I’m going gray. Okay, I’ve gone gray, and I’m not exactly sure when it started because I’ve been covering it for so long.
The last time I dyed my hair was in January of 2020. But like many women who couldn’t get to the salon during COVID, and who hate dying their own hair, I started to let it grow out to see how gray it was, and holy crap I’m 95% gray, actually silver, or platinum as my stylist likes to call it, but that’s just lipstick on a pig. After 2 years of this, I don’t recognize myself in the mirror or in photos anymore. I still don’t know if I like it – I waffle on it actually. One day I think “hell yeah, I’m doing this thing!” And other days I jump out of bed with the intention of heading straight for the hair dye.
The thing is I hate dying my hair, I always have. The chemicals and unhealthiness aside for a moment, I’m a low-maintenance, all-natural kind of girl. I don’t wear makeup often, in fact, the makeup I do have is from my wedding which was 15 years ago. I hate shopping and would gladly pull the Steve Jobs “I wear the same outfit every day so I don’t have to make a decision” if I thought I could get away from it. A successful male entrepreneur does it? Brilliant! A middle-aged woman does it? Not so much. Because I talk to people all day for a living, sitting in a salon chair and chatting with my stylist is pretty low on my list of ways to spend time. No offense to Janina who is wonderful, it’s just that I crave silence and alone time. Can I order the silent treatment for an extra $25? My idea of ‘doing my hair’ involves 15 seconds, a small hair clip, and a twist, and I often wear a hat so I don’t even have to bother. Basically, dying my hair was expensive and time-consuming and there were so many other things I’d rather be doing.
So when COVID hit, it was actually fun to stop dying it, to see what would happen, what I would look like, how gray I actually was. And holy crap, I. Am. GRAY. But I repeat myself.
But what started out as a COVID thing, then a curiosity thing turned into a social experiment. Because I could hide on zoom, many people didn’t see me in person for a long time, and their reactions in person have been fascinating. Some people just eyed me suspiciously but never said a thing, their eyeballs saying more than words could ever express. A couple people didn’t notice, and I love them for this – their attention is on who I am, not what I look like. If they didn’t say anything, neither did I, because I want to focus on the topic of our conversation, not on myself. Men my age and older mostly lavished praise on me, this one was the most difficult to decipher. Men are trained from a young age to compliment a woman, whether they believe it or not. Some are sincere, and some I’m not sure. My husband says I look fabulous, and I believe him. He hates it when I wear makeup; “go wash that sh*t off your face,” he says to me when I wear just powder and eyeliner. One of my close male friends said “Hey Nicole, talk to me about your hair. What’s going on?”. I loved this approach too, with no judgment in it, but acknowledging the difference and wondering what I was going through to make a change. No man ever said anything negative to me though.
Women however were a totally different ballpark. A handful loved it. I had a woman stop me on the streets in Manhattan and demand to know who did my hair. I thought she was kidding at first, and when I started to laugh, she got mad thinking I wasn’t going to share. Friends were sending me articles about “gray is the new blonde” and how so many women are actually dying their hair gray now. On the other end of the spectrum, one woman was like “oh hell no. I’m taking you to the salon right now and we’re going to fix you”. Am I broken? One woman who’s still single told me she’s going to start introducing me to her boyfriends as her ‘much older friend’ because she couldn’t risk them thinking she was old. I asked her if it made me look old, or it made me look my age. She replied, “it makes you look older but you looked younger than your age before, so I guess it makes you look your age”. So if it makes me look my age, and she’s my age, does she want men thinking she’s younger than she is? There’s a whole onion there I won’t peel.
People’s reactions to my hair said so much more about them than it ever did about me, and I found it all fascinating. Their embarrassment, their displeasure, their curiosity, their interest, their compliments, their judgment, all of it gave me a little glimpse into who they are and where they were in their own journey of life. My hair is gray, fact. Whether it makes me look older or younger, better or worse, all of that is judgment in the eyes of the beholder. In a time where ageism is a word, where we’re told women ‘age’ and men ‘mature’, where we’re told what beautiful looks like by companies designed to sell us beauty products, all of that is storytelling by society. I don’t want story. In fact, I’m sick to f’ing death of story. I want facts, but that’s another blog post.
