Going Gray & Getting Out of “Hair Prison” Follow-Up

Thank you to all those who responded to my last post, both in the comments section and via email. I was very touched by the tremendous amount of support, encouragement, and advice that I received.  I loved reading your stories and perspectives on the issues of going gray, aging, dealing with hair woes, and more.   Because I know that many subscribers don’t read the comments, I’ve decided to share some of the input I received in a follow-up post today.  This post can also serve as a resource on this issue for those who need it, as it’s a lot easier to find and navigate than perusing the comments.

Going gray advice

For those who aren’t particularly interested in this subject, don’t worry. I will return to writing about shopping, wardrobe, and style-related topics shortly (I invite you to check out my archives of over 350 articles if you’d like to read about one of those topics today).  But I know that for me and many others, there are a lot of emotions attached to hair.  I’ve known for many years that I’ve resided in a sort of “hair prison,” but it was more comfortable for me to stick with the status quo than try to change.  It’s only the rapid approach of the big 5-0 that has led me to think more deeply about what I want for the rest of my life, and I’ve decided that I want to release myself from my self-imposed bondage.

I’ll be sharing more thoughts on turning 50 as the milestone approaches, as I have been quite introspective in recent months.  But for today, I hope you enjoy these words of wisdom from readers.

On the Aging Process and Feelings About Our Hair

  • Aging has really been a liberating experience for me–such a huge relief to let go of so much anxiety about not being good enough. Don’t get me wrong; I still like to dress stylishly and try to appear vibrant and youthful, but I have made peace with getting older and becoming more of the kind of person I always wanted to be (i.e., less fixated on myself and more oriented toward others). I think you will find your fifties a fulfilling decade. You are so much stronger than you realize, and you should know that just as you are compassionate and nonjudgmental towards people, most people are also generous in their perceptions of others, or, if not, are too busy worrying about their own flaws and inadequacies to notice.
  • I’ve struggled to accept that I’m no longer the young, beautiful girl I once was, but – the truth is – I didn’t appreciate THEN what I had, and it’s an effort to appreciate NOW what I have! I certainly look older than 35. But I’m not the same woman I was in my 30’s! I treasure my hard-fought wisdom – and I like the outward signal to others that I am both seasoned and authentic. And I get more compliments on my hair than ever in my life!
  • None of us want to get “older”. I try to find things about my appearance to be grateful for so I don’t obsess about my age. Be kind to yourself and find happiness with your decision!
  • It is one crazy society that tells women that their value is based on their worth, causes them fret over it and feel guilty for not being perfect, and then feel ashamed for worrying about it so much. That, my friend, is a no-win roller coaster from hell. Give yourself a break. You’re human, you don’t have to be perfect, and you are still worthy and loved. We all struggle with those feelings.
  • I applaud you for thinking hard about steps like this. While they may seem picayune to some, gender identification has a huge impact on self-esteem (and hair is a definite part of that). For most people, having their hair look a certain way (long vs. short, curly/natural vs. styled or straight) is linked to very deeply rooted ideas about what makes a woman attractive (and specifically YOU attractive) and those messages are REALLY hard to tune out.
  • A lot of women, and some men, use or have their hair as a blanket or a shield. Hair is imbued with a lot of power in our culture, so it’s hard to let go what we are so often told to do with it.
  • Something we fail to realize as women is that we are all faking it to some extent. Think of a person whose hair you are jealous of. I’m 100% sure that she also has problems with her hair and is self-conscious about it sometimes, too!
  • I think we all feel a bit shallow when we obsess about our looks, but the fact is, it’s a huge part of how we define ourselves. I actually let myself grieve over my “loss” of my youthful face and body. It sounds overly dramatic, but once I got over the anger and crying, I was ready to accept it and just be my new self.
  • Many women have issues with their hair or self-perceived body flaws, but there is nothing to be ashamed of. As we are getting older, we do not have a map to tell us what to do. Our generation does not want to become invisible; we want to look the best we can but are sometimes unsure how to do this. I think we should be kinder to ourselves and more accepting if possible! The main thing is that we are all still open to change and trying to enjoy the journey of life we are on.

