The Feminine Touch of Gray

Men who go gray gain an air of experience and gravitas — but women who go gray are often seen as “letting themselves go.” Why can’t we go gray too (wonders the girl who first saw gray hairs at age 26)? Today’s guest post from anonymous blogger Siouxsie Law tackles the issue. – Kat

The recent lawsuit filed by a 52-year-old woman who says she was fired over her gray hair makes me wonder whether it is okay to go just a little gray in the corporate world.

There are, of course, some women in the corporate world who have a complete head of stunning silver hair.  This, though, is only occasional.  But what is rarer yet is a woman who is partially gray.

For men it is common.  There are even products designed to let them retain some of the gray to achieve that “distinguished look.”

But this touch-of-gray look doesn’t seem to be an option for women.  Most of us start with a few gray hairs in our 30s.  And many of us choose to cover the gray completely.  We fight the line of demarcation for years, and only dare transition to completely gray when we are much older.

When it comes to going gray for men and women, there is a double standard.  Just watch the commercial for product above.  The ad features a man interviewing for a job.  When he has a head full of gray hair, he thinks he looks too old for the job.  But without the gray, he worries he looks too young and inexperienced.  Meanwhile, a much younger woman (the sexy-librarian type) is the person interviewing him for the job.   The woman doesn’t have a single gray hair on her head.

This probably isn’t too surprising.  Men are encouraged to keep some gray because on them it symbolizes wisdom and experience.  It gives them an air of gravitas.  But on women, gray is often associated with old age, and of not keeping up one’s appearance (recently, Katie Holmes’ gray strands caused a brouhaha).

But graying hair on women can look great too.  And it should be socially acceptable.  Moreover, deciding to embrace some gray at a time (and at an age) when many choose not to do so is a statement of extreme confidence.  It can be a powerful look and if done right, can be completely professional, edgy and youthful.  Plus, if you are lucky enough to start with a few gray streaks, you get the added bonus of looking beautiful and kind of punk rock.

Here are some of my favorite partially gray-haired ladies:

From left to right, Dr. Julia Gerberding (former head of the CDC), Rogue (member of the X-Men), Stacy London (host of TLC’s What Not to Wear); Lily Munster (matriarch of the Munster household); and the late Susan Sontag (author and activist).

Readers, when did you first notice gray hairs — and what have you been doing about them?  Is anyone currently rocking a gray or silver streak (or a full head of gray or silver)?

(Note from Kat: I’d love to rock a silver streak some day or even a full head of silver, but at this point the lowest maintenance option is for me to pluck the grays. I’m always amused when I find a long strand that I somehow missed.)

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Comments

  1. I started seeing my first gray strands about two years ago (28), and in the past few months. I’m starting to see more now — not a full silver streak, but I don’t have to go looking for them. At some point I will want to start coloring my hair, but I’m not there yet. I’m curious, for those of you who color over the gray, how much gray hair did you have when you started coloring?

    • I started coloring right away when I noticed that I had enough to be noticeable. I knew my mom had gone totally gray in her 20s and I figured I’d be the same, so why wait? I just didn’t want to look older than I was.

    • Always a NYer :

      I found my first gray hair when I was 16. Completely mortified, I began getting dark red highlights and that covered them for a few years until I noticed them cropping up between the colored hair. My hair is a very dark brown and the hairs I spot now are a stark white. I’m 23 and last year I began having my hair colored with my natural color to wash out the gray. I go every 4 weeks to my hairdresser because it takes every fiber of willpower I have not to pull the grays out.

      Side note, I used to just pluck the hairs I found until a hairdresser told me to wait until they could be colored because a long gray hair that blends into the rest of your hair is better than a short, stubby gray hair that juts out and is more noticable.

    • I started coloring when I caught the first few but I’ve only done highlights and semi-permanent glosses. My stylist told me it was too early to go all the way and that once you start with permanent hair color, there’s no going back.

  2. I began coloring to enhance my natural color in my late-20’s and as a result never realized I had “gray potential” until my first pregnancy at 34, when I skipped coloring, in extreme caution, during my 1st trimester, and was somewhat humbled by the realization that I had miscellaneous gray strands. For me, it’s an easy decision; it’s an appearance and youth positive that’s relatively harmless. My real debate is botox…putting a chemical into my skin seems to be another step entirely. Now in my 40’s, it’s tempting, but I am, at the least, holding off for a few years.
    Having said that, I admire any woman who can go gray with confidence.

