Gray Lady Among the Gray Babies

Photo: Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

It was probably 2015 when I first saw a woman who had obviously made her hair gray on purpose. I said to myself, Why would you make yourself old before you have to be old, dumb-ass? Then I was like — and isn’t this always how it goes! — No, I’m the dumb-ass. The woman didn’t look old: She had a young face and body, and the artificial old hair, as did the mom jeans she was almost certainly wearing, merely emphasized how authentically young she was.

Sexy grandma is no longer cutting edge; it reads the way wide-legged denim culottes might next March. But a friend of mine in her 30s whose hair turned gray when she was 20, and estimates that she has spent $60,000 making it brown, said she still sees it everywhere, and does not enjoy the experience. “God I hate those people. I feel like they’re saying, ‘Oh I am so young and beautiful no matter what I do to myself.’”

But is that the motive? About four years ago, when the trend had passed infancy and was beginning to mature, a friend in her early 30s dyed her lovely silky, estrogen-rich dirty-blonde hair gray. I asked her why she did it and she said “because it looked cool as hell.” I am sure she didn’t even think about old people (or early gray people) when she made the decision to go fake gray, unless this was the first time in history a younger person thought of an older person when making a fashion decision.

As someone who “enjoys fashion” I have appreciated the artifice of young women with fake gray hair even as I’m also like, Jesus fucking Christ, really? Look, I realize there are women who equate aging with a superbloom of wisdom. These women are all smoking pot right now. My experience of aging has been watching the attention and respect I receive wane at exactly the same rate as my attractiveness. Strangers, once curious at my approach, now more often look annoyed. Male colleagues space out when I talk to them. If I ask a 30-year-old woman to watch my bag at an airport bar, instead of saying “I like your shoes,” she looks terrified, like if we keep talking she might catch oldness.

If any young woman reads this and doesn’t believe it, good. Good. There’s no reason to waste the next 20 to 30 years thinking about how this is going to happen. You have better things to do, like stand in front of the mirror admiring the natural pigment in your hair.

I am about to turn 50 and about ten years ago my hair started to go gray in earnest. Having the odd gray hair is not the same as looking in the mirror and saying, “Wow, holy shit, this is really happening.” For a few years I dyed it brown with highlights and lowlights to make it look natural. I drove three hours from where I live to a guy in the East Bay who is as good at dyeing hair as Mitch McConnell used to be at getting people to write angry letters to him in their heads at SoulCycle, before they found out he basically owns the place. I probably spent about $8,000 over seven years, some significant portion of my income, but until I was 44 I looked not a day over 39. Then, one day when I was 48 and looked 46, my boyfriend said to me, “Why don’t you just let your hair go gray? I think it would look good.” This is one of the top-ten happiest events of my life. Two friends of mine about ten years older than me freaked out when I said I was done dyeing my hair. “You’ll look so old,” one wailed. “It will ruin your career,” warned the other, and I was like, “Oh, no, I can do that all by myself.”

No longer dyeing my hair was like suddenly swallowing a million Valium. The shift in how people treated me was immediately palpable, but whatever sense of alienation this resulted in was balanced by a newfound lack of anxiety about the arrival of middle-agedness. No more fear about what it would be like. It was here now! I started noticing all the women around me who were naturally gray. I used to be like, Oh my God, do I look like that? and now I was like, Yeah, I do. Oh well.

Some women look better letting their hair go gray and some maybe don’t, but one thing I do know is that, public service announcement, literally no man looks good dyeing his hair back to its original color. If women around me didn’t let their hair go gray, I might have gone back to dyeing mine. Of course I needed to look for inspiration no further than my own mother, who was totally gray by the time she was about 43. One day, after she’d been gray for a year or two, a male colleague came up to her in the hallway of the regional rural Massachusetts high school where she alternated between teaching English and battling sexist dickheads for an ounce of respect. “You know,” the guy said, “I think people might treat you better if you dyed your hair.” My mother just laughed. She said, “Oh, really? Starting with you?” I asked her if it made her want to start dyeing her hair again. She laughed again. “No,” she said. “It made me want to punch him in the face.”

I’ve heard a theory that young women are dyeing their hair gray as a sign of solidarity with older women, of acceptance of the aging to come. I enjoy believing this while another friend of mine, ten years older than me, snorted at it and told me that when she sees women with fake gray hair she thinks to herself, You haven’t earned those. This friend is abnormally good looking, and I wonder what normal-looking women have thought about what she hasn’t earned. I know most of what I have has not been earned.

Whether you have been a terrible person or a good one your hair will probably turn gray. It’s not a badge. It’s not an accomplishment. It’s just nature’s way of saying, “See what I did to the pigment cells in your hair follicles to mark the end of the first half of your life? I’m going to do the same thing to you at the end of the second half.”

I will never be entirely sure why I was blessed to go gray at a time when so many others volunteered to, though, of course, young people and old people have never publicly disliked each other more. Every other stupid article is about why boomers are jerks or millennials are lazy or how Generation X, my generation, the one in between, is just a bunch of assholes. If there was ever a moment to play-act oldness, to show that youth could wear oldness better, we are in that moment. But part of that moment, maybe most of it, is climate catastrophe, and it’s no accident that as coral famously and rapidly declines, “Living Coral” is the latest trend in hair color. It makes me think dyed-gray hair’s message is less “I look hot no matter what” and more “it doesn’t matter if you look old or young because we’re all doomed.”

Gray Lady Among the Gray Babies