Can you lead an authentic life with fake hair?

pink hair

I make no secret of my age. (46, and if you haven’t wished me a “happy” yet, feel free to!)

I’m up front about my struggles to get organized, to get happy, to get my bowels in working order.

So why, oh, why am I having such a problem letting my hair go gray?

A little backstory: unlike many of the women on my mother’s side, while I had a few stray grays pop up as early as my 20s, I didn’t need to start actively coloring to cover them until my late 30s. And I was earning a nice living via acting at that point (with good health insurance…sigh…), so it made sense to make sure my hair matched my face, which for some reason insisted on looking 5 – 10 years younger than the rat’s nest on top of it.

But if I’m honest, and dammit, if I’m not, there’s little point to anything anymore, I wanted to look chronologically younger for me, too. In the late 90s, I’d just left my marriage of 8 1/2 years for a man 12 years younger than I, who looked 5 – 7 years younger than he really was. And who was also, shall we say, empirically good looking. It was frustrating enough for me and my fragile self-esteem to flit about with The Youngster in public; add to that the subtle and ongoing pressure from him to “look my best” (what is it with these empirically good looking people?) and you have a perfect storm for public deceit.

Well, I’m not acting anymore. And dye, in addition to being not inexpensive, is toxic and time-consuming. What could I do with those extra two hours per month? Those extra 1000 or so cancer-free years days of my life? Or, while we’re at it, the extra 750 bucks a year? (A steal in L.A., but still.)

I find myself obsessing over gray hair. It seems to be a trend, or a meme, the ladies lettin’ it go, perhaps kicked off by Meryl Streep in the otherwise forgettable Devil Wears Prada. Someone wrote a book about it. There’s a Yahoo! group devoted to it, a graying Botticelli’s Venus as their icon. (I joined.) There’s that idiotic Dove campaign.

I think it comes down to this: vanity.

Not vanity about looking my age, but about looking good for my age. Or maybe just looking good, period. I quit wearing makeup long ago, and I’ve let myself get woefully squishy around the middle; strictly from a design/style perspective, hair dye saves my beauty bacon. It’s the lazy gal’s way to look good (at least, until your face and skin tone stop coordinating well with dark hair. I am going to look like a raggedy-ass schlub growing out my gray if I don’t work a little harder to look good in other departments, like clothes and fitness.

Maybe that’s the thing: put “Pilates body” on the to-do list. Make it a big goal for…say…2010, and get crackin’. Then, once I’m leading the yoga class, shave my damned globey-head bald and wear all black or something.

It’s an option I’ve discussed with my patient, generous colorist. He’s amazing, really, basically helping me figure out how and when to fire him.

There are no easy answers to this. I would like to think I’m “there”, but clearly, it ain’t so. Whether I like it or not, going gray is a political statement in a patriarchal society where a woman’s currency is tied to her looks and reproductive status. As is toeing the party line with a box of dye.

I do not like the lies I am telling, and yet, here I am.

Now, where’s the way out, I wonder…


UPDATE 9/19: I wrote another blog post about aging (and lying about aging) here that may help illuminate some of this thinking.

Image by s.o.f.t. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. People always say that when a man grays he becomes distinguished, but when a woman grays she becomes old.

    Is that still the case? Is that the opinion of society at large? Or is there a shift? Or does it depend on how the gray looks?

    My hair (38 years old) is thinning and starting to go gray, but I always said that when my hair starts to go I’ll start sporting the “Picard” rather than the comb-over.


  2. Despite what marketing pitches to boomers would have you believe, gray hair is definitely not accepted on certain fronts, most notably the workplace, where older women reentering the job market (or looking to move from within) are counseled to color.

    There are more gray-haired role models these days, but the standard even there is gray and “hot” for women, which means “good” gray (the silver, “pretty” kind) and that the rest of you needs to look excellent.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad to have *any* role models. Being at the tail end of the Baby Boom has its advantages (get this health care thing worked out, will you please?)