Encouragement for Going Gray

  • I found that going natural was one of the most difficult things I ever did (how vain am I?). When I was 48, I had been coloring my hair for 20 years. I started going gray in high school. I couldn’t stand the skunk stripe every two weeks, plus the time and money spent. My husband was my best supporter, but almost everyone else thought I was crazy. I was surprised how people thought it was okay to continually make comments such as “you’ll look older.” Going gray was unheard of in my community. These comments brought out my stubborn side and made me more determined than ever to end my relationship with hair dye. My hair stylist was very against my decision, so I found another. Unfortunately, she didn’t know how to make this transition and I looked pretty ridiculous for about a year. I wore my medium length hair piled on top of my head until it grew out enough to cut it. Looking back (I’m 59 now), I’m amazed that my husband and I are still together. I drove him crazy with my stressing out about my appearance. Some days I would love my hair and other days it was all I could do to not run to the drugstore for hair dye. I would dream about my beautiful dark hair and my glory days. For heaven’s sake, it’s just hair. Fast forward to now. I love my beautiful silver hair. People stop me on the street to talk about how great I look. I get more compliments than ever. Even my 18 year-old grandson loves it. What I have learned is that your hair color doesn’t define you. We are so much more than that. Embrace the change and free yourself. PS: You can always color it again if you want.
  • Recently, I met with a friend who had decided to let go and go gray. Like you, she was tired of the tyranny of her hair color maintenance. I was absolutely struck by her transformation! She looked ten years younger! Gone was the harsh contrast between her complexion and her dye color. Her eyes seemed brighter! Her face was radiant when I praised her choice. I should mention that we are both approaching seventy.
  • I’ve actually seen super young girls with gray dye jobs. Not sure how long this recent fad will last, but it goes to show that gray isn’t necessarily a stigma at all. I remember a boyfriend whose mom had piercing eyes and light silver gray hair. She went gray quite young. I saw an old photo of her with dark hair and actually preferred the gray because I thought it really brought out her eyes.
  • Google “ladies with gray hair” and click on the images tab. There are many beautiful ladies with gray hair. Contrary to society’s belief, old is not ugly. Society has made us afraid of looking old. Youth fades, but inner and outer beauty does not. I understand how you feel. I hope that I have the courage to not dye my hair when I have a lot more gray hair. I don’t know if I will, but my skin allergies may decide for me. Whatever you decide to do is okay, though.
  • As jarring as going gray may seem at first, I’m certain once you take tangible steps to make the change, you will immediately see and feel the advantages instead of seeing it as a drawback.
  • I am 46 and just started growing out my gray hair 5 months ago. I am so loving it! Freedom from the chemicals, the time spent re-dyeing my roots, and the mess. I am so mad that I didn’t do this sooner! By the way, this is coming from a 46 year-old that a lot of people mistake for late 20’s! I kid you not. I dress pretty youthful: skinny jeans, leather jackets, and tons of black. I have a very rock ‘n roll life style. People think I am a younger person dying their hair gray! Check out the Facebook page Going Gray, Looking Great! for more inspiration. I am so excited for you and do hope you give it a try.
  • My going gray experience mirrors many others here. I get more compliments now than I ever did with my colored hair. I cannot imagine ever going back to coloring! I discovered that the freedom isn’t from the coloring/time/financial commitment, but from the self-acceptance it communicates. That stone creates far-reaching ripples! Come join the party!
  • When I first began to let my hair go gray, many people told me that I would look too washed out and tried to talk me into dying my hair brown again. But I forged on and I didn’t look my best for a few years with a faded gray-brown color. Then finally the gray began to take over, and instead of looking washed out my skin tone began to glow. The lines in my face became less noticeable, and for the first time in my life black began to look great on me. Also for the first time in my life, I receive a ton of compliments on my hair, and lately it has occurred to me that my identity is starting to be built around my hair, just like you are feeling. I don’t want to allow my hair to have that much power. Also I know that the way my hair looks now is temporary. As I age, it will continue to change. Lately it has begun to thin though my health is good. My hair never was very thick, and maybe it will be thinner in the future and perhaps someday I will need to return to wearing my hair very short again. I’m beginning to look around me and I see many women with beautiful short gray hair. The past few weeks, hair transitions have been on my mind and I love how the universe has brought me to your journey. Let us both embrace our hair and understand that there are many ways to continue to be beautiful and that there are many ways to have beautiful hair.
  • I have cool coloring as well and I think that’s mainly what caused me to become dissatisfied with my hair color over the years – ironically it made me look washed out and older. By going gray, it actually made my skin appear younger and I started getting comments on how striking my eyes were – the color and shorter cut allowed people to see my face rather than just a mass of brown hair. I won’t lie and say it was easy, and I still occasionally have moments when I think wistfully about my lost youth, but all the compliments I’ve received have convinced me that it really was the right decision.
  • I wonder if your readers have seen the documentary on Iris Apfel or the Advanced Style documentary. There was also a BBC production called “Fabulous Fashionistas” and a few video clips are on YouTube. These women who choose to have gray hair show people how fabulous gray hair can look.

