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To dye or not to dye

Grey hair in the face of aging, authenticity and personal preference.

By Amber McKenna, Emerita

March 2012

Toni Morrison and Jamie Lee Curtis

Writer Toni Morrison, 81, and actress Jamie Lee Curits, 53, have let their silver shine through.

Marilyn Divine has been cutting hair for 28 years.  In those years she’s seen old hair and young hair, long hair and short hair, lots-o-hair and barely-there hair.

One thing she doesn’t see a lot of is grey hair—other than roots, that is.

Women have been covering up their grey for hundreds of years. Before synthetic dyes were created and modern methods mastered, plants were used to create a colored dye.

A 2008 study done by Clairol found that 75 percent of American women dye their hair. This same survey revealed that 88 percent of women feel their hair has an effect on their confidence.

Marilyn owns Leepin’ Lizards Hair Place in Portland, Oregon. She said the majority of her clients are over 40.

“A lot of hairdressers might persuade women to cover the grey,” she said. “For me, if you want it covered I’ll work with you. If not that’s fine too. There’s definitely a bias out there, like, ‘Oh, you don’t want grey hair.’”

Marilyn said the women who decide not to dye their hair are usually those who consider themselves low-maintenance; they don’t want to have to worry about keeping it up. Some, however, have an almost compulsive need to cover their sliver streaks.

“So many women tell me ‘I’m not ready for this; I’m not old enough for this,’ and even ‘I can’t stand to see this,’” Marilyn said. “It has a lot to do with individuals’ comfort level with aging.”

The book “Going Gray: What I learned about beauty, sex, work, motherhood, authenticity and everything else that really matters” by Anne Kreamer covers the topic extensively. She writes (in 2007) that just six out of 67 female members of the House of Representatives show any grey and that none of the 14 female US senators do.

Going Gray Anne Kreamer
The book “Going Gray" by Anne Kreamer dives deep into the perception of aging.

One of Marilyn’s customers decided to grow her hair out after having dyed it for years and years.

“She wanted to be authentic,” Marilyn said. “It was white.”

Personally, Marilyn says she’s been dying her own hair in different ways for so long that she has no idea how grey she would be if she let it all grow out.

She said the spectrum of why one decides to cover their grey is all over the board, and suspects some opinions derive from where one was raised and what her examples were. Marilyn is originally from the Midwest and lived in New York for a long time before landing in Portland. She said there are definite differences in how people think about their hair and appearance...even geographically.

“I’ve heard many, many comments about how people in Portland don’t care how they look,” she said. “Maybe it’s Oregon, or the West Coast, but it seems OK to be a little less manicured.”

When it comes to men, it seems there is less of a trend to cover aging hair and more of a concern to hold onto whatever they have left.

“I do have a couple of guys that I color,” Marilyn said. “They’re much more concerned with balding…it might be grey, but it’s still there.”

Even men, though, aren’t immune to the temptation to color. According to Surveys, a US marketing research firm, the percentage of men who colored their hair increased from 2 to 7 percent between 1999 and 2010. It is thought that now 11 percent of men ages 50 to 64 color their hair. Those silver foxes are becoming a rare breed.

As far as when and why one goes grey, Marilyn said it’s genetic but can definitely happen with increased stress.

According to a 2011 report published in Life and Style, 32 percent of British women under the age of 30 have already begun to go grey—and the majority of them blame it on stress. Twenty years ago those under 30 who claimed seeing grey was just 18 percent.

Hair care brand John Frieda has coined a term for these young grey ladies: GHOSTS, aka Grey Haired Over-Stressed Twenty Somethings.

Emerita’s very own Amy Spreadborough shared her story about going grey at a young age.

Amy has a self-proclaimed “low-maintenance” sense of personal style, yet every three weeks, like clockwork, she returns to the salon for all-over color.

She noticed her first grey hairs at 19 and let them grow in.

“I was in a business where it helped when clients thought I was older. I felt like the grey enhanced my credibility,” she said. “I liked being a twenty-something rocking the grey.”

Emmy Lou Harris

Singer Emmylou Harris, 64, has let her hair go white, naturally.

However, she said around age 30 she met a woman with salt-and-pepper hair. Amy said she didn’t give the woman much thought until someone later remarked that salt-and-pepper’s 30th birthday was approaching.

“I realized that subconsciously I had pegged her for forty-something,” Amy said. “I felt a strange twinge that I wasn’t ready to be 40, as irrational as that was at the time.”    

She said then and there she decided to start dying her hair and has done so religiously for the past 15 years.

Amy said she feels some regret not watching her hair turn grey naturally and admires women she sees sporting grey locks. Eventually she plans to embrace her own grey—but not quite yet.

“I’m actually enjoying being a blonde right now. The blonde is fun; it feels like I’m driving a new and perhaps impractical car,” Amy said. “In a few years I’ll trade it in for another, and that one just might be a classy, vintage silver model.”

Everyone has her own unique perception of grey hair, of age and of beauty.

Marilyn said women everywhere know what they want and what they think is attractive.

“They want to know what the options are and how much work it will take,” she said.

One example Marilyn gave is how so many women choose a short hairstyle when they’re older to better flatter their faces.

“The reason so many women cut their hair short when they’re older is because long hair tends to accentuate geometric lines in your face, whereas shorter hair opens up your features,” she said.

The truth about whether we embrace the grey as it comes, or modify it to our liking, is that at the end of the day you want to be happy with your hair for yourself.

“The reality is when women get older, the quality of their hair changes and they think it’s about their femininity,” Marilyn said, “It’s amazing to me how many people are like ‘I hate my forehead’ so they never want to grow out their bangs.”

Marilyn makes the case that as long as the color—of any shade—and the cut are good on you, preconceived notions can be done away with.

And whether you feel comfortable with grey hair, red hair, brown hair or purple hair, the decision is yours and yours alone.

Beautiful grey hair