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Going Gray Was the Easy Part

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health-and-wellness stuff no one talks about.

For as long as I can remember, my hair has been my favorite feature: blonde and curly and lots of it, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s in her peak Sex and the City years. That tumble of curls spilling over her shoulders onto a Dior dress — well, at least that’s how my hair looked five years ago. And then it started to change.

My hair a few years ago when it still felt like it was easy to look good. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

I don’t just mean the color — it started to go gray in my mid-20s — there were also changes in texture, curl pattern, density, and rate of growth. My hair is less thick than it once was — even, if I’m being honest, kind of stringy. My curls, which were once uniform in texture, are now curlier at the bottom and straighter at the root. A stranger asked me if I was growing out a perm. The combination of change in texture and density makes me feel old, and makes my hair feel like a problem I have to contend with every day.

Aging is not something I have ever really struggled with. I’m 45 and feel fine about it. I don’t lie about my age and, if anything, I feel more comfortable about who I am in general. I first started noticing crow’s feet over ten years ago. I’ve dabbled in Botox and lasers but the results have never been dramatic enough for me to invest in doing it regularly. I blended my gray hair into the rest with highlights and haven’t minded as it has gradually taken over more real estate on my head. My hair color is now a striking mix of grays, whites, and gold, but the fact that it has changed from soft ringlets to something that, at times, looks like a wig made of cotton candy really bothers me.

All of these things are normal, says Dr. Laurel Naversen Geraghty, a dermatologist based in Medford, Oregon. “The hair on our heads tends to start growing in finer and thinner. Strands may become more dry, wiry or coarse in texture, and the scalp tends to develop more dryness,” she says. “Later in life, our hair follicles spend more time in their resting phase, rather than actively growing, compared to when we are young. When more hair is resting at any one time, we may notice more shedding and our hair can feel thinner because each hair takes longer breaks between these natural hair cycles.”

Thinner ponytail diameter? Check. Worrisome amount of shedding? Check. Hair that seems wispy and coarse at the same time? Check. Something that was once a focal point and a source of confidence now is a mix of raw emotions. I’m confused: Should I change products? I’m annoyed: Why can’t my hair look decent for this one party on a day with low humidity? I give up and put it in a messy bun, and focus on my face with a lot of hot pink lipstick and some statement earrings.

My hair when I decided to chop it off. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

Not being able to do my hair felt like a terrible regression. After teen years of wanting straight hair and 20s spent experimenting with some weird bobs that made me look like Shirley Temple, I had finally found the right look for me: a wash-day routine of a lot of mousse (Nairobi Wrap-It Shine Foaming Lotion is the holy grail), styling my hair into twists, and unwinding and shaking them out when they dry for loose, bouncy curls. I could go like that for a few days, with maybe a little water the next day to reshape or some Moroccan oil. But that was no longer working.

“It takes years — truly, years — to figure out how to style it right and it’s always a very personal thing. So to have put all that energy into figuring it out — the time! The money! The bad-hair days! — and then to have it stop working is legitimately kind of devastating,” says Claire Mazur, who co-hosts the podcast A Thing or Two with Claire and Erica, and the friend I talk about the topic of aging-hair drama with the most. “You’re starting the whole process all over again and who knows how long it will take to figure it out this time and when it’s going to change on you again. And, frankly, I had a lot more time and willingness in my teens and 20s to be doing all that experimenting.”

I complain a lot about my hair not looking the same anymore to my longtime stylist and colorist, Illeisha Lussiano, who owns the Way salon in Soho. “The first step I like to take with clients is holding space for them to describe or show images of how they remember their hair being five to ten years ago,” Lussiano says. She has been cutting my hair for long enough that she knows firsthand what it looked like five years ago. So in my appointments, she patiently listens to me run through a list of grievances and that usually culminates in a grand finale of rapid-fire and drastic solutions that usually include “chopping it off” or “bleaching it platinum.”

