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Shades of Grey

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Recently, I’ve seen a spate of internet and magazine articles touting the advantages of letting your hair go grey.  If you believe the media, we Baby Boomers are all about to embrace our inner Silver Vixens, abandon Clairol and L’Oreal, and jointly march into the future alight with the aura of age, sophistication and and sagacity. 

Kumbaya! 

I’m here to tell you that I believe these articles are just a bit of media misdirection.  Certainly, as Boomers age, many of us will go the natural route.  It’s inevitable.  However, I believe that the majority of women will color until they die because, as the late, great Nora Ephron said, There’s a reason why forty, fifty, and sixty don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye. In the 1950’s only 7 percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all.” 

Two and a half years ago, I decided to let my hair go grey.  I wrote about it at the time.  I promised my daughter I would not give up coloring until after her wedding and, the day after the ceremony, I stopped being bottle brown.  Looking back at her wedding pictures, I wish I had gone grey earlier.  The brown hair that I had was a bit too dark for my face and actually made me look older than my current color does.  

That’s one of the things about going grey: it’s almost impossible to get the wrong color.  For years, I wore hair that was too blonde, too brown, too orange, or just wrong.  A lot of that has to do with the colorists I used or my really atrocious attempts at home-coloring.  I have porous hair that holds color too well, and a poor eye for color.  As you look around at women who color their hair, you will see that this is a wide-spread problem.  So many of us still believe that “blondes have more fun” but have olive skin or darker skin tones that simply don’t work with blonde.  Even harder than finding the right color with professional help is buying a box of color off the supermarket shelf.  I have turned my hair seriously heinous colors (as Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods would say) with DIY products. I have also had to repaint several bathrooms from the dye splatters on the walls.  The good thing about grey is that nature doesn’t make mistakes.  Your color will go with your skintone. 

If you, like me, colored your hair for years and years, you may be surprised to know what your actual hair color is.  My base color is a great deal darker than I thought.  I was a blonde child and a brown haired teenager.  That’s when I lost track of my roots and my base.  Now I know.  My hair is charcoal grey with a white streak in front. 

Overall, I’ve been very happy with the transition to grey.  Since my air is very short, the awkward period of transitioning was equally short – probably three months of total growing out.  Truth be told, I loved the transition period with a very nice salt and pepper mixture.  It was sophisticated looking.  I have, occasionally, thought about “low lighting” (reverse highlighting) my color to go back to that in between stage, but I probably won’t.  Cost and time are a factor when you start coloring with foils. 

Despite warnings from my friends and co-workers, the reaction to my color has been mostly positive.  I have not been tempted to reverse the process.  However, there have been some unanticipated reactions and some actions that I anticipated that didn’t happen. 

For example, I thought I’d get more seats on the subway.  That hasn’t happened.  New Yorkers seem to be immune to the deference that some cultures show to older people.  It’s rare for someone to offer me a seat, and then it tends to be young people from other cultures that do, in fact, respect their elders.  However, a Dunkin’ Donuts clerk gave me a senior discount without my requesting it.  I had very mixed feelings about that. 

Speaking of young people, kids are unstintingly honest in their opinions of my hair and it isn’t always in a good way.  Since I work with children, a lot of the kids were somewhat surprised by my new plumage.  Urged by their parents to compliment me, kids will either stare outright or look at their feet and ask me, “Why?”  Honesty is okay in kids.  Someday they will learn the value of the social lie, but not just yet.  It occurs to me that, since most of these children have grandmothers who color their hair, my hair may be the first time they’ve encountered a grey haired female adult in their regular social circle. 

Most people, including my husband, have been positive in their response to the change.  I have not become, as is often threatened, invisible.  I probably became more transparent at about age fifty when, not being Christie Brinkley or Sandra Bullock, I seemed to reach a level of maturity that was no longer thought of as attractive.  It’s been a long time since I feared the construction site wolf whistle. 

What does bother me is the occasional negative stereotype attached to, not just my hair, but older women or people, in general.  I work in a public service position. Occasionally, the public may not agree with how I do my job especially when I have to enforce rules that do not favor them. It’s inevitable.  Recently, I had one of those encounters with a young mother who, I should mention, had a very expensive mane of blonde highlights.  Unhappy with my ruling on her overdue fines, she complained to a co-worker that “that grey-haired woman is mean.”  That was one of the few times that I reconsidered my choice to go grey, although only for a moment.  What bothered me most is the persistent social perception of older people, identified by particular physical characteristics, as mean or unattractive much as you might identify someone by any pronounced characteristic, in conversation. Honestly, would you complain about someone with small eyes or a big nose, referencing that body part? This may be sensitivity on my part, or an over-abundance of political correctness, but I find the use of grey hair as an identifier to be a bit border line and ageist. 

