My friend Lee Foss has been dyeing her hair for decades. After lots of encouragement (aka nagging) from friends, including me, a short while before COVID hit, she took a deep, deep breath and decided to let it grow out.
I didn’t want to do the ritual of coloring it anymore — scheduling it and having to take a half a day out of my life every three weeks just to cover the gray. So, I started growing it out.Lee Foss
The ritual of coloring her hair began shortly after Lee started going gray in her teens. First, it was a few highlights.
In those days it was called frosting. I would go to Porteous to a woman named Marie Roy and she would put a blond streak in my hair to hide my gray streak. People would stop me and say you’re so gorgeous, so I kept frosting it for that reason. As I got older, in my 30s, I thought the frosting looked too much like gray, so I started coloring it all over. My normal hair color was dark brown, but as the years went on, it got more and more gray.Lee
And as the years went on, Lee stopped going to the hairdresser and began coloring her long, thick, very curly hair herself.
My mother always did her own hair and she was blonde, so she had a much more complicated process than I. I just said well, if she could do that I can do this. So, I just started doing it. With a coupon the dye was $5 to $7 every three weeks. I was on a budget, so that was much better than $150, and it was easy. You just mix it in a squeeze bottle and squeeze it out. I would part my hair with a comb over and over and just do the roots. I had to keep it on for 35 to 40 minutes. It got to be second nature. Even a hairdresser told me I did a good job.Lee
But after so many years, much of her hair had turned white and within about a week her roots would be showing again. When she decided she’d finally had enough, she bought a few hairpieces and a silvery wig to help with the transition. Once the gray started coming in it grew quickly and the hairpieces came in very handy.
Because I had this halo of white and gray underneath I was able to do things with the hairpieces that made it look better than it was. It was work but it got me to the next step. Then COVID hit and I had to stay home and it was like, wow, now I don’t have to worry about that anymore.Lee
She still caught sight of herself in the mirror, though, and wasn’t always happy with what she saw.
I wonder if it felt so different because during COVID I didn’t wear any makeup at all. And so, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see the makeup, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick. I just saw this naked face. My mother taught me good skincare and good makeup early on, so, I always wore makeup. Not doing that this last year was very different for me. I think that combined with the gray hair I was seeing made me feel older when I looked in the mirror.Lee
Advice from a therapist
Kate Fallon is a licensed counselor whose practice is aptly named Ageless Journeys Counseling. Among other things, she helps people deal with life’s many transitions. She says it’s human nature for us to go straight for the negative as Lee did with her hair color.
I think the negativity bias is really powerful. Our brains are structured the same way they were structured back when we were living in caves. My understanding is that the part of the brain that processes negative information is located directly next to long term storage. That’s for survival so you can remember to avoid or not do things that are dangerous or threatening to you. The part of the brain that processes the good stuff requires that we take some action to get it into long term storage. So, it’s a lot easier to look at our aging faces and bodies and say, I hate that, it’s not what I want. It’s more work to say, what can I appreciate about myself and this body?
Going gray is a difficult transition for many people because it forces them to confront the reality of aging. One of the things that Lee, who is 75, noticed was that she generally feels much younger or did until she saw this older woman with silver hair staring back at her. Nothing had changed except how she looked on the outside. She still had a twinkle in her eyes, but her vision was clouded by silver.
And that’s really the key, I think, because looking good isn’t just about how the surface looks. It’s about how you feel and how that comes through to how you look. When you feel really good about yourself, you’re going to look great no matter what.Kate Fallon
While vanity certainly plays a role when you see an unrecognizable older person in the mirror, you may also be confronted with the reality that you have more years behind you than before you. It can be a scary feeling.
I’m 75. I’m three quarters of 100 years old. Now when I look in the mirror, I see that, whereas when my hair was dark, I didn’t, and that means life is more finite. Being a medical person and a human resources person, I’ve dealt with all kinds of stuff in my life. I know that there are all kinds of things that make your life finite. This is a silly one. It’s just a visual thing saying wah-wah, you really are old!Lee
Kate pointed out that this year in particular (maybe because of COVID) she has noticed an attitude shift around aging. More people, including celebrities, seem to be embracing their silvery hair and even their sagging skin.
Look at what Francis McDormand in “Nomadland” took on being completely unglamorous and showing us what one version of aging could be when you’re just completely yourself and doing exactly what you want to do and not compromising for anybody. Then we got Kate Winslet not only being completely raw, but she actually showed her belly fat and talked about the fact that she wasn’t going to lose weight for playing the role of a person who was real. Both of those have been really well received. I would like to think maybe that’s because we’re starting to consider that it’s okay to be whatever you are, however you are, that there’s a switch here.Kate Fallon
If you’d like to project the positive about aging instead of going straight to the negative, Kate recommends starting a gratitude practice. It may take work, but she says it will be worth the effort because it will stimulate that positivity bias that doesn’t come naturally.
A gratitude practice can be something as simple as every morning before I get up or at night before I go to sleep, I’m going to think about three things I’m grateful for. They can be teeny tiny little things. If you’re looking at really trying to develop a positive relationship with an aging body, those could be things that are specific to your body, or even just just being who you are. I think that can be useful, particularly for people who tend to beat themselves up about things. What are three things I feel some gratitude or appreciation for in how I am in the world? It takes five minutes at most, but can be really powerful in rewiring our brains to start focusing more on what works rather than what doesn’t work.Kate Fallon
Lee happens to be quite good at finding the positives in her life. It’s one of the traits that makes her a delightful human being. As she got more used to her natural hair color she realized she really liked what she saw.
