.  They only have kind things to say to one another (which says a lot, especially considering most comment sections of anything on the internet, ever).  They are brave, strong, and funny.  They respect each person's individual decision to dye or not dye, and do not come across as superior because they've somehow "seen the light." Rather, they have clear reasons for their choices, and encourage each other to make a choice based on what they truly want rather than some outside pressure or person.

These people get it.  And they may not know it, but they get me.

It's even more unruly than the rest of my curls!

Okay, but now it's time for some brutal honesty.

Do I think some of them look much, much older with gray hair?  Honest answer: Yes.

Do I think some of them actually look worse with gray hair.  Honest answer: Yes.

But here's the problem with these answers.  Firstly, I can recognize that my brain has been programmed by our current society, culture, and patterns to think that gray = old and worse.  I can choose to resist this programming.  But even more importantly...

It doesn't matter.

Let me say that again.  It just plain doesn't MATTER.

Does it matter if someone looks, or even acts, old or young?   Young is not better than old, old is not better than young.  Outer appearance and beauty just does not MATTER.

Some things that do MATTER:  Love.  Grace.  Compassion.  Caring.  Kindness.  Forgiveness.  Family.  Friendship.  Poverty.  Oppression.  Starvation.  Suffering.  Grief.  Loneliness.

Hair is just hair.

Now, let me assure you that I'm not abandoning all attempts to look nice and relatively presentable on a daily basis.  As a woman, it's fun to even dress up and feel pretty sometimes.  But accepting the natural gray that's a part of myself and encouraging others to do the same is one way I can demonstrate my belief that hair color is completely insignificant in the grand scheme of life, and also affirm my refusal to worship at the alter of youth.

Here's the last point I want to make, and it's why I wanted to write this post in the first place.  I think there are the rumblings of a movement - dare I say, a revolution - in the works.  We've been through decades upon decades of gray coverage and hiding as the norm, with only a handful of detractors.  But I think more and more women are deciding they've had enough in just the last few years, and even months.  Maybe I'm delusional or biased because I've been pleasantly brainwashed by the Gray & Proud crowd.  Is it a coincidence that a second woman at church asked me about my gray hair just last week?  Perhaps.

Oh, and here's what's happening on Pinterest, by the way...

you decide
But if there's truly a movement going on, I'll gladly be a part of it.  So this is me, in this post, being a part of it.  I'm telling everyone that I'm letting my hair be what it is.  Somewhere, there is a woman who is on the fence about doing the same.  And somewhere, there is a woman about to sprout her first gray hair.

I'm here to say if you decide to go natural, you're not alone.  I'll proudly call you my Silver Sister.

*Update March 26, 2014 - Since this post was published, a friend of mine called me out on the negativity I expressed in referring to the curious woman at church as the "bleachy church lady."  I think my friend was right in doing so - it was unkind of me.  My husband had actually made a comment to the same effect earlier, but less directly.  I should have taken the hint.

Although I was a bit miffed at the way the woman asked the question, I was mostly using the term for effect--to write something catchy and to call attention to the irony of the contrast between her own hair and the way she questioned me about mine (even though it was probably just innocent curiosity that came out badly).  In retrospect, I realize it was too abrasive, condescending and unkind of me to give her this nickname and basically tease her, assuming she'd never actually READ it.  This is wrong and I apologize.  Whether or not she had bleached hair, her question sparked me to examine and clarify my thoughts.  I'm actually quite grateful to her for inspiring me!

It's sobering to remember that I'm not immune to embarrassing, self-induced irony.  I said in the post that kindness and grace and forgiveness MATTER.  I know I fail at these every day and need them as much as the woman at church or anyone else.  I'm leaving the reference in the post, and this apology to go with it, as a concrete reminder.


  1. Can you hear me cheering and clspping? Well said Silver Sister ♥♥♥

  2. I have grey I refuse to dye - I hear ya :) But I also hear the social pressure to not be grey - and it does bug me that I sometimes feel I have to fight for the right to not dye my hair. Why does it even have to be a conversation, kwim?

  3. Amazing message! 9 weeks into my Silver! Also found Diane Jewel's Going Grey, Looking Great, Going Gray & Lovin It, Cafe/ for amazing support, BOOM Cindy Joseph, Saturdays with Cindy, Gorgeously Grey, Going Grey and Looking Great. It is a Pro Age Revolution for all ages. Some responses to the questions might be "I Love It!", "Going Silver is not for the faint of heart", "Yes, you can't believe all of the compliments I get", "Wished I'd stopped dying earlier because I absolutely love it", Oh, there are many more. Thoughts being "What if Gray is your best feature", "It's honest and nonconformist", I want to be a part of reshaping our society's perceptions about aging", "My silver streaks are metaphors of love to my life", "Stainless Steel", "This journey is about SO MUCH MORE than our hair". Linda Age 66 and loving it!

  4. Great blog! I'm on G&P as a recent transition from dyeing for over 30 years to now accepting my natural color. I am not always sure of my decision because of so many negative connotations so like you I am hoping there is a movement towards going gray!

  5. I've been going grey since high school and I'm in my late 20s now. I have no problem embracing the grey. I've never had any interest in dying my hair and have no intention to start. I love the natural brown colour of my hair and the grey is just natural highlighting :-)

  6. I really enjoyed reading your open and honest post. Very inspiring for those beginning their journey.

  7. Fantastic post. Glad you found us on Gray and Proud. It's one of many wonderful supportive groups.

  8. We haven't seen each other since college, but I do not cover my grey either. Although I'm not sure what I would say if someone asked me why...

  9. It's funny I have always loved a well groomed grey haired woman and I have encouraged friends to go grey! But now as I am getting my first grey hairs and panicking at the thought of getting old, I remembered you telling me you plucked yours at first so that's what I did! As they come back I'll remember your post and dare to go grey as I don't enjoy coloring my hair for many of the same reasons! Proud friend of a sliver sister!

  10. Fantastic read :) Thanks for being honest and encouraging. You are right about what is important in life, and that hair is just hair. I am 36, part of the group G&P and currently transitioning really quickly into what is me... just me- and I like it. a. lot. Do I deal with people who don't get it- yup. Am I learning not to care -> Yup. So where do I sign on for this revolution... that I affectionately call the #SilverFoxRevolution

  11. For me I find gray to be very beautiful and enchanting. I've always wondered why people cover up silver. It creates a glow-like halo on the wearer. Thanks for letting me know about the Facebook group

  12. Do I think than one looks very ugly with dark dyed hair and grey roots? Yes! And this is going to happen after two weeks, so if you go once a month to the hairdresser you'll look ugly half of the time anyhow! And you PAY for it!!!!

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