Pam’s Pictorama Post: My hair went gray when I was thirty. It started with an interesting streak in front which grew in rapidly over time. My maternal grandfather, Frank Wheeling (aka Poppy), went gray in his twenties so I suspect it is his genes at work – most of the rest of that generation in my family never had more than a few strands even as they reached very advanced ages, my father’s mother not withstanding as I believe she did dye her hair as part of her weekly visits to a salon where she had her 1940’s updo style managed weekly.
I have never dyed my hair. Despite hitting my twenties during the height of the punk era I have never done anything except shave it down to a crewcut periodically and that usually reflecting more function than form – such as anticipating a lack of showering facilities while camping in Tibet. Not only have I never dyed my hair a radical color, I have never highlighted it or dyed it at all. I don’t have anything against it, I just never did it and so when I started to go gray the question of dying it was a bit bigger, dye never having been a go to, nor something I had ever played around with. I always figured that it would be easy enough to try if I changed my mind, but acknowledge it would be a huge pain to grow out and as it became more and more gray the fact that it would be a significant commitment of time and money (not to mention the reality of heavier, more chemical dyes) to maintain became clear.
Also, as I can be about such things, I was curious to see how it would grow in and what it would look like. I always figured that dying was something I could decide to do (although certainly it would have been pretty radical after a point) so there was no compelling reason to rush to do it. So, I just didn’t. My hair guy, David Smith (he opened his own salon pre-pandemic, Smith and Morgan on West 80th Street) always liked my gray and never encouraged me to dye it – despite the fact he would have made a ton of money over time if I had, which always made me love David a little more. I met David just before my wedding, a good friend recommended him when the person I had been seeing shutdown abruptly and until he opened his own place I followed him across a variety of locales on the westside of Manhattan.
To be frank, there is a very real prejudice against being young and having naturally gray hair (yes, some folks are dying their hair gray now which is a bit different) and I am only just getting old enough now where it is less of an issue. People immediately assume you are older than you are and sometimes express outright confusion over a younger face and gray hair. At its worst I have on occasion been met with a certain kind of aggression, as if my deciding not to dye my hair was a statement about other people’s choices. It seems to annoy some people. I am a bit confounded sometimes when people talk about it – after all I think my choice of hair color is a bit personal and I have trouble imagining the same person asking someone why they dye theirs brown or blond for instance. And, I will admit that there was a time when I thought if I were to look for a new job that I might consider dying it. In the end, it has become very much a part of who I am and in my case it would seem false to change it. As Popeye would famously say, I yam what I yam!
My sister Loren hated that I was letting my hair go gray. She would bully and rage about it in the way only she as my older sister could. Frankly I considered dying it when she was in treatment for cancer and bored, sick. I was looking for ways to entertain her – I know, it sounds crazy, but I thought about it. She would tell me that when her hair grew back it was going to be dark brown again (during a pause in treatment it had grown in completely gray) and only she and Lady Clairol would know the truth about the color. If she had lived I don’t know if I could have held out against her indefinitely. (I have written about Loren a few times and two of those posts can be found here and here.)
By the same token I have enjoyed many random compliments from strangers – literally sometimes getting stopped on the street – about my hair. Love your hair! Great hair! Occasionally it was another woman with naturally gray hair and we would give a sly smile between us and pass a compliment. Other times women would opine that they didn’t think theirs would grow out as nicely and I always admit that if I hadn’t liked the way it grew in I probably would have dyed it. My hair had the good grace to come in with streaks of gray against the dark brown. In addition, the texture changed for the better once it was mostly gray. It had always been thick, but slippery, heavy and difficult to keep up or back. I enjoyed manageable hair for the first time as the gray grew in.
Enter Covid however and suddenly many women have let their dyed hair grow out and are reemerging into the world as gray. It was of course a great time to let your hair grow out – or have a baby I guess. (Newborn down the hall this week! Evelyn Grace Deitch – yep, we have a Deitch down the hall! Pronounced Deetch however.) While some of the gray-goers are friends and colleagues, I see many women making the transition to gray on the elevator or in the street. I get the feeling they are checking out my hair, taking notes as such.
While I have no advice about growing out dyed hair I do have some about living with gray hair. Until Covid I was very careful about trims and keeping my hair tidy figuring that it was such a standout feature that I needed to pay extra attention to it. Early on David showed me how to mix a bit of baking soda in clearing shampoo (for example Bumble & bumble makes what they call a clarifying shampoo, theirs is called Sunday Clarifying Shampoo, which is designed to clear out old product from your hair, Neutrogena makes one too) and leave it in for about twenty minutes before washing out. This is drying so I would do this once or so a month to keep the gray white. (I have started using a sea salt scrub instead which is a bit less trouble. The one I currently use is by Christophe Robin. Although during these Covid days I use very little hair product so it is less of an issue.) Oribe makes Silverati (disclosure – it is crazy expensive) which is in a class of colored shampoos to bring out highlights, specifically of gray in this case and goes alongside a group of purple shampoos which are designed to counterbalance the yellow in gray hair. All of these work to a greater or lesser degree, but in my opinion, nothing like the scrubs to brighten the color.
I am also a bit maniacal about products and styling and pre-pandemic I would joke that there wasn’t a styling product that I couldn’t be induced to try and had settled into a routine of potions as part of my hair care. Meanwhile, although gray wasn’t an issue for me I have let my hair grow crazy long during the months at home. I have only had it cut once since the onset of lockdown and that is now getting to be close to a year ago. I wear it up each day and it is easy to forget about although I do feel like an aging Rapunzel when I take it down. I will also confess that in a sheer contradictory way, I thought about dying my hair during the lockdown out of sheer boredom. I thought it would be fun to emerge as a totally different person. Maybe that’s what women growing their gray in is all about. We are all deciding what our post-pandemic reset is going to be and what it will look like.
Featured photo by my good friend photographer @EileenTravell!