I recently examined my hairline and found several silver strands amidst my brown tresses. Oh dear—had the stressors of 2020 caused me to age prematurely?
I consulted the “experts” on WebMD.com, who say that most caucasian people sprout gray hair sometime in their third decade. I’m in my early 30s and, it seems, aging right on schedule.
A lot of people began to “go gray” during last spring’s COVID-19 lockdowns as their natural un-dyed roots grew out. An estimated 70 percent of women (and 18 percent of men) color their hair regularly. I’ve always loved my natural hue, have never dyed my hair, and was perplexed when pandemic shortages included not only hand sanitizer and toilet paper but also hair dye—an entirely unessential item. With all salons closed, drug store hair care shelves were bare, and sales at Madison Reed, an online retailer of at-home color treatment, increased 750 percent.
Is hair experimentation innately human? Archaeological evidence shows that ancient Egyptians used plant fibers to alter the color of their hair. The Romans and the Greeks mixed lead oxide and calcium hydroxide as a way to turn their hair black, while 18th-century Italians used lye to achieve blonde locks.
In 1956, Clairol introduced the first product allowing women to bleach and dye their hair at home, in the comfort of their own bathrooms. I found one of the original Clairol ads on the Internet. “GRAY HAIR—THE HEARTLESS DICTATOR,” it says at the top in huge bold font. Gray hair, it goes on to explain, “can rule your life …choose your clothes … pick your friends … dictate many things you say or do.”
Well now, Clairol, I’d say that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Hair is inanimate; it’s hardly Joseph Stalin. Who wrote that ad copy, anyway? Men, that’s who. I can’t verify that as fact but, c’mon, it was 1956—odds are that every Clairol executive and most all the staff were male. But their marketing succeeded: In 1950, only about 7 percent of Americans dyed their hair. By 1970, it had increased to 40 percent.
Aversion to gray hair endured for decades. But sometime in the past few years, it became fashionable. By January of 2019 it was official: “The Gray-Hair Revolution Has Begun,” declared a Glamour magazine article. There are scores of Instagram accounts run by influencers documenting their “transition,” and hashtags like #grayhairtransition #grayhairmovement #grayhairdontcare #silversisters and #embracethegray abound. Actresses such as Jessica Biel and Katie Holmes show off silver streaks in their red carpet updos, and at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Andie Macdowell appeared with her long curls fully gray—color she’d let grow out during the pandemic last year.
Women are now empowered to set their own beauty standards. Magazines and corporations are no longer the sole authority on what’s trendy. Individuals use whatever products they like: some favor bold, expressive makeup and hair color while others go makeup-free. Social media makes it easy to broadcast our chosen beauty practices and connect with like-minded fashionistas who have the same taste as us.
It may be in vogue, but I’m not enthusiastic about my newfound hair color. Why? Because I’m getting older and closer to death, and gray is a stark visual reminder? Because all that 20th-century marketing framing women “past a certain age” as undesirable is ingrained in my psyche? Because I do love my unique shade of auburn and will be sad to watch it gradually disappear? My dissatisfaction is all of those reasons, tangled together.