  3. Keeping your gray does work professionally. Look at Christine Lagarde and Kathleen Sebelius, to name two.

    • So right. But imagine “to name two” for men.

      It’d be like, “to name two” who *do* choose to color grey. I immediately think of literally just two, Sam Donaldson and Bob Costas, and they are both mercilessly, Mercilessly! mocked for being unmanly and weirdly insisting on looking pathetically old by rocking ‘young’ hair or toupes.

      For a man to color is seen as sad, when a women not coloring is seen as sad.

      BTW, for women, it’s not coloring/not it’s the aging/not. Society would prefer us not to color our hair but not to age. (A new study this week showed we are judged as gross for looking old and judged as shallow for fighting aging.)

      • No lie. It reminds me of how you’re just supposed to be “naturally” super thin, all the time. The dream girl has a movie star body but is always up for pizza and beers, never mentioning concern about her weight or doing anything to manage it. We’re all supposed to be magical.

      • Thing is, I assume there are a lot of men out there who either fully or partially dye their hair, we just don’t see it. The only ones we hear about are the ones that are mocked.

  4. I saw my first grey hair when I was 16. By the time I was in my mid-20s they were noticeable to other people, but I didn’t start coloring it consistently (and professionally) until I was in my 30s.

    Two years ago, I stopped coloring, although it took a while: we had tried once before but I didn’t have enough grey, and I just looked mousy-brown and washed out. But now I have a short cap of silver, with some patches of darker hair, and it looks fabulous. I have saved $600/year (or more!), and my hair is much healthier.

    The only down side is that I can’t wear grey tops anymore, or a black-and-white pattern too close to my face; it looks too strange with my hair. But I look fab in bright pink or blue!

    • Woops, and I should say: I’m 46, I went grey for good at 44. I have received nothing but compliments on it.

      … although I did get my first unsolicited Senior Discount at the movies a few weeks ago. I figure the ticket-seller saw the hair and didn’t look any further…

  5. 26 here. Cover my greys. I have very dark brown hair and my greys are white white white as opposed to a nicer steel grey color. So mine go away once every few weeks when I dye my hair.

    • and by 26 I clearly meant I’m 27 and started coloring regularly at 26. I’m going to count this as a typo and not forgetting how old I am lol

    • Anonymous :

      Same. I’m 37, but started going “white” a long time ago and dye regularly. I’m quickly getting to the point where I am going to have to transition from dark brown to a lighter color to better blend. I disagree with your “nicer steel grey” comment, though. I love a steel grey streak, but when I get to the point of going with a full head of white hair, I’m going to love it. I know from seeing my grandmother’s beautiful white hair that I will never regret not going grey.

  6. First grays at 19, started coloring “for fun” in my mid-20’s, didn’t take long before it was primarily for gray coverage. 50 now, still coloring (all over color with some foils on top for textural contrast). No idea when I’ll stop – have toyed with the idea but frankly am too vain!

  7. If you’re 26, you’re not a “girl.” A young adult, but not a girl.

  8. Diana Barry :

    I have one grey hair that I can see, but I think it will only start to bug me when there are enough to notice. I am 32.

    I do plan to color it when it starts going grey more (40?) and then reassess at 60 or so.

  9. I’m 39 and noticed my first at age 29, but to date I only have five or six of them. When I color my hair I only go up a shade or two, and haven’t done anything specific to conceal the grays.

    And I’m annoyed that every Touch of Grey and Just for Men hair commercial ends with a young woman giving the older guy the coy “we work together but I’d secretly like to ___ you” look.

  10. I’m 27 now and found my first two gray hairs a few days before my 20th birthday. I pulled them out in a panic, but haven’t touched any gray hair since. In the last two years, more people have started to notice the silver mixed in with my dark, dark brown hair. Strangely, I don’t feel that it ages me– since I otherwise look so young, it’s clearly “premature” gray.

    I’ve heard some good-natured jokes about how my job must be very stressful, but otherwise everyone is politely positive about the whole thing. Older women who comment on it tend to tell me I look great and warn me off ever dying my hair, saying it’s “not worth it.” I haven’t made up my mind for good, but for now, I’m comfortable going gray naturally.