We’re all metaphorically ‘dying our hair’, don’t you think? We’re all constantly telling stories about who we are. We spend time and money and effort presenting to the world what the world wants and expects of us. We spend money and time and effort to wear the right clothes, drive the right car, doctor our LinkedIn profile, live in the right neighborhood, or buy our furniture from the right store. “Is that the Restoration Hardware Italia Slope Arm Sofa?” “It is! It’s in the Perennials Performance Textured Linen Weave in Mist!!” We improve our photos to look happy and perfect, thank you Instagram filters. We use the like button as some sort of barometer as to how much people like us rather than like our posts. We are editing every aspect of our lives to be liked by a wider and wider audience. Even meeting people face to face is often superficial, “What do you do?” Rather than “Who are you? What makes you laugh? When was the last time you cried? Why do you do what you do? What would you change about your life right now if you could?” Imagine those questions in a first conversation. Actually, imagine those conversations with anyone you know. We’ve been ‘covering our gray’ for so long, we don’t know any other way and it feels ugly and messy and vulnerable when we don’t. And we become fascinated and judgmental of others who don’t.
The thing is I want to look like exactly who I am, I want the inside to match the outside. I like who I’ve become and I’ve spent my whole life getting here, why hide it? I’m wearing my mountain casual outfit because I actually did just come from a hike and SmartWool makes a damn good sweat-wicking top, not because it’s fashionable in Boulder. I’m not trying to be 28, I love being 48. Today, I can do everything I did at 28, but better (except pull-ups and fit into that one skimpy dress). I am smarter, I am more patient, I can pattern-match, I have enough wisdom to get at the real issues, I’m more secure in who I am, and I’m not cash-starved the way I was when I was 28. I am better now than I have ever been and I plan for that trend to continue until I die.
And I’m not alone. At the start of this journey, I joined a Facebook group called Going Gray Gracefully and it’s full of photos of women, of all ages (20-90!) who’ve decided to just let their authentic selves shine through. Many in the group post photos of themselves on their gray journey, and most of the women look better gray. Now, I’m not just saying that because I’m gray too, but truly, when you look at them, their faces don’t look so washed out from some color that came from a box rather than from Mother Nature. Their hair is healthier, fuller, and richer. They hold their heads a little higher, and their eyes are a little brighter. Once you have the confidence to step into your true self, that confidence shines through everything you do – and that step takes age, wisdom, and courage. That group changed my opinion of beauty – you can see it when you’re exposed to what different types of beauty look like rather than brainwashed by what one type looks like. There is beauty in the energy and smoothness of youth. There is also a richness and depth of beauty in the creases of age. Embrace it all. There are nearly 300K women in that group, and while I can’t see the statistics on it, I bet it’s growing fast. More and more are waking up to what life can be like when you embrace every aspect of who you are, especially something as small but visible as hair color.
Don’t get me wrong, some days I wake up and look at myself in the mirror and I do not recognize who’s looking back at me. Is that really me? Am I really that old now? I look terrible! All the feelings of self-doubt and loathing come flooding in, so I grab the keys in a dramatic effort to sprint to the store to buy hair dye. But my husband always stops me and talks sense into me, and with a little self-patience, I return to the place of embracing my aging self. Isn’t that always how it goes? We tell ourselves little lies about who we are, and when confronted with the cold, hard unforgiving truth, we can either continue the lie or face it and embrace it. And when we embrace it, we reach a new level of knowing ourselves, loving ourselves, and improving ourselves. And that, my dear friend, is what wisdom and beauty are.
It’s January 2023, the start of a new year. Is there an element of your life where you can *stop dying your hair*? Is there one piece where you can step into who you truly are? I’m not going to tell you it’s not scary, that people won’t judge, that you might not panic on occasion, but f*ck it, right? Why spend any energy in your life managing who others think you are, when you could just spend that energy making improvements to who you actually are?
Last week I trimmed my hair and off came the final remnants of the brown dye and the lie that dye has been telling. This week, I’m off to update all the headshots of me that have sprung up around the web.