If you are determined to go grey, here are some things you should know about how your hair (and life) will change: 

1)      The texture of grey hair is different: I have always had coarse, frizzy hair.  My grey hair is even more coarse and difficult.  It’s annoying.  There are many products to condition and soften your hair, some that are dedicated to grey hair.  None of those grey-specific products worked for me, but shampoos and conditioners that use Moroccan oil seem to help the most.  Count on using conditioners each time you wash your hair, and also consider using a hair masque or deep conditioner for even better results.

2)      You may need to change up your haircut:  I’ve always had short hair and most people recommend shorter lengths to avoid a crone-like look.  However, what I discovered is that you can go too short.  My old “spike” cut does not work well with the current texture and color of my hair.  I am currently letting it grow a little longer and allowing my natural waves to take over.  I like it better and my hairdresser just called it “sophisticated” (but I pay her to say things like that).  If you can pull of the Judy Collins full out white cascade, good for you.  I need control.  You won’t be visiting your hairstylist as often, but you will need someone you can trust and who has experience working with grey hair to find the right cut.  Be aware that many stylists will take one look at you and tell you that you need to color. Stick to your guns.  It’s your hair, your time, and your money.

3)      You may need to change your make-up: people say that grey hair washes you out.  I think it’s more like grey hair softens you.  However, if you want the “grey hair sophisticate” look that the magazines promote (think Helen Mirren or Jamie Lee Curtis), reevaluate your make-up.  You may want to go brighter, and draw more attention to your eyes or lip color.  You will definitely want to look at your eye make-up and be careful that it is not making you look tired or emphasizing wrinkles.  I have found that the smoky eye I loved is aging, so now I’m using pink crayon and liner, only.  It looks good and, hey, I’ll save money in the long run. Since lips narrow in age, start using a lip brush or lip liner to artificially enlarge the shape of your lips.

4)      You may need to change your clothes: you don’t have to empty your wardrobe, however some colors do make grey hair “pop.”  Shades of teal and turquoise seem to be at the top of the list.  I am also now wearing purple for the first time in my life which, I suppose, brings truth to the poem, “When I am old, I shall wear purple.”  It just works.  White is the color of sophistication and with great accessories, it’s your “go-to” color.

5)    You will save money, or maybe not:  I don’t spend more than an hour in the hairdresser, these days, but I still spend money on hair products at the drug store.  We women spend a lot on appearance and fashion. How would the economy survive without these purchases?  Going grey does not totally eliminate beauty expenditures, but it will give you back some time and perhaps reduce your beauty product spending.

6)      Feel confident in your choices and everything else will fade away: my mom never went to a hairdresser in her life.  Never ever.  Her hair was luxurious, but she didn’t take care of it well until she went into the nursing home and a visiting hairdresser cut it and styled it in a flattering way.  For the first time in my memory, she looked stylish.  My mother, by her description, was not a “fancy lady.” It was a poor choice. I saw in her aging appearance, finally cared for and a little pampered, the woman that she could have been.  I am confident that my choice to go grey does not change my self-confidence or my interest in my appearance.

Going grey may be this week’s fad or an actual trend, as more and more of us achieve that natural threshold of beauty.  I’ve been happy with the results of my two years plus experiment and I’m not planning on going back.  I’m embracing my grey and, frankly, embracing my age.  Why deny what nature has given us?

After Fifty Living™ was founded by Jo-Anne Lema, a genuine Boomer and member of the 50+ generation. As she likes to say, “Our enormous generation is charting new territory – we’re healthier, better educated, and more financially fit than any other generation at this time. And, as we march through history, 110 million strong – unique, new issues are developing. It’s exciting to be a part of the development and growth of AfterFiftyLiving.com. This is a historic solution for a historic generation.”

Jo-Anne spent many years in the financial and operations side of higher education after having received a doctorate in education management and administration from Harvard, and an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University. Launching out on her own, though, has been the fulfillment of a life dream. Jo-Anne believes that “AfterFiftyLiving™ will delight its visitors, catalyze its partners, and will significantly benefit those who engage it.”

Residing in New England along with her husband of 35+ years, she never ceases to brag about her two children and 4 grandkids!

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