She’s supportive of me making a big change. “Updating the color, adding length, or trying a new haircut can make a major impact,” Lussiano says. Two years ago she cut my hair into a chin-length bob, which did make it look thicker, and I felt cool and elegant. But I missed being able to put it up and grew it back — which took an interminable amount of time — to shoulder length, where it is now. We have been sticking to minor fixes like playing with highlights and glosses to give me variety, and she’ll occasionally braid it into a crown or a pair or French braids.

I’m far from the only person dealing with less hair. Complaints of hair loss are rampant these days due to the pandemic. A 2022 study found that 62.5 percent of people who contracted COVID-19 experienced telogen effluvium hair loss, which alters the hair cycle to shed more rapidly. Dr. Brooke Jackson, a dermatologist in North Carolina, recommends getting lab work done to make sure there are no abnormalities, minimizing heat styling, avoiding crash diets, and eating adequate protein. Those are all things I try to do. And then there are things that can be done in a doctor’s office, such as topical treatments for hair loss like Finasteride or Minoxidil, injections of platelet rich plasma (PRP), prescription pills like Propecia, or laser therapy such as the Revian cap. My friend Krissy Jones, who has very thick hair, has a Joov red-light therapy device she points at her head and swears by, along with the use of a scalp massager.

Last year I shared a hotel room during a yoga retreat with Alice York, who is 40, and we spent a lot of late nights confessing our hair woes to each other. She tells me, “I felt self-conscious about it not being long or thick enough — inadequate — so I’m spending so much money on scalp oils and sprays and supplements; my latest venture has been into Nutrafol,” she says. Her joke was that she’d probably get influenced into trying some also collagen-packed “sort of illicit shark marrow.” There’s a cottage industry of oral hair-growth supplements such as Nutrafol or Viviscal, which I haven’t ventured into but which a lot of people seem to be taking in a “Can’t hurt to try” attitude. “Collagen supplements are undergoing a lot of study to determine what potential they may have for hair,” says Dr. Geraghty. Lines like Vegamour and Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty, Grow Gorgeous, Act + Acre, and Crown Affair are building their brand identities around anti-aging hair care.

But I’m not ready to bring in the big guns yet — shark marrow or biotin supplements or PRP injections. I think what I’m after is some kind of emotional breakthrough. I want to be able to brush my teeth without looking into my bathroom mirror and sighing in resignation.

Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, a psychologist based in Boston who specializes in hair, recommends following people on social media who match the current state of your hair, talking with people your age about what they’re doing, and being flexible about changing it up. She even runs groups with dermatologists where people can have these conversations together, particularly around hair loss.

I’ve come to peace with my hair now — and learned to style and cut around it. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

“We have changing identities and images of what we look in our head that don’t match now and a lot of emotions that feel impossible to put into words,” she says. “It parallels the stages of grief: denial, ‘Why is this happening’; anger and frustration, ‘Why won’t it be the same’; bargaining, ‘If I try this product’; a level of depression or a sadness over the loss of your past self or that picture you hold in your head.”

It was Dr. Mbilishaka’s parting words — “Nothing will be the same as ten years ago” — that made me realize what my next step should be. After fighting my hair for so many years, I had found peace in embracing the color and texture. I have to do the same thing now. That might involve cutting it again or playing with color or new products. But what I was really chasing was some kind of acceptance. I am mostly okay with the fact that my hair has changed. I don’t think I can let go of wanting that perfectly imperfect ease of a few years ago. But I also haven’t had a day where I wanted to get a pixie cut in months.

Just a couple weeks ago, I had new headshots taken, the first in about four years. I sent my agent — a fellow middle-aged woman with curly hair — a few I liked the best. “Your hair looks so amazing,” she texted me. I realized I was so focused on how my outfit and smile looked in the photos, I hadn’t even been fixating on my hair. But she was right. I was having a great hair day.

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Going Gray Was the Easy Part