I remember exactly where I was when I found the first one. I was the ripe old age of 19, taking a break from studying for exams in first-year university. I looked in the mirror and reeled in horror. There was a completely white bolt of lightning sticking out against the night sky of my brunette hair. Why did I have one now? Would the rest of my hair start to turn grey? Would I be like the boy who was teased in high school for going silver at 17?
The only good thing about finding one grey hair was that I could pluck it out and nobody was the wiser. It was my little secret — a freak of nature that wouldn’t happen again. Or so I hoped. Every couple of months, there were a couple of hairs to yank. They kept creeping in with their silent ambush of betrayal.
In my early twenties, my husband and I started our first jobs. The grey hair came in more frequently, and started growing in all over. By 28, I couldn’t reach to pluck the ones at the back so I asked my husband to help. He obliged for a while, until….
“Um, you don’t really want me to yank out entire patches, right?”
Making the decision to dye
His refusal to scalp me coincided with my decision to stay home with our first child. I no longer had a professional image to uphold and soon enough I was so busy with two young children, I didn’t have time to care about things like hair colour — until the day my daughter changed everything.
When she was only five, she ran her fingers through my hair as I pretended to be asleep. She sighed to her little brother, ever so slowly and apologetically, “Oh…look…Mommy’s getting old.” Already she knew that grey hair was for old people. It was at that moment I decided to colour my hair. No kid of mine was going to think 33 was old!
Deception was in order. After a hairdresser worked his magic with chemicals and scissors, my hair looked fabulous: The grey was completely eradicated. Take that, time! Pride had its price, however: The makeover was expensive and a huge time-suck. It drove me nuts just to sit and cook my hair in a salon chair. I had become a master multi-tasker, so it was difficult to be unproductive for so long. I couldn’t even read to pass the time until my hairdresser invented “condoms” for the arms of my glasses using the cut-off fingers from a latex glove.
The steep cost of covering grey
But it just wasn’t worth it: On top of paying $120 for the whole job, I had to pay a babysitter too. Maintenance visits were necessary every four weeks to keep the grey roots from showing.
Over the next few years, I moved on to the at-home kit solution. This alternative was much cheaper and took less time than a salon visit, but I’d forgotten that I’m a klutz. My hair got coloured all right, but so did everything else in the bathroom. Eventually I was back to enlisting my husband’s help. While he was certainly much neater, his patience with this chore faded over time, and so did mine.
It was after one ill-advised attempt to go blond that I threw in the towel — literally. My hair was an unholy trinity of yellow, brown and grey.
“My hair looks like roadkill,” I complained to my husband. “You want to know the truth?” I asked.
“The big clock in the sky ticks for everyone!”
I launched into a protracted speech about conforming to an ideal prescribed by a youth-obsessed culture. “Why am I effectively apologizing for and masking the authentic me?” I demanded. I was tired of hiding behind artificial hair colour in order to protect my feelings about how other people would judge me if they saw me as someone getting older. Why couldn’t aging be considered beautiful, or at least a process that represents experience, wisdom and proof that we have managed the accomplishment of living this long?
I decided my grey hair was a lightning rod challenging me to determine how I was going to deal with aging from my forties onward. Was I going to fight the march of time with every possible modification or was it possible to achieve some degree of acceptance along the way and make peace with my true self?
Taking the plunge
The big unknown was how the grey hair would grow in. Would it be a nice snowy white or dingy and yellow? Would I have grey in ribbons, white patches over my ears, or worse, one solitary skunk streak down the middle? After going grey, would I need only a pink polyester suit, pearls and a white purse to complete the senior citizen picture?
The time had come to stop obsessing and take the plunge; after all, it was only hair. I grew it out a little longer and then went cold turkey with a really short cut to start with a clean slate. Guess what? I liked it well enough. It grew in salt and pepper all over — a look that was uniquely mine. The grey hairs were a bright white and everything that grew in was healthier, shinier, and not fried by chemicals anymore. The false veneer had been stripped away and my hair seemed to be lit from within. My kids, by this time 10 and eight, didn’t really care. My husband liked it and said he was glad I was doing what was right for me. After all, if I could accept that he was going bald, he could accept my grey.
My hairdresser said it was great that I was confident enough to pull it off. As for others, most people didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps they were just being polite not to say anything. A platinum blond friend I hadn’t seen for a few weeks noticed the big change right away and was very complimentary.
It’s now seven years later, and sometimes I wonder how long it will be before I am completely white. At 45, my hair is still salt and pepper, with a shift to a bit more salt than before, but it is changing gradually on its own schedule. I wince a little when the clerk at the drugstore calls me “ma’am” because I think she is reacting solely to my hair colour. Some women have been outright unkind and blurted out that they could never stop colouring their hair lest they would look terrible. Who knows, maybe they would!
But imagine if they all had the guts to go grey: How many would discover their natural beauty and be happier accepting themselves for who they really are?
Copyright Jane Langille. Originally published in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of More.