    • I’m 43 and stopped covering the gray a year ago. One of the best things I’ve ever done. I wish I had never dyed it. The expense, the harsh chemicals, the time, no thank you. I love my grays and it hasn’t kept me back any. I just got a new job after being unemployed for a spell.

  11. First gray hairs at age 20 or 21, and I’ve been dyeing ever since. Now whenever my roots grow out a bit I am horrified to see it’s a lot of gray (I’m 28). I think it’s fine on a woman in her 40s or 50s, but there’s no need to look 10 years older than I really am. And the worst part is that I still have acne – face of a teenager, hair of a grandma. Ugh.

    I’m a natural redhead and I use L’Oreal Preference. I touch up every 4-5 weeks.

    • Make I ask what shade?

      We natural redheads have the hardest task selecting a choice to cover greys, since most colors just give us “monopause red” color, like, punky henna fire engine red, which is hot looking, but sad if you are a natural redhead and just want to camo greys rather than Make A Statement.

      • I normally use the one called “lightest auburn” and sometimes the one called “light auburn”. Both look natural and don’t have that punky, shimmery thing going on. I have tried the Feria line too but it always looks fake and overly shimmery.

        This is the one I use: http://www.drugstore.com/loreal-preference-fade-defying-color-and-shine-system-permanent-lightest-auburn-7la/qxp178660

      • Anonabus (allergies) :

        I am a gray red head too and I had to take it to light auburn because when I dyed it red it went blond. When I use a brown, it “pulls out” the red. I have bangs to cover my eyebrows but they are not too too much different. On special occasions I use an eyebrow pencil.

        I started dyeing in college but when I went to law school, people still acknowledged me as a redhead (even though the color I use is technically brown)

        No box dye ever worked, (and I have tried probably all of the reds). So I had to go professional. It’s my only professional thing I do for myself since I do my own nails, wax, etc.

        • My natural color is more of an auburn than a “true” red, I guess. And oddly my eyebrows have stayed auburn, so I only dye the hair on my head. I’ve thought about going professional, but since Preference thus far works so well for me, I figure that if it ain’t broke I won’t fix it.

    • Research, not Law :

      Storing this info away. I’m a redhead and expecting grey any day (I’m older than my mom was when she started loosing her color).

      But did you all go straight to grey? I’ve observed that redheads seem to go blonde first, then white.

      My plan when the day comes is to do a blonde wash – or to do nothing. I come from a family of redheads and have yet to see a convincing dye job that looks natural into a women’s 50’s. Love the term “menopause red!” Conversely, the ones who went natural look natural – and I think more youthful.

    • Redhead here, too, and now 51. I went professional and it is SO worth it. I regularly get comments from strangers about how my hair color must be “real” because “you can’t fake that color.” I tell them my stylist will be so happy to hear that!

      If my “grays” were really gray (or white or blonde), I would consider not coloring. But it’s a sort of wimpy, faded, washed-out color. No thanks!

      My mom, on the other hand: dark, dark brown hair that started showing gray early. Now in her 70s, she has beautiful dark undertones with polished steel as the dominant color. THAT I would rock.

  12. I’m 30ish, have colored since greys became too numerous to tweeze and I figured, noticable to others. 10% grey?

    I love coloring but it is oppressive to have to keep up the facade of maintenance, to avoid slips.

    I look forward to going grey someday, with pride and freedom, but I’m sure I’m not to a pretty proportion (75%?) yet. (I realize the proportions are our aesthetic shackles as women and our own creations, collectively, but there you go…)

    I envy free-flowing grey-topped women. I don’t know how to get from here to there.

    I’ll have to wait for the years to catch me up, grey-wise, but the, how does one Do it, stop the madness? How can you tell, when you’re say, 10 years older than I, 40ish, what proportion of grey you have, when you’ve been coloring for 15 or 20 years? I fear the grow-out already, and covet it, down the road.

    • How can you tell, when you’re say, 10 years older than I, 40ish, what proportion of grey you have, when you’ve been coloring for 15 or 20 years?

      Ask your stylist if she/he thinks it would work–they’re the experts. Mine colored just the ends, when we decided to try it, and gave me a cut that did a good job of hiding the grey, depending on how I styled it. And then when it had grown out enough (which was actually super-attractive, with the dark tips over the white roots, it looked very cool), she cut off the color.

