Every time a gray hair pops up on my crown, I lose my shit.
OK, I’m not that dramatic, but I am a serial plucker. With only a few visible gray stubs here and there, this approach is manageable for now but not sustainable. And I’m not too interested in spending the rest of my life coloring my roots.
What does one do when gray hairs creep in, and eventually take over?
Lots of people have complicated relationships with graying and aging in general. Some wear it like a badge of honor (which is great!) and some might consider prioritizing their monthly hair appointment over emergency dental surgery, which I totally understand, too.
So, I spoke to seven people to hear their gray hair stories to guide my path.
From eschewing cultural norms to fearing a lover’s rejection, here’s what they had to share about going gray.
Su-Jit, 33, on going gray with Lupus
“I got my first gray at about 23, when I started ‘real life’ – job hunt, actual job, balancing side job, moving in with my soon-to-be-ex. I figured it was stress related.
The thing is, I have lupus, and so hair loss is a very real fear. You know how we all shed in the shower? [During active flares, I can lose] double or triple that, where washing my hair means holding thick chunks of it in my hands, and I get a momentary sense of panic hoping it’s evenly distributed. It’s terrifying.
I’ve always had beautiful, thick, lush hair, and it was ‘the best’ in my family because it’s a deep blue-black versus brown- or red-black. In addition to that, it’s beach-wavy naturally. So I almost feel like I’m being punished for my vanity, for loving my hair. There’s a sense of guilt and a feeling of deserving the loss.
Lupus has made me even more against [plucking gray hair]! The way I see it, we only have our hair for so long, no matter what type of hair we’re born with. I lose enough in the shower, in the bathroom, sleeping, and to lupus to hold on to every precious strand. I’ll keep the hair I have until I can’t anymore, thanks!”
Lucy, 48, on the pressure to look picture-perfect
“About three years ago, I started doing henna glosses to color my grays. I had started gaining weight after recovering from a bout of disordered eating, so maybe I was unconsciously rebelling against the idea that I was ‘letting myself go.’ Various people expressed disappointment that I was ‘not staying healthy.’ The irony of course is that I am staying healthy, just not thin. So I guess I compensate for that perception by not allowing my hair to go gray.
Black women are under so much pressure to be picture-perfect. We’re criticized if we don’t meet white standards of beauty, and then criticized even more harshly if we can’t achieve that look ‘naturally.’ So we get mocked for wearing wigs or extensions, but if we go natural, we’re mocked for that, too. I end up feeling that other black women are the best judges of my appearance (after me, of course).”
Duaa, 30, on rebelling against Sudanese beauty ideals
“When I first started going gray at 15, I thought, ‘What have I done wrong in my life to deserve this?!’ It’s genetic. My mom, also as a teenager, had grey hair. She gets her hair dyed like biweekly. She would get mad almost every time she’d see my hair because it seemed like a sign of me not really taking care of myself and not really being aware of my own grooming habits.
American beauty is generally more about being subtle – the no-makeup makeup look and embracing the natural. But Sudanese beauty is the complete opposite. You have to look like you’ve made an effort. You have to look well groomed, professional, your makeup always has to be impeccable. Someone like me, who’s really lazy about my approach to my style or taking care of my hair – it really clashes with my mom, my aunts and my female cousins from Sudan, because they are perfect. They make sure that they’re flawless, and it takes hours to achieve that before they can even go out anywhere.
I think in general being natural is beautiful. The older I get, the more I’m accepting of how I look and who I am, and I can’t change that. Do you know Rogue from X-Men? [My gray hair] is kind of like that. Not as neat, though, because I have curly hair. It’s basically one strip at the center of the front part of my hair. My gray hair just keeps coming back, and you’re fighting a losing battle if you’re trying to go against what is happening to you naturally. It used to remind of the negative reactions of other people in my family. But now I’m just embracing it. I like it. It’s kind of a sign of rebellion against my cultural norm and what I grew up with.”
Shari, 43, on what happens if you miss a hair color appointment
“I go [to my hair color appointment] every seven to nine weeks. I try never to miss an appointment, unless something important comes up, like surgery or my mom’s funeral.
Last summer, I had to have dental surgery two weeks before a three-week vacation to Europe, and they only had one opening – at the same time as my hair appointment. I didn’t want to postpone the surgery and be in pain on my trip, but I also didn’t want to be gray in photos that I’d have forever. I’m a bit ashamed to say that I had to think about it, but I did choose the dental surgery.
