Covering Up Gray Hair Is an Emotionally-Draining Chore – Allure Magazine
This article is part of Pretty Pressure, a series exploring beauty labor: the idea that our beauty routines are work and should be considered as such. While beautifying can be a source of relaxation, bonding, and self-esteem, for others, it’s a chore — one which can take a real toll on us. Today’s installment of Pretty Pressure discusses women and their relationships with their gray hair. The previous installment, which discusses body hair removal, can be found here.
Hair features prominently in classic conceptions of female beauty. Flowing, glossy strands have long been held up as a feminine ideal, and hair is closely tied up with many women’s self-esteem and perceptions of their own attractiveness. Women evaluate their hair based on many qualities, including color. Not only does hair color factor into many women’s self-confidence, it can change over time. When gray hairs start to crop up, women are faced with a dilemma: Do they leave them alone, or start to hide them with dye?
For Heather, a 39-year-old editor, leaving her gray hairs alone was too much to face. “I guess letting them grow out feels like a risk,” she explains. “I don’t want to be an invisible, middle-aged woman! I want to still be a little bit young and vital.”
She isn’t alone in worrying about this: other women report that feeling like they “disappeared” or became “invisible” — especially to men — when they entered middle age. For some women, dyeing gray hair can be one way to retain a sense of desirability.
Heather first started noticing grays when she was in her mid-thirties, around the time her husband had an affair. “Our kids were really little, and I guess I felt like I hadn’t focused on myself very much,” she says. “I suspect [dyeing the gray hairs] was in response to feeling as though my husband was around lots of very well-groomed women at work, and I felt like I could make more of an effort — but I also wanted to feel better, and dying it helped me feel a bit more in control of myself.”
“I also used to go with my husband to his work functions, and I felt like I was representing him,” she continues. “I wanted him to feel like I was someone he could introduce to his colleagues without me feeling like a daggy mum.”
However, women who cover their grays may also feel resentful about the pressure to change themselves to cater to men or society at large. Heather, for her part, is sensitive to the role her husband’s actions have played in her self-image. “The whole affair scenario has made me much more aware of how much I have changed my body for the male gaze, and I am uncomfortable that dyeing my hair is still part of this,” Heather says. “I want to not care about it. I love seeing women owning their gray. It’s all so tied up in ideas of femininity, and I guess I’ve never felt particularly feminine, so having long brown hair is something I hold onto.”
Elise Franklin, a Los-Angeles-based psychotherapist who works with clients in the entertainment industry, says that gray hair can be a fraught issue for the women she sees. “Women often report feeling that they are passed up for roles, shows, and branding opportunities because they aren’t looking young enough, and grays are a dead giveaway [of] aging,” she says.
Franklin notes that external feedback about gray hair can present a huge challenge to clients who are working on their self-esteem: “We will work to separate their self-worth from their physical appearance — we work to place less value on what’s on the outside, and more on the inside,” she explains. “Then, [clients] go out into the world, and the world says: ‘You can’t get this job or meet this relationship goal because you don’t look the part.'”
“You can see how mixed messaging is hurting our women,” Franklin adds. “They’re hearing, ‘In order to love yourself, you have to accept all parts of yourself and make peace with them.’ But, as they do that, they’re scrutinized and penalized. Navigating the nuances of a woman’s own needs and the expectations of our world is a constant stressor.”
For some women, not only is covering grays a chore, it’s a time-consuming and expensive one. Marianne, a 55-year-old hairdresser and stylist, says she felt judged by fellow hairdressers (and clients) when she let her own hair go gray, and she refers to the “pain of the three-week touch-ups.” And not only must regrowth be frequently addressed, those who opt for professional coloring can spend hundreds or even thousands a year.
Many women resist the pressure to dye over their grays. Charlotte, a 48-year-old novelist, became one of them in 2008 when she concluded that she could live with her gray hair.
“I have an aunt who had a beautiful head of white hair in her mid-forties, so I was quite excited that mine would look like hers,” she explains. “It didn’t, in the end: Mine is streaky and looks like white highlights. I think it was easier for me to accept, though, since I had a role model who had embraced her gray.” Clearly, having someone to look up to helped Charlotte — and, as is the case with many deviations from traditional beauty standards, going fully gray is one that needs more representation.
For Charlotte, leaving her hair in its natural state is a small form of resistance to beauty double standards. “Women have to take impossible measures to remain young-looking, while men are allowed to be both grizzled and sexy,” she says. “I wanted to challenge that and embrace being gray in my forties. I’m happy to save the time and money it takes to dye for other things. I’ve had nothing but compliments on my gray streaks and I love them.”
Any discussion of gray hair would be incomplete without mentioning that more and more young women have been dying their hair unnatural silver hues recently and that visibility is the motivation behind this beauty decision, too. Cheeno Grey, a 25-year-old model, says her decision to dye her brown hair gray “was to make me stand out in the industry that I’m in.” Shannon, a 22-year old hairdresser, says she’s often asked to deliver gray or silver colors, because “it’s something new and edgy without being as out there as a color in the rainbow spectrum.”
Of course, young women who opt to go gray as a form of self-expression aren’t subject to the same judgment as older women with naturally gray hair. If women with natural grays embrace them, they may be judged or disregarded, their hair inviting ageist dismissal. If they choose to dye over them, they may find that this commitment comes with a financial and psychological cost. Coloring grays is just one of the forms of extra beauty labor older women are pressured to do to remain “seen” and, in society’s narrow eyes, be considered attractive.