“You have great hair!” I thought she said. It was eighth grade, and I was in the principal’s conference room for a student-council meeting when she leaned toward me with great interest. “Thank you!” I blushed. One of the other students sitting next to her shifted uncomfortably. “It’s probably from art class,” he said. “I think we’re working with clay right now.” Then it hit me: He was embarrassed for me. My principal wasn’t saying I had great hair. She was saying I had gray hair.
I learned earlier than most about the cruel fate of my follicles. Everyone in my family started life with the same head of thick, black hair, and everyone in my family started going a little bit silver by the time they turned 18. My mom has memories of setting her mother’s blue-gray hair in curlers as a kid and grimly considering her fate — at 14, her hair was starting to lose its pigment, too. She’d never remembered a time when her mother’s hair was black. I’ve never remembered a time when hers (or my dad’s) was, either. A decade after that comment in the principal’s office, my hair is losing its pigment at a rapid clip. I’m not talking about the one or two little curlicues that grow straight out of your head — the ones you stare at in amazement/horror for a few minutes before plucking them out and moving on with your life. I mean that a third of my hair is now coming in as white as snow. Not in some badass, Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians kind of way. Not as some sexy Susan Sontag glam power-streak, either. It is a frizzy, fuzzy, black-and-white mess.
Recently, Hillary Clinton has taken to joking that Americans don’t have to worry about her going gray in the White House because she’s been coloring her hair for years. I know it’s meant as a lighthearted moment of sisterly solidarity, but it just makes me wince. It’s practically taken for granted that past a certain age a woman will color her hair — but how much time and money has one of the most powerful women in the world spent covering up her natural hair? How much time have I? I’ve been spending money and valuable time at hair salons covering my roots for years. I can’t answer for Clinton, and I don’t regret the times I’ve walked out of a salon and felt truly great. I can only say that for me, the upkeep has become a burden. And I believe that any beauty treatment that feels like a burden is a beauty treatment not worth doing.
No one tells a woman my age how to properly go gray. Trust me, I’ve been searching in the Google wilderness for months. There are plenty of articles catering to (and featuring stock images of) women twice my age, which advise cutting your hair severely short and/or lightening it until it’s blonde — not great options for someone who is trying to spend less time and money at the salon. And then there are trend stories about young women dyeing their hair frosty lavender or blueish gray — which is adorable, to be sure, but really nothing like what is going on with me.
What’s going on with me is that the top of my head is signaling like a beacon that I’m aging. The fact that I know how ridiculous this sounds does nothing to mitigate the frustration I feel. My friends try to be nice: They ask if I’m going to have one of those perfect gray streaks, the kind worn by women who’ve taken to dyeing all but a small strip of their hair. Or they point to women who look stunning with gray hair — women who were already perfect-looking before they went gray and somehow seem to be getting more perfect with time. At worst, they swear they can’t see it, which has the unintended effect of making me feel both insecure and delusional.
I wish I could tell you that I found some incredible beauty hack — that I’ve figured out a way to let my roots go and look awesome doing it. I was hopeful that I had: About a month ago, I went to a new stylist who promised me that in two treatments she would turn two panels of my hair silver, to give the gray something to grow into. It didn’t work. Now I have two large, light-blonde streaks in my hair. They are definitely not gray. I’m almost exactly where I was a month ago. And you know what? I give up. I’m just going to let it go.
Some days, when I’ve managed to part my hair in just the right place and tilt my head at just the right angle, I am pretty sure my grays look distinctive and fierce. Other days, I wish I could wear a sandwich board that lets everyone know exactly what’s going on — hey, I’m letting it go on purpose! — lest they think I’m just depressed and have lost the will to take care of myself. I wish I could say that I’ve been “going gray gracefully,” like those articles meant for much older women say that I should. But there is nothing graceful about this. It’s like a secondary adolescence, awkward and uncertain, empowering and also kind of crazy-making. There is just one thing that gives me small comfort: Just as everyone eventually goes through adolescence, so too do they go gray. By the time most of my age cohort is going through the same thing, I’ll have my silver-fox look on lock. If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet, well: Do not ask for whom the gray grows. It grows for thee.