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. Ugh, got my first gray when I was 21. Now at 31, I have graying around my temples, but not anywhere else. I have dark brown hair, and my “grays” are actually stark white. I dye it, but it’s hard to keep up with because it needs to be colored every 3-4 weeks to cover up the roots. A serious pain.

    Does anyone know why premature graying happens? Is it more likely because of stress, genetics…?

    • I’ve noticed my dad getting a white spot in his dark red-brown hair when he started dealing with vitiligo on his skin. In that case, I’m guessing the hair losing pigment is related to the skin losing pigment.

    • I’m pretty sure it’s genetics. My father is 62, and I don’t think he has a single gray hair. My mother has some gray at her temples. At 32, I think I’ve seen one gray hair.

  2. Marie-Christine :

    I started on the grey at 22, so I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it. I had an ankward phase, with a dark yamulka, which I handled by going bright orange. But now I’m all white in the front, salt and pepper in the back, and I think that’s fine. I really dislike the dead-dyed dark hair most of my contemporaries are sporting at my current job. Eeck. And roots are murder.
    Basically, if you don’t want people to think you’re letting yourself go, you need a very good haircut (thank you Anthony :-)) and better clothes than when you were younger. That’s all.

  3. I have dark brown hair that I’ve never dyed. I first started getting stark white hairs a few years ago, but about two years ago I stopped plucking them because I found that the short, wiry hairs sticking out were more noticeable than long ones. Now, depending on how I style my hair, I have two noticeable streaks (maybe 10-15 hairs on each side) at the front of my hair. I don’t mind it, but it does bother me when my bf asks if I am planning to dye it or (more bothersomely, for some reason) talks about how grey HE’S going and that he’s thinking he should start coloring his hair. Sigh.

  4. Natural color :

    I hope no one reacts badly to this comment but I’m almost 55 and have no noticable gray. My hair may be weird because I have what looks like brown hair but the individual hairs are light brown, dark brown, blond and red and so an individual gray hair blends in, but also my few ‘gray’ hairs are more white or clear. My dad didn’t get gray until he was 75 so it runs in the family. It’s funny because I always promised myself highlights when I started to go gray and the joke’s on me because it’s still not time, although my hair is more dim than it used to be.

    • AnonInfinity :

      It’s okay — My husband’s parents are in their 60s and neither one has any gray at all. Mine started going at about age 25, so I’m totally jealous.

    • My mom is in her mid-60s and is just starting to get some gray hairs now. At 33, I hope that I have inherited her hair … no gray ones for me … yet.

    • Research, not Law :

      My mother in law is nearly 80 and has only a handful of grey in her nearly black hair. It also runs in her family. My husband (40) seems to be following, lucky guy.

      Funny story, her sister dyed her hair various colors since young adulthood. She decided it was time to stop in her 70’s and awaited the inevitable head of grey… only to find out she still had a fully head of brown!

    • My husband is 42 and has maybe 1 grey hair. If I were to stop coloring, I’m sure I’d have more. When he teases me about my gray hair, I just tell him that all of his that wanted to turn grey just left his head instead.

    • I have very similar hair to you – it looks light brown from a distance but actually it is lots of different colours which you can see in the light. I play it up by getting highlights and lowlights in those colours. My mom and both her parents kept their natural colour without going noticeably grey until well into their 60s (my mom helps hers along now, but my grandfather’s hair colour didn’t change until he was at least 70), so fingers crossed that I take after her side of the family as far as my hair goes!

      That said, I found my very first grey hair a few weeks ago, and I am 36. It looked very white, which I would definitely prefer to grey. I just noticed it out of the blue, got very curious and looked for more, shrugged my shoulders and decided to observe with interest. :-)

  5. Divaliscious11 :

    Hmmm first grays in high school and used to use a natural color rinse when my hair was relaxed. Now that I wear my hair natural, I do a slightly lighter permanent color, which makes my grays look more like highlights…. I’m 43, but probably will continue to color…..

  6. I also read this with great interest. I have very thick, black hair and found my first white hair when I was 18. Technically I didn’t find it – one of the other altos in my high school choir found it, much to my horror. Then that Christmas when I was home from school I went to get a haircut and my stylist said, “College must be stressing you out, you have 3 gray hairs back here!” Now I’m about to turn 29 and they’ve become too numerous to pluck, fortunately they’re highest in concentration at my temples (if I was a man with short hair I think this would look quite hot), so the hair from the top of my head covers them up for the most part when it’s down, but pulled back at the gym you can see it all. I haven’t started coloring them yet because I am not quite ready to admit to myself that this is it and now I’ll have to maintain this for the next 30 years. I hate the thought of coloring it but this is just so premature and it stands out so much against my dark hair that I really feel it ages me.

  7. Senior Attorney :

    I started going gray (and coloring) in my early 20s. Went gray in my 40s and went back to blond almost 5 years ago, at about 48, after sitting in the dentist’s waiting room reading an article in Newsweek about the power of gray, featuring a whole bunch of photos of prominent women Photoshopped to show how they’d look if they did or didn’t color their gray. Without exception, I thought they looked much better without the gray. I ran from the dentist’s office to the hairdresser and have never looked back. I don’t think there’s any question that I look better and younger with my hair colored. What do you think?