      You can tell right away if it looks good–if there’s not enough grey, you just color it all again.

      Or you could go the color-weave strategy, just gradually reduce the amount of hair you’re dying. Expensive, and it takes longer, but it’s a more gradual transition. Me, I went home on a Friday with mostly-dark hair, and came back in on Monday with mostly-white hair, and only one person said a thing about it. ::shrugs::

      • Anonymous :

        Thank you!

        It’s so true that we care/notice our own looks much more than anyone else does. But we do care, so it’s awesome that you found a way to get from here to there, I’m sure beautifully.

  13. No gray hair yet for me (I’m 26) but I don’t plan on dying it when I do. I used to dye my hair black and blue in my younger days and have decided it’s way more work than I want to do. My father is graying nicely, so I’m hoping I’ll do the same. Besides, grey has always been a good colour on me.

    • I saw my first gray strands around 30, and now my hair looks almost exactly like Katie Holmes’ in the linked photo. I really like the look & never considered covering it up.

      The other factor, I guess, was that I didn’t want to end up coloring my hair well into old age (I love my babcza, but mid-80s with dark brown hair? Yeah, right, grannie) or have to worry about transitioning away from coloring when I decided to go from dark to full platinum.

      • Hah–my one grandma had pretty dark hair into her 80s (but was mostly gray by 90). My other grandma told me shed gone grey at 26! So I always worried I’d take after her. These days I dye for entertainment, but have noticed the number of grays increasing, even if proportionally it’s still small.

      • Ha! My grandma stopped coloring her hair in her late 80s. I keep telling her it looks better gray than that weird reddish thing she was going for before, but she frets that it makes her look old. part of me wants to say, Grandma, you made it to 90. You ARE old.

        I on the other hand have been doing blonde highlights for 6 years, and noticed grey after I delivered my son at 30. Now I can see it, but I think it blends with my highlights pretty well. My mom never colored her hair, but I like how my hair looks. At 33, I am in no hurry to inform the world how grey I am (I actually don’t know myself, but I can see quite a bit around my temples when my highlights start to grow out). I have to admit, it freaks me out a bit.

      • Research, not Law :

        I feel the same way! My mom was forced to transition, and it was hard on her, mainly because of people’s reactions. Friends wouldn’t even recognize her. But she’s thankful she did, because her sisters have kept it up and look… well, ridiculous.

      • I had that exact same concern! (In fact, I wrote about my dilemma here a year ago: http://www.closet-coach.com/2010/10/05/gray-hair-should-i-cover-it-or-not/)

        So far, I’ve resisted a full-head coloring, but I did try out highlights this summer. They were kinda fun at first, but now that they’re growing out I feel like I’m in the same boat as before.

        I have a blog friend who went from completely dyed to completely natural silver and she looks fantastic: http://www.acorndreaming.com/2010/10/20/screw-all-the-serious-stuff-this-post-is-about-my-hair-with-pictures/

  14. I’m 42. I started seeing gray somewhere in my mid-30s (I think), and started coloring them when I was 40 (not because of the age – I went back to school and was doing OCI and feeling a bit insecure about being 15 years older than most of my classmates/competition). So far, my stylist basically does my highlights in such a way as to blend/disguise the gray, rather than coloring them outright (because I’m brunette, I dread getting the gray roots/dark hair line, and have been sticking with solutions that grow out less visibly). I’ve been getting highlights for quite a while, so I’m not sure what my hair would look like in its totally natural state, but so far the gray’s limited to basically my bangs – the front/top of my head. It looks like it might be moving toward a Stacy London/Susan Sontag kind of streak, which I think I’d kind of enjoy, except my hair is lighter than theirs, so the contrast isn’t as satisfying.

    The funny thing is that when this has come up among my friends, we all kind of agree that we think gray hair looks great on everyone else, but we don’t like it on ourselves. I was never averse to coloring, but didn’t think I would do it – until, as I mentioned, I was starting over in a new field, and suddenly started to worry about getting shut out of stuff because I was “too old.”

