Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Going Gray Journey

 Cindy Joseph

Hair. It's a hot topic. You might even say it's controversial. I would guess that the only topic discussed with more frequency is the weather. And that's probably because men don't care all that much about hair. Hair is primarily a women's issue. And it's inextricably bound up with age and beauty. Hair defines us as perhaps nothing else does. At the age of 47, I have stopped coloring mine.

This isn't the first time I've tried to go au naturel. Some time in my late 30s I started to grow out the gray, but at a certain point I just couldn't take it. I wasn't ready. I felt that because I was a belly dance teacher, I had a certain image of youth and glamour to maintain. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity...

We hide the truth in vain. It isn't as though people don't know. I can tell when someone colors. Always. And I felt so self-conscious when my roots would begin to show, which was like, three days after I would dye my hair. It just wouldn't stick anymore. As soon as I would shampoo, a little bit of the truth would peek back out. Within two weeks, if I really wanted to keep it up, the roots would need to be touched up again. I usually stretched it out a little further, all the while wondering if people could see the evidence. This is no way to live! 

It didn't matter whether I dyed it myself or had a professional do it. It didn't matter whether the color was permanent, semi-permanent, or came from a health food store. The result was the same. Quick fading and exposure of roots, and on top of that my hair grows fast. Surely I was fooling no one.

It all began when I was 26 and found my first gray hair. In panic, I called my mother, who assured me that I was not suddenly going to turn all gray. It would be a gradual process. I had already been coloring my hair for some time, just for fun. I had always wanted to be a redhead. But with the advent of the gray, I decided that I'd like to see my natural color while I still had the chance. I actually plucked out the few grays as they grew in with tweezers! At some point, this ceased to be an option. The only thing worse than gray hair would be bald spots!!

Ironically, today I believe that hair color causes baldness. A number of years ago I developed a bald spot about the size of a quarter near my hairline. I asked a dermatologist what could have caused it, and he said, "Who knows!" He gave me a cream, which did nothing. Special vitamins also had no effect.

Fast forward to the past year, when I quit coloring my hair altogether. Leading up to that point I had only been touching up the crown and sides, since this could be done quickly, and I don't have much gray growing in the back. Since giving up the dye completely, the bald spot has filled in. Yes, it is filled in with silvery strands, but any hair is better than baldness. Am I right?

In fact, while still coloring, my hair was generally getting thinner. Since it was naturally very dark, I could see more of my scalp when the silver strands (they are white, really) came in, which lead me to go back to using color. Hair dye plumps up the hair shaft, and I figured that the darker hair would make my scalp less noticeable. But lo and behold, since I have let my gray flag fly, I have new hair growth! Yes, it is silver, but any color is better than going bald. Are you following me here? Thinning hair, which eventually will lead to baldness, is not only aging, it's horrifying for a woman. Doesn't the very thought give you chills?

I'm not going to lie to you. The bare truth is, the growing out experience is extremely hard. It's emotional. It's worse than growing out bangs, yet similar. You have to be patient. You have to adjust your hairstyles to hide that demarcation line, to try to make the new hair growing in and the old, colored stuff blend. But at some point a miraculous thing happened to me. I wanted the gray. I craved it. I found two going gray support groups on Facebook, where many brave souls showcase their transition journey with before and after photos.

To my astonishment, all of the ladies who had gone through the entire transition actually looked better as silver foxes than they had as fake blonds, brunettes, and redheads. And it wasn't just the hair itself. It was the woman. In the "after" picture, she always looked more vibrant and confident. Her smile was bigger, her eyes were brighter. Her attitude was notably more confident. These women shined from the inside out.

Colored hair is damaged hair. Period. But isn't the gray hair wiry and unruly? Mine isn't. It's quite lovely, actually. I had grown my hair all the way down my back, and it was one length. I loved the spiral pattern of my curls. But I grew increasingly irritated with the demarcation line and that long rope of faux colored hair. So I added some layers. Then a little more, and that helped. Finally I was ready to make the cut. Several inches came off. It's still below my shoulders, so I am not traumatized. And I can still pull it back, which helps to hide the line between the old and the new.

With a more drastic cut, I could probably have what remains of my dyed tresses gone. But good things come to those who wait. I keep my eye on the prize. My goal is to have very long hair once again, with all of it finally natural. So I'll keep up the trims, continue pulling it up and back and being creative, and one day the new me will emerge like the phoenix from the ashes.

If you are thinking of joining the Going Gray Revolution, I encourage you to just go for it. It may take several attempts before you work up enough courage to go the whole way, as it has for me, and that's okay. And you will likely encounter resistance from others along the journey. Women in the FB groups report being insulted by strangers, hair dressers, dentists, and co-workers; being asked to dye their hair for a friend's wedding; and being harassed by family members. I have heard of women who have literally lost friends over the choice to stop coloring! I am blessed to have a husband who has always been supportive, who has consistently said that he likes the natural silver. Not everyone is so lucky.

What is needed here is nothing short of a paradigm shift. While silver hair has been a trend among celebrities and even teenagers over the last few years, having it happen naturally, and over a certain age, is not so well received. People assume that gray hair is aging, because that's what they've been conditioned to believe. From the photos I have seen, this is simply not the case. Each woman's shade of gray is unique. It's the kind of beauty you can't buy from a box or pay someone to give you. It's God given.

Recently, since cutting off a lot of the colored length, one of my aunts exclaimed that she loved my hair, and she actually wanted to know if it was natural or if I'd had it done that way! I had smoothed it out with a large barreled curling iron, like my hairdresser had done, which showed off the silver better than wearing it curly. The next day at a family reunion, an elder was talking to me about my hair and how the gray runs in the family, when I suddenly blurted out, "Isn't it beautiful?" To which she responded, though a bit surprised, with a "Yes." At 90 years old, she has lovely silver hair herself, which I really looked at for the first time. In the past I would probably not even have noticed her hair. With my paradigm shift, I could really appreciate her beauty.

The more people see of women embracing their natural selves, the more accustomed and comfortable they will be. The thing is, when a woman stops dying her hair, it brings up all kinds of emotions in other people. Sometimes it brings feelings of insecurity and fear to the surface, hostility even. Certain people will think you are crazy. They just won't get it, and it's not your job to make anyone feel better by hiding your head under a crown of pretending. But do have compassion for those who can't let go of the bottle of dye. If they wish to keep living in hair coloring hell, come baldness or high water, that is their prerogative. Just smile, take deep breaths, and stay true to yourself. If we can take this plunge, we can do anything!

Right now there is a definite trend of the Pro-Age Revolution going mainstream, and when you get the itch to give in and run back to the safe haven of hair dye, you can go instead to those brave role models who aren't hiding, but rather are embracing the wrinkles and silvers they have earned.

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