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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  1. I had a few gray hairs at 27, but they started sprouting like mad after I had my son at 29. Damn hormones. For now, I have subtle highlights to blend the grays with the rest, but I really hate how quickly the grays start showing through on my base color. And I hate the expense of coloring even more, but every time I’ve tried to do it on my own I’ve had, uh, less than stellar results.

    • On another note, I know a 50-something woman who has bra-strap length straight gray hair. It’s thick, precisely cut, and looks freaking awesome. Five years ago, she had a generic-looking bob haircut that was clearly dyed. I love it when women embrace their true selves, though I think it takes an amount of gravitas to pull it off.

  2. Going gray. What’s more, LONG and gray. Never happier. But I’m 54, almost 55, and anyone hiring me has got to appreciate my experience, or the fit, as they say, just isn’t there.

  3. The whole genetics thing really is bizarre sometimes. I’m 42 and have never found a grey hair. I got my dad’s family’s hair — and he has no grey at all at 67. The other side of the coin is that that’s the family side I get my total pear body shape from!

  4. My kindhearted husband just started pointing out my greys. My mother colors her hair- I imagine she’ll be upset when I DON’T color mine- it will be obvious she colors hers when we are together if I have grey going on. On that note, my grandmother colored her hair out of obligation to her mother in the some situation. She stopped coloring her hair when her mom did.

    I think grey looks fine on a woman. I think the long white hair looks glamourous.

  5. At 16 found my first one. I have been dyeing it since probably 23 on. I tried doing it myself in college and after one botch, I have gone to a salon ever since. I go every 5 weeks. It’s hereditary, both my parents were 100% gray at 40. I blame the Irish.

    I will never go gray. Ever.

  6. Great post. Those women pictured are fabulous. No gray for me, but I will definitely dye them away when they appear.

  7. I think that part of the reason that women have a harder time going gray than men is because gray hair can look different on long hair, so esp. during the “partial gray” period, it just has the opportunity to look messier, for lack of a better word, than on men who keep their hair short. That said, I love the look of all grays or a dramatic streak a la Bonnie Rait.

  8. Gray hair can look great on people who start with very dark hair and have strong coloring. Those are often the people who start going gray at an early age, and get that funky Elvira stripe.

    I’m medium brown to dirty blond w/o a lot of hair to skin contrast, and I’ve found that my gray hair looks yellowish and washes me out. So I’ll probably dye it for a long time. Costs a fortune, though!

  9. Kilo Alpha :

    I started going gray in my 20’s and knew from my mom and her family that early graying was my fate. I started with semi-permanent color before graduating to permanent color about 10 years ago. I am now in my late 40’s with long dark auburn/brown hair. If I left it uncolored, I would have two thick bands of gray a la Lily Munster. The stripes of gray take the coloring less and thus I appear to have lovely balayage — I get complimented on it all the time. So no plans to go natural any time soon.

  10. I’m 37, very young-looking, and about 15% grey. The rest of my hair is very dark brown. I have decided not to color it. I am lucky that my greys are evenly distributed through my hair and they are very close in texture to the rest of hair. It gives my head a lovely silvery sheen.

    I get compliments on the greys and also comments about how “brave” I am not to dye it. It’s not bravery as much as pragmatism. I’m not willing to start coloring it because it’s hugely expensive and time consuming.

    • Yeah, I think if you’ve already been coloring your hair, changing the grays isn’t that big of a deal – I was already getting my hair colored because I liked the way it looked, so I wasn’t adding any time/expense to my current routine (also, I really like having people do things to my hair – it’s one of my few luxuries – so to me it’s totally worth the time/expense, though I might be weird about that…). If you’ve never colored I can see how it would be less appealing to start just because of a few (or even many) gray hairs.

  11. Praxidike :

    I’m a natural dark blonde and don’t color. No greys at 30. My mother didn’t have any greys when she died at 58, so I don’t anticipate that I’ll get any. My father, OTOH, was fully grey by the time he graduated from vet school.

    If I got them, I doubt I’d care too much. I assume they wouldn’t be too noticeable because my hair is blonde, anyway. But I totally understand the desire to dye them because they definitely CAN age you prematurely.