    • Interesting – I’m about your age and also went to law school later. My grey only started coming in noticeably a couple years ago, after law school. It’s now about 7 – 10% sprinkled all over with a streak at one temple. The grey is true white and the rest of my hair is dark brown, but the streak is not quite as dramatic as Stacey L’s. (That can’t be all-natural, right?) As a younger woman I had never contemplated NOT dyeing my hair, but in the end I decided to keep it grey. I had two reasons. First, I wanted more cred with clients and peers; I may not be a partner, but those greys might help me seem a little more experienced. Second, my life is so hectic, I couldn’t imagine finding the time for upkeep or – even worse – failing to find that time and looking like a mess on a regular basis. Most of the time I’m happy with my choice and I think it can be a bold, confident statement, but now and then, if I look tired or unkempt I think the grey just magnifies that tired/unkempt effect.

      • If I’m remembering correctly, I think I heard Stacey London say in an interview that she had some sort of injury on her head when she was a child and when it healed the hair came back in gray.

  15. No gray yet (at 28). But I am pretty sure I will color my hair once I have them. My mom just stopped coloring her hair and is now totally gray (she is 56, not sure when she went totally gray since she always had it colored.) My grandma was still coloring her hair bright red/orange until she died! But she rocked it! I will probably not do bright red, rather stick with my dark brown.

  16. 26 and no grey yet. I don’t dye my hair at all and have sandy blonde/light brown hair so I suspect grey won’t easily be noticed for a while. For now I’ve decided to never dye my hair, no matter how much grey I eventually get.

    • 42 and no grey yet, though I swear I can feel it coming. I’ve never dyed my hair, so this is out of naivety, but what does dying do to your hair (in terms of feel, health, IDK, whatever)? And if I decide to go the dying route, what exactly is the maintenance routine? (e.g., how often do you have to have your hair colored?)

      • Well, this is just my experience, but: I get highlights to blend away the gray, which (as I understand it) does involve some bleaching of the hair and then depositing color on the lightened strands. So my hair does feel a bit dryer/rougher for maybe the first 2 weeks or so after highlighting – not unhealthily so, it’s just a slightly different texture from natural. I’m lucky in that I have naturally thick and healthy hair, so it recovers quickly enough as I condition regularly and so on. I do tend to use shampoo etc. for colored or dry hair now, which I didn’t used to do.

        As for how often, I’m lazy, so I get fairly subtle highlights and can go 3-4 months before getting them redone (they grow out fairly naturally). But then, so far I don’t get really gray roots that stand out or anything – it’s more like after about 3 months I look in the mirror and realize all those lighter strands in my bangs are no longer blond-ish but are gray! If think if I reach a point where any growth shows up as stark roots I’d stop dyeing – as much as I actually enjoy getting my hair cut/colored, I hate the idea of being a slave to it because failing to do the upkeep means it looks worse than the problem I’m trying to solve. I don’t mind grown-out subtle highlights but I really dislike white roots set off by a dark line where the dye’s growing out, and would rather go gray than do the latter. So really I’m camoflageing my grays rather than getting rid of them completely!

        Since I don’t dye my whole head a different color, I can’t really speak to effect/schedule for that (I have done that, but only with semi-permanent dyes, so they fade out before you get roots anyway. Unless of course you are a very fair blond using a semi-perm black dye – then it will fade to green!)

      • I trust my stylist completely. She has been cutting my hair for 15 years and coloring it for 2/3 of that time as well. I started with only getting the color every other time I had a cut (I wear my hair short, so that was approx 10 weeks between colors), but this year my temples are so gray I decided to color every time.

        Unless I’m going with a new shade (we mix up the reds with the season), she colors the roots and pulls color through the rest of the hair randomly so I get “lowlights” of the new color and the slightly faded color blends in. It ends up being a really natural look.

        My hair feels mostly the same, but my hair is thick, wavy and not at all fragile. My sister’s fine hair actually behaves better when it has a little bit of damage from the highlights she’s been getting since high school. She colors for the texture of it as much as for the color.

  17. AtlantaAttorney :

    I’m in my late 30’s, and I have the occassional gray hair every now and then, but I am blonde so they tend to just blend in. My grandmother went a gorgeous blondish-silverish in her 50’s and I am hoping for the same.

    • My mom has this same look, and I think it looks great. My “grays” are actually white, so I think it blends fine with my blonde highlights.