    I think the real issue here is that for the most part, men grow distinguished with age, while women grow invisible–hair or no hair. The dying is just our way of kowtowing to our masters.

  3. That illustration alone makes this post enjoyable.

    There is such a refreshing honesty and clear voice in this article. I enjoy your writing style very much.

    I’m Stumbling this post!

  4. Thanks, Bob. For the kind words, esp., but also for the Stumble. That crazy site does generate the traffic!

  5. I’m going to admit a passing fetish: I really find gray hair on a youthful face really rather attractive. I don’t know why, but I do. You have the face. I’m sure you’ll have the hair.

    One of the more curious things about older hair is that it is coarser, less silky, not as shiny. Could be that fine, softer, shinier hair is a signal of youth, especially in a woman, and that’s why those things are attractive to men, and why products stress those outcomes.

    But a fine head of gray hair is a good thing, at least for me.

  6. You already know you aren’t alone. My wife starting going gray at a young age and curses the whole process of coloring, careful highlight selection, etc. She’s only 34 but has been going gray since early 20s.

    As for me, I started losing hair in college. Feeling the weight of concern and vanity bringin’ me down, I opted right then to move toward shaving my head. Which I still do to this day. I do grow a “Lincoln” goatee that has always been dark red (not sure why…I’m not a red head). But now, at 35, there is A LOT of gray in it…which I actually like. Instead of salt and pepper, I call it cinnamon and sugar.

    And thanks for taking the time write. You do it well.

  7. I’m lucky in that at 42, I’ve not had a gray hair — but when I do get ’em, I’m reaching for the dye.
    There are some things on which it is not worth trying to fight the tide of mainstream public opinion, and this is one of them: gray hair = old looking — not cool, not distinguished, not mature — just old.
    If you want to look old, fine: go “natural.” If not — a little dye is no big deal.
    I don’t see hair color as any more “unnatural” than shaving.

    However: $750?!? That’s crazy.

  8. For what it’s worth, I’m way older than Colleen, and I only have a few gray hairs. That doesn’t keep me from being invisible to a lot of people. It’s hard to take the whole thing too seriously. I figure we humans are all a bunch of nuts, so we might as well laugh about it.

    I agree with Bob. I’m Stumbling this post, too.

  9. Jeremy – You, too? :-)

    I love The BF for his many fine qualities of character, but I am mad hot for his thick, shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair. He has HANDS DOWN the greatest head of hair of anyone I’ve ever met. And he grew it out for me, when I asked–what a peach!

    spike – Believe it or not, I toyed with the idea of shaving it all off to start fresh with the gray, both to give my hair to Locks of Love and to give myself the experience of being bald (bald chicks are HOTT!)

    Unfortunately, The BF learned that Locks of Love has horrid cost-to-benefit ratio and I already know that I have a big ol’ bucket haid and an “interesting” face, meaning I will look more like Terry Bradshaw than Natalie Portman.

    Thanks for the nice compliment re: writing. That means more to me than any fabulous hair.

    Oh, who am I kidding–bullsh*t, it does!

    Paul – When everyone dyes his hair, it will be no big deal. Right now, sadly, it is still a big deal. It’s just one of those covert ones.

    And $750 is cheap in L.A., my man! I have the deal of the century w/ my colorist.

    Jean – The weird thing is, part of me really likes being invisible. Even as a so-so looking woman, I’d get tired of constantly being on display. Can’t imagine what the stunners go through, both while it’s happening and when it stops.

    And thanks for the Stumble. I love new, random readers!

  10. Of course you can be authentic with “fake” hair. It’s not really fake – it’s simply a choice. It’s not a lie, you choose the color to express who you are. Otherwise, clothes would render you non-authentic too, right?

    Either way – don’t worry what society thinks about you. Do what makes you happy.

  11. RGB – I know you’re being nice, b/c hey, you are a NICE guy. But I’ve really come away with the idea that I’m flawed but authentic. Or authentic, but flawed.