  12. anonymous :

    My dark brown hair started going salt and pepper in my late 20s. Now, in my 50s it is almost totally white. I have never colored my hair. When I was in my 30s and 40s, people often remarked about how young I looked – I think because they would see the gray hair first, assume I was much older, and then be startled by my youthful skin when they saw me up close. At work, I think I got a lot of respect for my energy and vitality. In my 50s, my body age has caught up with my hair age so I don’t get as many comments but I also do not have to convince anyone of my competence.
    (BTW, men loved my graying hair. I got more attention from men in my 30s and 40s than I ever did when I was younger……)

  13. I started going gray at 20 and quit coloring at 50 when I decided to go to law school (while working full-time, no less, for a Fortune 500 company in a customer facing professional capacity). I knew that running to the hairdresser for 4 hours every 3 weeks just had to go. I was a natural redhead and keeping my red hair was a losing battle: my hair grows really fast and the touch up the roots and fix the highlights stuff got to be a huge time sucking hassle. My hairdresser at the time was supportive and once I got past the tough first couple weeks we cut the back really short and layers to cut off the color entirely and highlighted the front to blend and gradually grow out the front. I am lucky that I have gone mostly white/silver in the front and the minute bit of remaining red gives a slight effect of golden low lights. I get lots of compliments including from the Judge that evaluated my appellate argument (it was her first comment), every hairdresser I have had since then, and random strangers. It was an adjustment for my husband though. And he has no gray hair, of course. But even he has come around to the “gray side” and appreciating how much less hassle it is as well as my hair’s unusual color, not to mention the money I do not spend on getting the color done. So far I have not seen a down side to sporting my natural hair.

  14. Great post. I always liked Lily Munster’s hair. She makes me want to rock a silver streak.

  15. First greys when I was 24 years old, so I started highlighting my dirty blonde hair with platinum streaks. They blend in much better this way – every time I find a grey or white hair I thnk “that one is SO blonde!”

  16. just Karen :

    I’m 30 and dye my hair – without the dye, my hair is 1/3 to 1/2 grey. I dyed it off and on through college and law school until a client of mine in a legal clinic (a man sentenced to 58 years on a crime he maintained his innocence for, and whom a year later had his case overturned and was released) made a comment that I either I looked a lot younger than I was, or I must have had a really hard life because of how much grey I had… I’ve been pretty consistent at dying it ever since. For me, I have a lot of grey, but it is neither restricted to a streak (like it was in my early 20’s) nor evenly spread out – the spottiness just isn’t cute, and I think my hair looks better a more uniform color. I am definitely planning to rock the grey hair once I hit that 75% or more mark :)

  17. I’ve been dying my hair since I was 14 just because I hate my natural color. For the most part I’ve been a faux redhead (ranging from light red, to fire engine red to eggplant purply red) for almost 20 years. I do see a few greys in my roots, but not many. Last time I had it done professionally the stylist said I had very few greys. But I plan on being a redhead forever (or at least until I get bored, go blonde for 3 months and then go red again.)

  18. I started going grey in high school and started coloring my hair to cover the grey in college. I am now in my early 40s and couldn’t imagine *not* coloring, in part because I am 50-60% grey (according to my stylist) and in part because its salt & pepper and not a cool streak. I also change my hair color every couple years (black, red, almost purple, light brown etc), when I get bored. Yes, its a huge pain to get it done every 4 weeks, and expensive, but I am just not ready to be grey. Plus, grey hair, especially long hair, which I have, makes me think of an aging hippy.

  19. Talkin' Texas :

    Grays in my 20’s. Started “highlighting” in my mid-30’s to cover. By late 30’s I started all over color. I have roots done every 5 weeks and color all the way every 10 weeks. Good news, I now have 50% or more gray, so my all over color looks great because the gray hair picks up a nice golden shimmer like highlights and accents my medium brown hair. I would love to go all over gray. My dad was 70 to 80% gray in his 40’s and his hair always looked stunning.

  20. anon for this one :

    I found the first gray hairs when I was about 15 and never did anything about it because at this point I had a fire engine red and dark blue Mohawk (hey, we all have “phases”).
    When I finally let my natural hair grow I already had a patch of gray in my bangs. I just turned thirty and I don’t do anything with it, mainly because a lot of people ask me how I got this “effect” done and who my hair dresser is.
    I might do something soon, tough, because I’m growing single gray hairs all over my head, now.

  21. My natural hair color is med brown, and I began seeing some grey strands in my mid-30s. At that point, I began only with getting some golden highlights so as to blend with the few greys. By late 30s, I was getting semi-permanent color and still a few highlights. Early 40s, I had to switch to permanent color since I have very thick, coarse hair and semi-permanent no longer was enough for a growing % of stubborn grey hair. Through-out 40s, root touch ups only every 4 wks, with highlights touched up every couple of months. (I use Wen products and don’t have issues with color fading.) I turned 50 this year and now get root touch ups every 3 weeks…can no longer go 4 weeks. Don’t know if my hair is growing faster due to my improved healthy eating habits or maybe my hair is healthier due to Wen, or whatever the reason is, but my hair definitely requires more frequent maintenance now.