    • This. I’m still a fairly light (natural) blonde, so I wonder how the transition to silver/white will go for me. No grays/whites yet, but I’m only 25. I feel like a chunk of silver would be odder on a blonde than a brunette, but there are just so few examples in general. I’m guessing I’m more likely to go white or blondish-silverish like you mentioned. On the other hand, my aunt and grandfather went completely bleach white by age 40 (she completely dyes her hair, he didn’t), so who knows!

    • I’m blonde also (though darker than the golden blonde I was as a kid), and didn’t notice any gray until about 5 years ago (I’m 47). I have blondish-silverish happening underneath, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. I’ve never colored my hair and don’t ever plan to. My mom and aunts went white eventually, so I’m betting that’s my destiny too, although my dad’s mom was a gorgeous steely gray in her latter years. I hope to stay more silvery, but who knows.

      My husband, who’s 13 years younger than I, likes my multi-toned hair– but I am a feminist and have major hate for the double standard and the way women are required to be decorative objects who are supposed to please men or else. Screw dat!

  18. I have very dark brown hair, and I dyed it with semi-permanent dye for 10+ years. This year, I decided it was too much work, doesn’t always look good, and was ruining the condition of my hair.

    So, I stopped coloring it for about six weeks, then went to the hairdresser and had him cut it shorter than usual–a short bob, not a pixie. Did this for about 8 weeks, and now I am having low-lights done every 8 or 10 weeks.

    Net result is my hair with some noticeable gray but no roots or noticeable lines. I’ve finally gotten it to the point where I can grow it longer again.

    I love it, my hair is so much healthier and I don’t have to mess around with dyes.

    • Low Lights :

      Can you explain low lights, please?

      • Anonymous :

        Strands darker than your natural, but applied like they are highlights. So not all over color. I’m a natural blond, and I get highlights and lowlights (in a darker blonde and what my stylist says is called “sunset,” which is a coppery blonde.) They just give the hair color more depth, and generally look more natural overall.

  19. I’m 46 and have some silvery hairs here and there, but no full gray patches. I have always had one or two gray hairs, but noticed them “breeding” starting in my early 40s.

    To deal with them, I get very subtle highlights. I ask the stylist to pull as many gray hairs into the foils as he can, but of course he can’t get them all. I find the subtle highlights, which are just a shade lighter than my natural brunette, help the grays blend in more.

    My stylist just yesterday told me they can apply a demipermanent color on the hair between foils at the same time I’m getting the highlights, but that may be more processing than I’m willing to deal with.

    • By the way, I’m so surprised to see commenters mentioning plucking gray hairs. My mom always told me that when you pluck a gray hair, three friends come to its funeral. :)

      I don’t find that to be the case, but I do notice that when you pluck a gray hair, it grows back in standing straight up, particularly since gray hairs tend to be wirier than regular hair strands. That can’t be better than just living with a single long gray hair!

      • Yes, it would never occur to me to pluck! (Besides, at this point it would give me bald patches…)

      • Motherplucker :

        In response to that line from my mother, I would always say “Well good thing I do not have time to hold funerals for each individual hair strand!” What a smarta**. I was later told it’s bad because they stick straight up but that is a myth about them coming faster because of the plucking.

  20. I started coloring my hair at age 38, just after having my third child and committing to attending my 20th high school reunion, which I couldn’t face with baby weight AND gray hairs. There was no way to lose 20 lbs in short order, so away went the gray. Once you start, it’s very, very hard to stop and it’s expensive–but I did get some compliments on my hair at my recent 40th high school reunion. My stylist and I have had several conversation about when and how to “go gray,” but for now she’s still coloring and highlighting me. I will stop (maybe at 60 or 65?) but I’m not ready yet. Besides, my husband has NO gray. I don’t want to look like his mother. Is that a bad thing to say?

    • Anonymous :

      Your story made me smile!

      I’m sure you wouldn’t look older than your hubby.

      My mom, much much older than you, in her 70s, just stopped coloring and loves the natural grey look and the freedom and savings. But she has to ignore Dad’s uncharacteristic (he’s usually a gentleman and thinks she can do no wrong) requests for her to color once more. He wants her to look younger than him…

      Ahh, people.

    • Maybe it’s not a bad thing to say per se, but what’s wrong with looking older than your husband? I AM older – and so what? This is another double standard thing that I wish would go away.

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