I am not a curmudgeon, but I do loathe platitudes: “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better”; “the best is yet to come,” blah, blah, blah. Those kinds of strenuously cheerful aphorisms have always struck me as Stepford Wifely. Never in a million years would I have thought that today, I would actually be one of those energetically upbeat middle-aged women, and in no small measure it’s the result of one simple decision I made seven years ago: to quit a quarter-century habit of coloring my hair.
Sounds nuts, I know. And yet, it’s true.
What My Dyed Hair Didn’t Disguise
I realized that over the years I had assumed that a multitude of sins would be hidden if my hair were properly dyed. Those 10 extra pounds? Who cared? I didn’t have gray hair. Those Reagan-era work outfits and schlubby at-home-wear? So what? My hair was a youthful brown. Yet of course the hair color didn’t actually disguise the fact that I had gotten out of shape and that my clothes were hopelessly démodé.
(MORE: How to Go Gray Naturally)
The act of “letting go” of hair color actually forced me to get my act together in terms of the rest of my physical appearance. I reignited a fitness program, got rid of my mom jeans and, without going overboard or looking desperate (I hope), I embraced my biological age with vigor.
I also wrote a book about the process, Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters. In it, I crafted a variety of one-woman social science experiments to probe various assumptions we have in our culture about aging. In one, I tested the assumption that gray hair automatically made a woman undesirable to men by posting the same profile and picture on the dating site Match.com in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — first with my hair Photoshopped back to the brown color I had dyed it and then, some months later, with my gray hair.
My Gray-Hair Test With Men
I was stunned by the results. Three times as many men in each city were interested in going out with me with my hair gray. I was blown away. I had naturally expected the opposite response. (For the record: I didn’t go out with or even exchange emails with any of the prospective dates; I’m happily married.)
The takeaway: Apparently men, just like women, care more about whether we’re congenial and interested in what they do or have to say, rather than whether our hair is the same shade it was when we were 30. And it seemed that the honesty and vulnerability gray hair signified was an attraction to men looking for a serious relationship.
Before I stopped dyeing, my roots had looked so white that I fantasized that my hair would be the striking white color of Meryl Streep’s in The Devil Wears Prada or Halle Berry’s in X-Men. After months of growing my hair out (highlights and toners eased the transition), I discovered that I am, in fact, pewter. Not quite the sexy image I had in mind—a little more Queen Elizabeth than Halle Berry (or a young Helen Mirren, maybe?)—but still, liberation from the expensive hair-coloring treadmill felt wonderful. In fact, when I had a dream the other night that I’d dyed my hair again, I woke up anxious and sweaty.
Why I’m Happier With the Gray
I’m happier today because I feel good. The French even have an expression for this feeling: bien dans sa peau—being comfortable in one’s skin. Now people stop me on the street to tell me how much they love my hair. “Who does it?” they ask. That never happened the entire-quarter century I dyed it. When I colored my hair, I looked generic, like every other woman, whereas every shade of authentic gray is unique, from gunmetal to alabaster to chrome. And it positively glows with health.
By no longer perpetually “fibbing” about one of my prime physical features, I’ve stopped making any sort of pretense about who I am. By insisting on having hair that looked like it did when I was in my 30s, I think I had been forfeiting one of the most important tools for optimal aging — that is, facing it squarely, accepting it incrementally.
(MORE: How to Have Flair at Any Age)
I’ve come to understand that I don’t want to look like some majority-approved standard-issue “enhanced” 21st-century version of age 50 or 55 or 60 or 65. I think that each year, as my hair becomes whiter, I will be a little more ready to celebrate the good things about my “here and now.” It’s simple. I’m proud of what I’ve done, the years I’ve lived, how far I’ve come. Letting go for me is all about — self-help cliché alert — finding myself.
The color and style of one’s hair are powerful means a woman can use to create identity. Jane Goodall, Toni Morrison and Vanessa Redgrave, all two decades my senior, have long been my role models. They are the living embodiments of the body electric — with a deep sense of mission and self-confidence that shines out. Their gray-to-white hair positively radiates with an “I’ve got better things to do with my time than dye my hair” energy.
Interestingly, research has revealed that that “be here now” acceptance of our biological age actually has important health benefits. Studies by Margaret Clark of the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco found that “those who held most tenaciously to certain values of their youth were the most likely candidates for psychiatric breakdown in age. The self-esteem of the healthy older group seemed linked to ‘the fruitfulness of a search for meaning in one’s life in later years,’ as compared to the mentally ill, who were still pursuing the values of their youth.”
Eighteen years ago in The Fountain of Age, Betty Friedan was on the same page when she posited that “an active, realistic acceptance of age-related changes — as opposed to denial or passive resignation — was thus the key to a continued vital involvement in life, a very different face of age than disengagement and decline. … Mindless conformity to the standards of youth can prohibit further development, and that denial can become mindless conformity to the victim-decline model of age. It takes a conscious breaking out of youthful definitions, for a man or woman — to free oneself for continued development in age.”
Bingo! You can’t erase what’s happened to you in the past or avoid what’s really going on now — so why not look it in the eye and accept it? And if something as simple as not dyeing your hair can ease you into that acceptance, seems like it might we worth a try. Trust me. You’ll be happier.
At the turn of the century, Kreamer switched careers, becoming a columnist for the business magazine Fast Company, after that creating the monthly “American Treasures” column for Martha Stewart Living. In 2007 she published her first book, "Going Gray, What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Matters," and wrote a Yahoo blog, “Going Gray, Getting Real.” "It’s Always Personal," a book exploring the new realities of emotion in the workplace was published April 2011.
Kreamer is a contributor to the Harvard Business Review. She graduated from Harvard College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of public radio’s Studio 360, and their two daughters, Kate and Lucy.
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