  22. Sorry, but I will never go gray. My grandmother colored her hair until she was in her 70s and my mom still does at 60. I have had friends in their late 30s/early 40s who have tried to let the gray come in, and all of them eventually went back to coloring. It’s great to talk about “aging gracefully” but when push comes to shove, do people really want to look older than they are?

    I have pretty much always colored my hair as my natural color is a flat mousy brown. I went lighter when I was younger; now that I am getting older I go a little darker. But let the gray come through? No, thank you. I don’t think it would be flattering on me, for one, and I totally agree that it’s perceived differently on women than it is on men.

  23. I had medium, very thick, brown hair originally. In my 30’s, I decided to start highlighting for more color (I looked mousey). That turned into going red–I had always wanted to be a redhead. In my 50’s I had to start coloring more and more frequently to avoid the stripe at the root line and my hair became very brittle as a result. I finally couldn’t stand the texture anymore and stopped. But it took over two years (and very careful touch ups to ensure that I didn’t look too much like a calico cat, starting with doing back to brown hair) before I didn’t cry when I looked at myself. Now, at 60, I have beautiful salt and pepper, long hair that while very coarse, at least can be touched without a feeling of touching steel wool. Do I miss the vibrant red? Oh yes–but it is so good to have natural hair again.

    I think skin actually ages women faster and worse than hair. Face sagging and badly wrinkled, chicken skin on arms. And that’s a matter of genes and sun protection (and getting good sleep–another thing that changes with age)

  24. I’m just starting to get some grey in my dark brown bangs… has anyone tried a “tint” type haircolor to cover grey and give a little overall color, as opposed to full on chemically altering haircolor? I spend so much effort trying to smooth my hair down that the idea of chemically opening the hair cuticle with dye seems silly… but something to weigh my hair down a little and cover grey sounds better to me.

  25. I started seeing grays in my hair during law school in my mid-20s, but just a few hairs in one area that was usually buried. In my 30s, I started coloring my hair with demi-permanent color partly to color the gray but also to give my ordinary brown hair a bit more oomph – with some red tones.

    Two years ago (near my 40th birthday), I decided to stop coloring, for a few reasons. First, it was so darn time consuming to have a 90 min hair appointment every 6 weeks, nevermind the cost. Second, I started thinking about all the chemicals and what the environmental impact might be. Third, my mother in law stopped coloring her hair (at age 70+), and it was a dramatic change – I started thinking when was the best time to stop – and when would there be too much gray to really cover? And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I started to wonder whether or not having some noticeable gray might actually give me more respect at work. I have a rather youthful face, and I felt like it was time to start looking my age a bit more.

    Since stopping, I found out that (1) my hair doesn’t have a tremendous amount of gray (maybe 10%) and (2) my hair isn’t really that mousy without color added – it gets a lot of lightening in the summer from being outside on the weekends. I don’t miss coloring my hair one bit, and I’m even growing out my thick curly hair and plan to keep it long as it goes gray. I think as long as you keep your hair in good condition (rather than letting it dry out too much), you can really rock the gray and look mature AND beautiful.

  26. AccountingNerd :

    wow, I thought most people started getting gray in their late 30s, but it seems like most people on here started much earlier. At 23, I haven’t seen any yet.

  27. Anyone with gray/white curly hair? Did it stay curly? How?
    I expect to go grey quickly in about 4 years (based on my mom). We both have curly hair (not wavy), and her greys don’t really curl – they barely wave. So styling is more a problem, because the grey/dyed hair looks stairght-er as if she had done an eighties puff, and the rest curls (approx. 50%-50%). She’s turned to starighten it, but that only increases the dryness – she’s tried everything to keep them hydrated and curly, but no luck so far.
    It seems that all the famous grey/white ladies out there have straight, or at most wavy, hair. Is there a way to keep healthy curls when going grey?

    • That’s a great question. My father has tightly coiled hair (he’s African-American). As his hair grows between haircuts, the few white hairs he has at 64 stick out past his black hairs because the white hairs are straighter.

  28. I’m 45 and after coloring for 10 or so years I stopped. I got my hair cut short for the summer with a highlight to break up the skunk line. Now all of the color is off and. I have gray at the temples and salt and pepper on top, more dark than light.

    I LOVE it. I loved my natural brunette color, and when I started dying it either looked fake or looked ok for a week or two and then turned brassy and fake looking. I could never get highlights that look right. (I am dark brunette/fair skinned/green eyed Russian/Jewish). Colorwise the silver is more flattering than the goldish/copper highlights ever were.

    I think part of what makes it possible for me to go gray is my sassy attitude :). I wear glasses and I try to choose a funky pair. I’m also a red lipstick person. That all helps to balance out the gray and not look washed out. I also have very young looking skin, but I definitely look older with the salt and pepper. So be it.