I was happy with the color of it. My grandmothers both had beautiful white hair, so I was very happy that mine was too. I was really pleased that it came in such a pretty white, a silvery white.Lee
She also loves the low maintenance. No more touch-ups or fussing with her hair, especially since she got it cut for the first time in two years. Here’s a before and after.
Pretty dramatic, don’t you think? And the after is so, so flattering. Color, length, and natural curls.
A hairdresser’s unique perspective
Paige Enright, who is a hairdresser at As You Wish Salon has some strong opinions about gray hair. She says the usual story when you mention that you’ve got some gray coming in is let’s cover it all up.
Knowing enough women who had been doing that for so long and were finally exhausted by the process, and then trying to take them back to their natural color was such a long process. It started to make me think maybe there’s a way of avoiding all of this if we talk a little bit more honestly about what it means to cover gray or manage gray with your hair sooner.Paige Enright, hairdresser
Like Kate Fallon, Paige had begun to see some trends. For instance, younger women were intentionally dyeing their hair gray or silver, and clients with naturally gray hair would come in and joke about it.
It seemed to open up a conversation around gray a little bit more and then the pandemic came along, and all of these people had to get out of their routines. So, it was something that may have already been maybe occurring to them and then they were suddenly given this open door to try it. So, I think it encouraged something that I had already started seeing.Paige Enright
Covering the gray keeps many hairdressers in business, but Paige decided she didn’t want it to be one of her go-to services. She’d rather embrace those clients who didn’t want to dye their gray hair.
If we weren’t so quick to cover it up, there would be more visibility around the fact that gray hair does not equal an old lady who is not worth looking at anymore. If there were more examples of gray hair throughout life, we would recognize that sometimes it’s okay to let it grow out. It doesn’t mean something negative about you, so, that’s why I love seeing women making different choices sooner.Paige Enright
Paige thinks color should be fun. It should be something that is optional, low commitment and makes you feel good. If you’ve got a few gray hairs but still like coloring them, she might suggest some strategically placed highlights or a so-called demi-permanent color, which doesn’t contain the ammonia that permanent hair color has. It won’t cover the gray but will help blend it in.
For somebody who is already quite gray and has been coloring their hair with permanent hair color, it’s a different conversation. Usually the first thing I’ll ask them is how much hair are you willing to cut, because that’s certainly the quickest way to get there. Then I have to look at how much gray is on the ends and what they’ve been using to cover it. Then I’ll usually find the places in the most visible parts of their hair, which usually sit around the hairline and the part and I’ll go through with highlights. I’ll find the places where they had the most concentrated white or silver and put in the lightest possible highlights. Ideally, I want to achieve something that looks silvery. Just by giving them that root to end silvery look in only a few key places, it makes the whole process much much easier. I also think what your friend did using the hairpieces is brilliant, so I’m going to have to remember that trick.Paige Enright
Lee has turned out to be a role model in many ways! I so appreciate that she was able to admit that it was hard — both getting there and dealing with the reality of her new image. It took a lot of patience and persistence.
Whether you want to cover or flaunt your gray, it really doesn’t matter. Kate says what’s important is to embrace who you are and what makes you feel good in the world.
I think that the best medicine is authenticity, and that’s not necessarily easy. A lot of us have been criticized, judged, chastised, whatever for our authentic selves, but that drains us of a lot of our energy. To be inauthentic, to put on a mask, to present ourselves as something else in the world is really tiring and leaves us feeling sort of devalued. So, do whatever feels like your authentic self. Ask yourself what your age looks like for you. How can I feel as good as possible at whatever age? What does good look like for me, given my genetics and my lifestyle? Try to be more solution focused than problem focused.Kate Fallon
Visibility is a big thing, especially for women. I think being able to see examples of women at all different ages showing an authentic version of themselves and not one that seems to want to conform to a standard of beauty that somebody else came up with is really important. I’ve tried to help some of my clients get over the mental hurdle of letting their hair go gray by talking about things like what kind of example do you want to set for your children in how they see themselves? Every time I have another woman who says, I’m going to let some of this gray grow out, I want to thank her because she’s going to go out there with her hair and I bet a lot of people are going to look at her and say she looks great. Then you’ve got one more example of a way to do it, you know? All over the place we’re seeing more women getting good acting roles as they get older and showing their faces without makeup on and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s all really, really positive and I say that coming from a beauty profession.Paige Enright
So, brava to you Lee Foss, for daring to let your hair grow out to its beautiful natural silver color. Your sparkle is even brighter than ever because you have become a shining example of the power of being your authentic self. With that, I give you the last words.
It’s very freeing, not being tied to coloring my roots every couple of weeks and I’m happy that I’m no longer putting chemicals on my head that often. It continues to grow on me in a positive way. But, when it was dyed, I often got “wow, you don’t look your age” and now, it’s “75-year-old woman appearing her age” according to my doctor’s note from an exam.
Final words: Just do it! Gather up your friends and rally them around you and have them cheer you on. Really, because that’s what it took for me. I’ll be your coach if you need it. The positives outweigh vanity concerns.Lee Foss