    Right now, looking this way *does* make me happy, so I’m doing it. But within the framework of patriarchy–and I know it’s hard for nice guys to see, but it does exist and it does color (ha ha) everything–it’s too easy to slough things off that way: this makes me happy, I”m emancipated, so I’m doing it.

    Only is it?

    Like I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a moot issue once *everyone* colors *his* hair, too. Until then, it’s political. It just is. Dammit.

  12. In a statement of political support, I’ve colored my hair bright red ;)

    I’m not following you on the authentic/flawed thing, though – all I tried to say was that your hair color is just a way to express yourself, or simply have fun.

    I do believe that what truly makes a person is somewhere between the ears, and outward appearances are there to be changed to fit your beliefs and moods. Which probably means I spend too much time in virtual worlds ;)

  13. Oy, if only to have hair to color… I’m in the Picard category. Started it three years ago, when I was 33. It got so thin up there, anything but buzzing it off was downright disgraceful.

    And maybe Patrick Stewart looks good with it, but I can’t say I get the same kinds of looks from the opp. sex than I used to (I was quite the buck in my younger years, or so my women friends said).

    Switching genders…

    My wife plucks her greys. I tell her “don’t worry about it”, but that makes little to no impact on her.

    And ten years ago, I dated a woman twenty years older than me. She had a fair amount of grey. I was fine with it. I actually dug it, to tell you the truth. But then again, that was because I dug her. I wasn’t seeking grey, but it didn’t keep me out of her bed, neither.

    Too much detail?

  14. RGB – I want photographic documentation :-)

    I think we’re actually in agreement on the whole do-your-own-thang thang. I’m just doing a piss-poor job of explaining myself on the political bugaboo. So I’ll let it simmer a while, and maybe something better and clearer will come out of my poor, overheated brain.

    Adam – But think of the tattooing possibilities!!! And as long as you’re not talking about *all* the places she was gray, I’m good with the detail.

    Storytelling, she is in the details.

  15. At 35, with very dark hair and gray starting to show, I was debating on whether or not to dye. Some men have commented (like Jeremy has stated) that it’s attractive…I’m keepin’ the gray!
    Just what do I do with those stubborn ones that insist on sticking straight out? My daughter likes to yank them…good or bad?!
    Does Colleen dare to create a red/sassy “do”?

  16. Ooooo! RGB, what a cutie! And love that hair.

    Angie – I was pretty red for a while. But not RGB red. For that, I lack the required set of cajones.

  17. I learned at the tender age of 17 that I would never dye my hair when it got gray. My hair grows so quickly (almost an inch a month), that it’s impossible for me to maintain a dye job.

    I’ll just take the gray with the wrinkles. I’d rather be full-on gray than dyed brown with gray roots.

  18. I seriously doubt you lack the “cajones” to do anything Ms. Colleen!
    I can see you doing the purple/pink hi-lites.

    What about men? I know a 60ish year old male who has BLACK hair! Although we in the office know it’s L’Oreal/Clairol, and his eyebrows are white….this is just the craziest damn thing I’ve seen in a while. Apparently it’s just not women who feel insecure with the gray.

  19. Laura – ‘Amen’ to the roots thing. What a good look that is, huh?

    Angie – I’ve actually met a few dudes (and ladies) who legitimately have full-on dark hair. It’s weird, b/c it looks so fake…and yet, it’s not! But yes, the mens can be just as vain as their counterparts.

  20. There is so much pressure in our society for woman to dye their hair. Here is a new blog that hopefully make the decision to go gray a little easier.

  21. armandii – Congratulations! That is some foxy hair you got, girlfriend. My colorist is keeping track of my gray. Once I hit critical mass, I’m pulling the plug. Hair like yours makes me wish it would hurry the hell up, already!! Although some famous eldermodel sez you can’t wear brown anymore, which will wreak havoc with my wardrobe.

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