Thursday, June 3, 2010

Not If But WHEN Do You Go Gray?

When I was twelve years old my grandmother beckoned me, squinted her eyes and proceeded to pull a hair out of my eyebrow. "Ouch!" I yelled. "You had a gray hair in your eyebrow," she calmly stated. She then proceeded to go through my head like she was looking for lice and found a single gray hair growing from my head. Since it was at my crown she didn't pull it out adhering to that 'Old Wives Tale' of "When you pull out a gray hair, seven more grow in its place" (not true by the way).

That was the beginning of my battle with the gray, one which I fight once every two weeks with the help of L'Oreal, Medium Brown. At age 43, my hair is 60 to 70% gray. Whenever I let my hair go over two weeks without coloring I see nothing but silver threads coming out of my hair when I look into the mirror. My friends claim to not see anything but I do and that is what matters. My question then becomes, not IF to go gray (much like trying to fight the tides from coming in) but WHEN to go gray. One of my best friends Sandy has been an inspiration when it comes to this particular dilemma in life and this is her story.

Sandy started graying in her teens. A natural brunette (medium brown to be exact), she only had one small patch on the front crown of her head that showed gray which was easily camouflaged with Sun-In as she lived by the beach in South Carolina. Her highlights from Sun-In distracted onlookers from any gray hair.  In her early twenties Sandy started dyeing her hair at home and as years went by her hair color progressively darkened as she became prematurely gray (much like her father who sported beautiful snowy, white hair by the time he was in his early thirties). Her hair was dyed so dark that someone once commented on her "Elvis hair", a remark which she did not take kindly to. Sandy's hair color maintenance had become an unwelcome priority around which she coordinated her social calender, scheduling hair coloring around parties and avoiding them if her hair had not been colored.

In her early thirties during a New York City visit, I suggested to Sandy that she get her hair cut and colored similar to Jennifer Aniston's (long, honey blonde locks Jen, not "Rachel"). I felt Sandy's color was too dark to go with her skin tone. She took my advice and after five hours in an expensive salon with much stripping and foiling, Sandy began her slow evolution into a blonde.  I loved the change as it suited her skin tone and I thought she looked fantastic. With every visit to the salon she went lighter and lighter until she was a full-fledged blond. This disturbed Sandy as she also found her personality morphing into a blonde, high maintenance woman. She didn't feel like herself anymore.

The men in her life had not exactly been happy with all the time, money and effort Sandy placed on her hair.  She even tried to keep the maintenance details and its cost a secret. By age 37, at a family reunion, she noticed that many of her relatives had thick, beautiful white hair that she found very attractive. She decided that having hair that could look like theirs was worth looking into.

At first she experimented by dyeing her hair dark again and letting a stripe of gray hair grow at the front crown of her head. Sandy thought this looked cool but reactions from her friends and family were so strongly opposed that it hurt her feelings.  She and her colorist decided to go blonde again but go naturally gray on its own as dyeing hair a true gray is one of the hardest colors to achieve and often looks fake or "dusty". Sandy got several short hair cuts and eventually the cut and the natural gray hair color met. From afar it looked like a blonde/silver and didn't shock people around her. I noticed her new color was shiny and her cut was modern and relevant. I was amazed that it didn't age her at all and she looked great and very at ease with herself.

With her new look,  Sandy said her confidence level changed substantially. As a brunette, she never received compliments on her hair. When she was a blonde she only received two compliments. And as a silver haired woman, she received compliments all the time. She finds that men pay more attention to her now than during the brunette or blonde days. She even says that the men who pay attention to her now are a different type of man, a more evolved type of man. Sandy feels the gray hair has contributed to making her seem much more approachable and low maintenance. Her partner in life Frank says of Sandy's hair becoming gray, "It's the greatest thing in the world! It's natural and beautiful. My question is. Why do you want to dump a bunch of chemicals on top of your head?'"

Good question! Using permanent and semi-permanent hair coloring regularly is strongly associated with an increased risk of cancer, including Hodgkin's, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma and perhaps leukemia and breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute suggests that 20 percent of all cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in women is due to regularly using permanent hair coloring. It is noteworthy that the lovely Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who regularly dyed her hair black, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Prolonged use of dark, especially black hair coloring may increase the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma. In response to these risks, more salons are using chemical free, organic dyes as a healthier alternative.

Sandy is very happy with her evolution into a gray world. "I always wanted to be a natural person, I couldn't even swim with so many chemicals in my hair. Now I can swim again, which I love".  She also likes that her mate seems to prefer a more mature look.  She notes that as a writer, her clients have much more trust in her talents as her look connotes wisdom and makes them more comfortable with her work.

Sandy says that women confide to her all the time when they comment on her hair and of how they think constantly of just going gray and embracing their natural hair color. Ironically Sandy's mother still dyes her hair brown. She feels her face disappears when the gray comes in so obviously going gray is not for everyone. Sandy's opinion is that as long as her haircut is up-to-date, gray is not about getting older but is about being happy with who you really are. 

She thinks I should not go gray just yet as she likes my L'Oreal Medium Brown hue and I must admit I love how my hair looks after I just dye it. I am sure I will be revisiting this question many times in my life. Perhaps I will be ready when I turn 60. Or 70. Or 80...

For a great segment on the question of deciding to go gray at all click here on this link as the Today Show recently discussed this very compelling topic.



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