My backup plan was to purchase semi-permanent dye in medium auburn. I figured it would simply wash out and I’d see my hairdresser when I returned. First, it was NOT medium auburn, it was crayon red. [Second], 90 percent of it washed out in the first 10 days. By the time I saw old friends in London (our last stop), my hair had a faint reddish hue that did not cover any of the gray. I almost picked up more dye, but I thought that was probably being too vain since our time was limited. The 10 percent red never faded, it had to be covered until it grew out. And I had to promise my hairdresser that I’d never take my hair color into my own hands again.
My 25-year-old hairdresser dyes her hair gray/silver and it’s beautiful. It’s just not for me. Funny, as much as I judge me, I do not judge other women [for having gray hair]. Good for them! Everyone should be happy with their own look. I hope that they are. I am with mine.”
Victoria, 32, on global adventures in covering gray
“I’ve had gray hair since I was 17, and I’ve been dyeing it from the age of 20. It’s something that’s always been a little strange and almost embarrassing.
The majority of my career has been working in strange regions of the world that don’t have easy access to reputable salons. I worked remotely in conflict zones – places like the West Bank, Kosovo, Iraq and Jerusalem. I’ve had weird hair drama and disasters because every culture treats hair a little differently. In Jordan, I went to a very fancy hotel salon that I figured would have a pretty high comprehension of English so that I could explain what I wanted. They understood English, they just didn’t listen to what I wanted. They actually turned my hair orange and then didn’t take the dye off of the back of my neck, so my neck was dyed black, my hair was dyed orange, and then they tried to do a semi-perm on me. I came out looking like an orange poodle.
In the last six months, I’ve let my hair grow, and I started noticing how incredibly gray my hair has become. I have about 50 percent gray, almost white hair, and 50 percent super dark, black hair. The women in my family have bright-white, really beautiful hair, and so I thought, why not see what happens and let it grow naturally for a while and see if I actually like it? I had basically black hair, but I lightened it pretty significantly and gave it an ash blonde glaze so that everything kind of mixes in a little bit better and it’s not as obvious as it grows out. I’m really trying to treat it as a hairstyle instead of a political choice.”
Raquel, 34, on learning to own gray hair
“About 10 years ago, my mother had breast cancer, and one of the side effects of the chemotherapy was that she lost all her hair. But it grew back completely undamaged, and silky and lustrous, and this gorgeous silver color. She’s kept it that way, in a short crop, ever since, and she looks fantastic. People stop her on the street to compliment her on it. She also, I think, since her illness, has had a healthier relationship to her age and aging.
I do [feel emotional about going gray myself]! Part of it is because … I feel like I’m too young to have gray hair. Not just in terms of age, but I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, both professionally and personally, or traveled enough or lived enough to start looking like I’m entering middle age. I feel like you need gravitas to pull of gray hair, and I feel like I don’t have any gravitas. I feel like I’m still a mess and figuring stuff out.
I write about fashion, which is an industry that prizes youth and beauty, and I think subconsciously that has to have some effect on me, no matter how self-aware I am.
[When I see other women embracing gray hair], I love it and maybe feel slightly jealous. I wish I didn’t care so much or could cultivate some kind of badass chic with my gray tresses.”
Alejandro, 40, on silver foxes and silver vixens
“I was 35 when I discovered my first gray hairs. My initial reaction was, ‘NO NO NO NO NO NOOOO. I’m getting old! But I don’t feel old. So it doesn’t make sense.’ It wasn’t something I was ready to deal with, especially as a recently divorced guy. I was worried women wouldn’t be as interested in me if I had gray hair.
First, I just trimmed the hairs. But more and more showed up, so I started using Just for Men to cover it up. I met my now-wife not long after. I was embarrassed to admit I was doing this. But I started to noticed the so-called problem was getting worse.
So I decided to find out her perspective on guys with grey hair, at Burning Man, when we were feeling vulnerable and honest and kind to each other. It took me a long time to spit it out. I talked about how she was younger than me, and how I would experience changes to my body as I got older, and how I wanted to discuss these issues with her. She was convinced I had cancer. I finally said that I had found a grey hair and I was wondering what I should do. She was so relieved that’s all it was, she burst out laughing and said, ‘Keep it! I don’t care. Guys with gray hair are sexy!’ I was shocked.
I do think that women and men are treated differently for their gray hair, though. I hope I’m wrong, but I think some men don’t find gray hair in women to be attractive, and women feel more pressure to dye their hair and defy aging. I don’t think that’s fair. I find women who let their hair go gray irresistible and beautiful.”