Gray hair may be preventable.
So said a recent study in the venerable science journal Nature. Researchers from the New York University Grossman School of Medicine concluded that stem cells in mice get “stuck” and can’t travel to pick up pigment, causing hair to grow gray. The same team determined that getting these cells to their final destination could then help retain color for mice (and possibly for people).
That’s a neat factoid. But reading those findings earlier this spring, my response was, “Who cares?” and a shrug.
Because I like my gray hair. I liked it when I was “too young” to have it, in my 20s when people found those few strands at odds with my youth. I like it even more now—no, love it—in my 40s, as I become une femme d’un certain âge and gray hair becomes a midlife marker.
I feel no conflict over my gray hair, though I prefer to call it silver. That subtle difference in language is important: silver because my hair shimmers with vitality. You cannot mistake it as a sign of decline or defeat. Silver denotes a precious metal, something of value. Naming is power, and part of my power resides in understanding my hair does not determine my identity. I can and should wear it as I like: unstraightened, big, and un-dyed (except for an occasional detour into light blue for University of North Carolina-Duke basketball square-offs).
My hair is a source of power because I love this part of me regardless of what anyone says.
Perhaps I’m an anomaly. Too many people in our society associate gray hair with a special aged-related dismissal of women or assume that you’ve opted out of conventional beauty standards. I’ve gotten approached more than once at the Whole Foods hot bar by a hairdresser telling me she’d love to color my hair. There’s no quicker way to disgust a potential client than suggesting you can “fix” what’s “wrong” with them.
Hit your 40s, and it’s all downhill from there, say the sexist (and boring) mainstream. Read your typical women’s magazine, aimed at ingenues, and you can take in all the calamity to come post your 30s: Your reproductive capacity plummets and disappears; you become less attractive to men in your march towards crone-dom and menopause (yes, that’s heterosexist); and it becomes harder to get and keep a job.
Small wonder why people have midlife crises in this world that writes off experience and fails to understand that life after 40 is far from over.
There are other takes. Former child star Tia Mowry (of Sister, Sister fame) wrote about embracing her gray hair as a blessing; she’s gotten to an age many people never experience due to early death. People noticed her gray, even told her to cover that up because “girls shouldn’t be seen that way”—because at 40, don’t we all want to be referred to or looked at as girls? Whenever an aging Hollywood starlet (and it’s a truth, not a smear, that we are all aging) gives up the ghost and stops dying her hair or fretting about it, some whisper. Some talk loud social-media shit and ask why she let herself go so. Many cheer, optimistically declaring the end of an era where gray hair meant the end of one’s career or desirability. The Wall Street Journal assured us earlier this year that women are now going gray at work, the ultimate flex.
Small wonder why people have midlife crises in this world that writes off experience and fails to understand that life after 40 is far from over. In fact, it’s a period of rebirth for many women, who get a spurt of creativity when their hair starts to turn that supposedly unattractive gray. My hair is a source of power because I love this part of me regardless of what anyone says. I joke, half-seriously, that I’m waiting for the day when it all goes white-gray like the mane of Storm of the X-Men comic and films (then, I will levitate into the sky, make pronouncements about good and evil, and control the elements, just like she does with her bad self).
My gray makes me stand out, especially with white glasses or a crisp, white dress.
Gray hair isn’t the cosmetic kiss of death, though these gray hairs are more recalcitrant and harder to tame than my brown wiry strands. I’ve found more positive responses to my gray than negative—though the approval comes more from the idea that I’m brave to wear my hair as is. I’m less brave than vain: Some people may overlook me in a room because people love to chase youth. But my gray makes me stand out, especially with white glasses or a crisp, white dress.
Still, there is commonality among the comments. Gray hair often confuses people, sincerely or otherwise. I snapped at a woman who sweetly queried—too sweetly—if my partner were my son. My mother tells a story of when she was 29 and juggling her purse and infant me in the grocery line. When the shopper behind her praised her adorable grandbaby, my normally quiet and restrained mother stood straight up and practically shouted, “This is MY baby. I carried her for nine months. She is MINE!” The woman had miscalculated. All she could see was my parent’s slightly right-of-center gray streak.
I inherited my mother’s “skunk stripe,” in exactly the same place. But we feel very differently about our gray streaks. My mother dyed hers for years; one fall when she was an elementary school nurse, an at-home dye job went terribly awry. She arrived at school the next day with inexplicably purple-orange hair. The kids thought her multicolored mane was a deliberate act of Halloween self-adornment.
With that haunting and humorous memory, I’ve assiduously avoided “covering” my gray. Once you go black, it’s hard to go back to silver. When I had a dramatic right-of-center streak, before gray colonized my entire head, teens with a punkish edge would inquire about who did my dye job. They often looked perplexed when I quipped, “Mother Nature” (apparently a metaphor that hasn’t aged well).
The most befuddled of all are heterosexual Black men, who regularly stop me on the street to ask my age. I am not one of those women who coyly declines to share how old she is. I’m not sincerely insulted by the question, though I find it good policy and manners to avoid remarks about people’s appearances or age.
I’ve developed a response that’s somewhat tart, but not sharp enough to provoke their wrath (because a spurned man is often a dangerous one). I answer with a slight smile: “Why do you need to know? If you like it, you just like it—no matter how old it is.” They tend to mumble something about the dissonance between my face, fashion, attitude and my hair. They often have to shout their delayed praises about my hair being beautiful. Because I literally keep it moving, waving and blowing past them, unfazed either way.