Gray hair means you’re old. I was 32 when I started to go gray. The way that fine silver strand of hair grew in the front of my head and glinted in the light was pivotal. From that day forward, I religiously dyed my hair, sometimes weekly, to avoid facing what I perceived as an outward display of aging. What I didn’t know then is that hair turns gray, silver, or white when it lacks melanin. It’s true that the main cause of graying is age. It is expected that by the age of 50, you will have half of the melanin that you once had, and as a result, your hair will be gray. But a decrease in melanin can also be due to something you cannot control, like genetics, or two things you can control: stress and vitamin deficiencies. No matter the reason, going gray is a matter of science and doesn’t have to symbolize being old.
Gray hair should be avoided. A decade before I saw that first strand, I watched my mother-in-law head to the farmer’s market to purchase beef blood. According to her and others, using or eating certain foods can delay gray hair growth. True or not, she implicitly taught me a valuable lesson: prevent gray hair at all costs, even if it means drenching your hair with the bodily fluids of a dead animal. My grandmother, who is in her late 90s, dyes three-fourths of the back of her hair because she “hates how her hair looks gray,” specifically against her dark skin. These women didn’t formally teach me about what it means to be a woman with gray hair. Implicit messages about self-esteem were mixed in with each bottle of blood and Clairol. Their choices are understandable. Ageism, a negative stereotype, prejudice, and/or act of discrimination directed toward elderly people, is a thing, and women are most affected. That’s why it’s up to you to create your own positive self-image focused on gray hair and age, regardless of what others believe.
Gray hair is undesirable. For sixteen years, I covered my new growth gray with two-for-one boxes of over-the-counter dye until I decided I’d had enough. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the beginning, stages, when my roots were half an inch thick, a friend asked me what I was going to do with “it,” as if my hair was an unresolved problem left unattended. As my new-growth gray filled in around my temples, my husband wondered out loud if I was going to grow a big gray afro. “Maybe,” I answered, unsure of how the final product would look. Once the shift was undeniable, my then hairstylist said I had to do something — “Dye it. Braid it. Cut it. Something,” she implored. The sentiment seemed to be that I couldn’t possibly walk around with my hair in its natural gray state. However, like women in one recent study, I began to care more about looking and feeling authentic than I did about trying to outpace a social stigma. Full disclosure, though, it has taken a lot of inner strength to do so.
Gray hair is for men. Media perpetuate the idea that only two groups of people can be gray. Fantasy versions of white men, like Dumbledore or Saruman not only have long white hair but also full-length beards while offering sage advice from Hogwarts or Middle-earth. These characters reinforce the idea that gray is for old people, really old people; Dumbledore is over a hundred, and Saruman is 2,000 years old. No wonder none of us feels ready for a silver-haired version of ourselves. Likewise, male celebrities and public figures appear “distinguished” once they’re salt-and-peppered. Denzel, Barack, and Idris have grown gray without social commentary, but what would the world say about a gray-haired Taraji, Michelle, or Viola? Luckily, we don’t have to wait for female celebrities to model their gray hair. Search #silversisters on Instagram, and you’ll find curated collections of images that may inspire you to step into your personal look as your hair’s melanin decreases. Join Gray and Proud, a private FB group, to garner support for your gray-hair journey.
Even though aging is natural, and growing gray should be, too, it continues to be perceived negatively, especially for women who oftentimes link hair to their self-image and self-esteem. However, it is possible to do so with confidence. Once you shed society’s ageist views, you’ll see that growing older is nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is wearing the gray hair that is bound to come with it.
Article Written by: K E Garland | K E Garland is an award-winning creative nonfiction writer, blogger, and author based in Florida. She uses personal essays and memoirs to de-marginalize women’s experiences with an intent to highlight and humanize contemporary issues. She has a husband and two adult daughters and is an associate professor at a community college.