By Cheryl Suchors
Mid-way through our sixties, a choice most of us have to make is whether to dye or not to dye…our hair, that is.
Some classmates have always eschewed coloring. Take Susan Gutchess, for example. “I would never dye my hair—I know how old I am and I am proud of it. And my hairdresser would kill me because she thinks I have a terrific color. After a lifetime of wishing I had different hair, at last I think mine is great.” (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a picture of Susan’s great hair, so use your imaginations.)
In fact, even the New York Times reports that young and old women are liking the white.
Dying one’s hair doesn’t carry the same health risks that we heard about a couple of decades ago. The levels of ammonia and harsh chemicals have been lessened and now, at least in salons, dyes often contain proteins to repair the hair as it’s colored.
A friend of mine, age 67, adamantly dyes her hair. “I don’t think I’m fooling anybody about my age,” she says. “I just feel better, more fun!” If she feels more fun, she adds, she’s more likely to go out and do stuff that’s fun.
Jackie Millan, our class president, has been coloring her hair for over twenty years. During that period, the color added has evolved from simply highlights as the gray came in to a single sandy color and now, as you can see in the picture, she’s joined the blonde family. “Using color makes me feel younger and more attractive and, as a result, it makes me more upbeat about life,” Jackie says
Another friend in our age group offers a different reason. “I have to color my hair because of work. The ageism in the workplace regarding older women is incredible! None of my colleagues knows how old I really am. Thank goodness.”
Yes and No
My own hair history is complicated. I swore, as a feminist, I’d never dye my hair (like my mother did) right up until the day, in my early forties, when I sat in the hair salon reeking of dye. Then, during chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2000, my hair fell out and afterward I had no patience for what seemed like such an inconsequential thing as hair color. I let it grow back naturally—greige, as it turned out, part grey, part beige. It was also suddenly curly and, at the age of 50, I looked like a grandmother from a 1960s sitcom.
The wig I had gotten for chemo happened to be a fabulous strawberry blonde affair, and it helped me take the leap to becoming a redhead. (I’d always yearned for hair like my mother’s.) Over the years I switched back to brown, though a lighter shade as I aged. By the time I hit 61 and my daughter Casey graduated from college, I had honey brown hair with blondish streaks in front.
The streaks, suggested by my colorist helped me adjust to seeing something like white near my face. After my kid’s graduation pictures, I stopped using color. It took about eighteen months for my hair to completely grow out but I have to say that never bothered me much since I got great haircuts and everyone at my salon (Roffi Salon & Spa in Boston) was supportive of my choice. Now I’m white at the temples, gray most places, with strands of brown. It’s a bit of a polyglot look.
The rule-of-thumb in the hair stylist world is, “Going gray adds ten years to your face.” I do get offered seats on the subway.
Carol Guthrie alternated between having her hair colored by experts and doing it herself, trying all kinds of things to eliminate white roots, which to her “always felt like chipped nail polish or a slip showing.” About 6 years ago, she became curious about what her hair really looked like, and spent four months growing it out.
“I love my hair now; I think it’s pretty and suits my coloring better than when I was dyeing it. I’m super delighted with the low maintenance.”
She adds, “I’ve never once considered going back, despite strong admonishments from a couple of friends who insist that no man wants to face being with a white-haired woman…that I would look much younger with colored hair. I just don’t agree…or maybe I just don’t care enough to go back to that routine…or maybe I don’t want that guy…probably a little of all of the above.”
Here she is with her granddaughter, Christine.
The Current Trend
Stylist J Despres from Roffi’s claims going grey is a real trend for women even as young as their mid-40s. “Recently we’re seeing women letting that gorgeous steely grey come through. Even younger women see that and think ‘why can’t I do that?’” Some millennials are dying their hair gray! (Boomers as trend setters once again?)
Most women, J says, stop dying their hair because they’re tired of the commitment of time and money, especially as that white part line shows up more and more quickly.
“One of the hottest topics in the salon,” continues J, “is how can we help women let some of their hair grow out naturally without going cold turkey.” She mentioned using semi-permanent color or working on a highlighted look so the grey comes out in places but looks like highlights. “A number of women are straying away from all one-toned hair by letting some gray show through. Some go darker than they should with color and it can actually age them. Gray has an element of softness and with grey you get a lot of natural dimension.”
Dimension? Who knew hair had dimension?
Some clients try gray and do go back to coloring their hair, but most do not, says J. “Once they have the freedom not to color every 3-5 weeks, they find it refreshing.”
Based on pictures from a recent Alumnae Quarterly, here are my outrageously unscientific findings: A third of Smithies in their 60s dye their hair, dipping to 20% for alumnae in their 70s.
But what about you? Chime in here. What have been your thought processes, decisions—and results? Send pictures!