    • The gray washes you out. Good choice of blondes – it looks great.

    • Terrific choice to color. (Said from 40 yo who’s been going gray since her early 20s).

    • Anonabus (allergies) :

      I will go blonde once I am completely gray and I am looking forward to having more fun! I think it looks great!

    • Former 3L :

      Hi! I’m on YLF too! I like your hair better this way!

  8. don't need a boyfriend :

    Wll, my mom had a big elvira-streak in her black hair by 27. I was waiting for mine. Howeer, I am now 53 and have brown hair that is less vibrantly brown than before. My greys are delightfully silver, but wiry. So I am transitioning to having hair with some uncontrolled “body” after my lifetime of stick straight brown hair. The greys are sprinkled everywhere nice and evenly. Sometimes shop girls will complement me on my “Highlights.” I try not to laugh and just say “thank you.” I early on vowed not to dye my hair, watching my mother have oh so strange results with hers. With medical/hormonal changes making me lose alot of hair, I wont take the chance . (I know perming in the 1980s was rough enough on my hair). I am eagerly waiting and wishing to just “be grey” and be done with it.

    I look young. Graduating from college, people (Including my DH of now 27 years) thought I was graduating high school. So in professional careers, it was tough the first 5-10 years until my greys were more visible. With olive sking and few wrinkles, I hate to say it, but the grey was my friend in getting patients to trust me off the bat. Now, it doesn’t matter.

    Enjoy the changes no in our control is my motto … not that I can give up my Type A and controlling personality easily :) My body has other ideas apparently.

  9. I started coloring my hair before I got gray hairs so I’ve just continued with it. I got my first gray hairs about 15 years ago. I’m 41 now.

    My younger brother is fully gray now and has been since his late 20’s. And my grandmother on my mother’s side was fully gray by age 50. My mother’s hair, however, is going white, which I think is really pretty.

  10. Nice to see this post and to hear how others are dealing with their gray. I noticed a few gray hairs at 22 when I started grad school. I thought I was linked to stress and plucked them. Now at 25 the gray is popping up much more frequently in the bottom layers of hair.

    At the moment the highlights I get covers or blends most of these strands. It is difficult to say how, or if, I’ll cover the gray later until I see how it is growing. If it remains subtle and slowly grows in, I may let my low maintenance side show through and not color it. If I get the side patches like my mother, I will likely try to cover that.

    A woman I work with who is in her early 30s is completely gray. It is a very light gray and her hair looks absolutely gorgeous.

    • Lawyermom :

      I can’t believe no one mentioned the “bible” for all those who are thinking of going gray. The book and accompanying website is “Going gray, looking great. Author is Diana Jewell (I think). It has tips on how to do it and makeup etc. I was inspired, did it and have never looked back. Surprisingly, most comments are from younger men!!!

  11. You missed the most fabulous grey-haired woman of them all: Christine LaGarde! She’s IMF Chief, former Managing Partner of a White-shoe law firm and she’s French and fabulous.

  12. Six months ago, my hair stylist told me she had found a gray hair, but it turned out to be frosting from a cookie-baking adventure the night before!

    I was actually excited – my boss at the time was having a hard time seeing me as a colleague, and I thought a few grays might help establish me as a competent almost-30-year-old employee, rather than a 20-something daughter-figure.

    Now that I have a new job, I don’t know what I would do. I like to think that I wouldn’t color it and would work with my stylist to gray as gracefully as possible, but who knows? Maybe it will depend on timing – I think if I don’t have grays until mid-30’s, I will be able to hold off on coloring.

  13. I think it’s interesting that younger people, 20-40 color so that they won’t “look old”. Interesting because IMO no one under 40 looks old because of grey hair. I can understand a 50 or 60 year old dying her hair because she doesn’t want to look old but a 30 year old or a 27 year old??? Really? The skin is usually a dead give away that this is a young woman.

    It’s like when my older family members will comment that my watch is a “man’s watch” and surely I don’t want to look masculine or not want me to get a short hair cut for the same reason …….. my wrists are fragile looking, there’s literally nothing I could ever wear that would make me look like a man and no hair cut either – I’m pretty clearly feminine.

    I don’t have anything against someone starting to color since they started going grey at 15 – but there is no magic that will make a 15 year old.

  14. I started going gray in my late forties. My hair is/was ash blonde but was getting to be more and more ASH! I started adding highlights because I wasn’t ready to be all gray. This has helped maintain a natural look and as I mature I can see how I will just let it be what it will be. It is really all about changes that occur in life and how we choose to deal with them. Our hair color does not define who we are or what we can do but I do believe that there is a different standard for men and I’m not sure why.

  15. I’m 32 and have around 10 hairs. I think I’ll dye when they reach critical mass, but I’d actually love to have a few more for now. I look so young (even with professional clothes, make up etc.) that I still get carded and it would help to have a few more greys showing at work.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

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