    My mom is a redhead who dyes her hair and always will. She is so against me going gray. My stylist keeps giving me coupons for coloring in case I “change my mind.” Different times, different attitudes I say. My husband and six year old son are good with it.

    I’m a lawyer, so the gray doesn’t hurt professionally.

    So I say, try it. You can always dye it back.

  29. I started going gray at 20 – pure gentics, father full gray at 30. At 49 it is now mostly silver. Except for a one time highlighting in my late 20’s I have never colored it. I think that more than the color, what is aging is the texture and I have been very lucky to keep my fine textured hair rather than getting the coarse wiry hairs.

  30. I got my first grey hair in my early twenties, but I didn’t start colouring my hair for about 10 years, when my husband commented on how grey I was getting. He has very few grey hairs, and the ones he does have blend into his sandy/light brown hair – he has the kind of hair that has all different colors of hair so they grey don’t stand out. I have medium brown hair, and the greys do stand out. My husband is also very baby faced, very few wrinkles, while I have a few, although I’m regularly told that I look young. I don’t want to look way older than he does.

    I colour my hair myself with a colour that is very close to my natural colour. I do expect to go grey someday . Perhaps in my mid 40’s? Both of my parents have white hair, so I hope my hair does the same. When my mom stopped colouring I thought she looked way younger than with her dyed brown hair. I hope the same thing happens to me when I stop.

    Its funny because my mom & mil were born in the same year. My mom has been completely grey/white for probably 10+ years, but my mil is probably now just over half grey. Genetics is a weird thing.

  31. My silver hair is commented on often. As long as it’s cut well and shiny, it looks pretty darn good. It took a long time to get here, but frankly, I’d rather see gray in the hair than a gray halo around the scalp from 1-week-past-needing-a-dye-job.

  32. Maggie Dixon :

    I’m 51, and can honestly say I have absolutely no gray — only because snow-white is NOT the same color as gray! :) I’m guessing I’m about 90% snow-white, but I can tell that only when it’s time to color again. I’ve been coloring now for at least 10 years (or maybe 15; I’ve never been asked this before, and honestly don’t remember). Before that, I’d pluck the grays (as they were then) but that quickly got too time-consuming.

    Interesting social comment: in the twelve years I’ve known him (from ages 49 to 61) he went from absolutely no gray hair whatsoever (I have a pic of him taken on the day we met, so I’m sure) to a lovely distinguished gray. He is the most non-vain person alive (example: he cuts his own hair), and the one time I asked him, as a joke, whether I should stop coloring my hair (which I have absolutely no intention of doing until I retire, so who knows when that will be), he told me he didn’t want me to stop coloring it, since it would make me look older than him. (Quite a statement, since I’m actually 10 years younger than he is!)

    Sad, the double-standard has seeped so thoroughly into our society.

    I wonder: could there possibly be a survival-of-the-species, biological component to this preference: that people prefer to see women who are still young enough to be (supposedly) fertile, hence the widespread distaste for gray hair on (most) women? While no matter how old/gray a man gets, fertility is still assumed.

  33. Maggie Dixon :

    Oops: forgot to state that the “he” I referred to in my 2d paragraph is my husband.

  34. At 45+, I always color my hair. I let it start to go gray a couple years ago, until my husband retired, and I decided I wasn’t THAT old yet! But when I first started in my current legal assistant job 5 years ago, and bent over a photo one of the partners was show-and-telling, and he immediately said, “Oops! over 40”, referring to the roots coming through, I was super annoyed, to say the least. (If I had thought fast enough, I would have replied, “And size DOES matter to those of us who are old enough to know better.”) His comment was inappropriate and set the tone for an uncomfortable professional relationship that continues.

  35. I have been a natural redhead (strawberry blonde) all of my life with very pale skin. When I turned 50 my hair started getting lighter and lighter. I am now 66 and very white-blonde. I feel it washes me out and would like a like more color. Is this a wise thing to do or should I just accept the white hair?

  36. Single gal :

    Kat, my hairdresser told me never to pull out a gray hair! Instead, just cut it short. Otherwise, you will end up pulling all of your hair out! (It is hard to grow back.)

  37. My family greys early. We have very thick dark brown hair with lots of body. My dad was grey in his 30’s, my mom, at least in her 40s. I started coloring in my30s, first at a salon, then from the box. I just couldn’t justify “wasting” time in the salon. Had 2d child at42 so, on with the color. Then, stopped at at 53 with lots of grey all over. Yet I started looking older. My youngest began begging me to color my hair. I finally gave Harold a free hand. High and low lights, 3 different layers. I look 10 yrs younger. The layers look normal. People figure the high lights ( no red) are the only coloring. It’s worth the cost.

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