A Few Thoughts on NOT Being Ready to Transition

  • Over the years, I have tried many products, cuts and styles to work with my hair and to feel happy about it. There’s a good reason for the expression “bad hair day.” My hair sets the tone for my day. If I don’t like the way it looks, it doesn’t matter how well my clothes look on me or how cute my shoes are. I am not at all ready to have white hair. I applaud women who can go all natural and love that they love their look, but that’s not me.
  • A few years ago, I also decided to stop coloring and let the gray grow out. I went about four months. In the end, I decided I wasn’t ready for it. I decided that I had years ahead of me to be a gray-haired woman and right now I wasn’t ready to be that just yet. So, I went back to the dye. At this point in time, I’m happy to continue with the high maintenance that comes with my hair (and everything else!!!)
  • I want my hair to match the person within. For me, that woman is a straight-haired blonde who works full-time and still has energy left over to exercise daily. Debbie, I’m sure you will find the path that works for you. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best and feel your best. Thank you so much for this thought-provoking article. Take your time on this one.

Specific Gray Transition Advice

  • To start, get a new hairdresser! A truly good hairdresser is someone that will be excited that you are embracing your gray hair and give helpful solutions instead of talking you out of it. I found my current hairdresser (whom I adore) by asking a woman whose hair that I admired on the street who her hairdresser was. Most women would tell you since you are giving them a compliment. I would have never found my hairdresser otherwise since none of my friends had heard of the salon she works at. Because of her, I’m actually quite excited to get more gray.
  • Is there a reason to not just switch from permanent to using semi-permanent color for a year or so, and then let that fade once the semi-permanently dyed section is long enough to cut off the rest? I’m sure there could be a difference in tone and it requires a few more months of dyeing, but it surely it wouldn’t be as noticeable as a gray bar or a pixie cut…
  • I tried semi-permanent because it does work for some hair types, but it stained my hair instead of fading like it does for some people, and required me to cut my hair short and start growing out the gray all over again.
  • When I decided to retire and stop coloring my hair, my hairdresser used semi-permanent color, and at each six-week visit would use a lighter color. Eventually, I was able to stop coloring because the dye and the color were getting closer in tone, and the growing out gray blended pretty well. I have gotten compliments on my gray hair, which rarely happened earlier. A key is getting excellent haircuts, and it took me a while to find the right stylist. Second, at age 60, I realized that my teeth seemed to be getting more crooked. I made the decision quickly that I wanted them straight and knew that the year and a half process wouldn’t be fun, but it would be over. And, it was – not fun at all, but also over and now my teeth are straight. The lesson is that it will always take the same amount of time to grow out one’s hair or straighten one’s teeth, so why not start now so you can see the results!
  • I have taken the middle path: I get blonde highlights and a few lowlights every seven weeks now. I need the lowlights because I’m about 50% gray, so they soften the dark grow out stripe. The advantage of high and low lights is that the chemicals are on foils and don’t have much contact with your skin. I know you said your hair is too damaged for this approach, but if you try growing it out and end up not liking it, you could go back and add high or low lights on the newer, healthier hair. I suspect you will look lovely in gray hair though!
  • I don’t know if you follow Imogen Lamport’s blog/website… She had very dark hair and found the time between coloring it was getting more often, she slowly transitioned to a light blonde and looks better than ever (see the posts: Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4 ).
  • Could you try a silver spray or something like that, just to check what it feels like having all-grey hair before making a decision?
  • In this age of computers, I’m sure you can experiment with color and style before making the choices. If that isn’t an option, I would pick a brave older actress, business woman, etc. that you believe has the same facial shape and coloring and see how they look and how they handled the process.
  • I think we get anxious when what we see in the mirror doesn’t match the image of ourselves we hold in our heads. Can you imagine what you want to look like with gray hair? Is it long and silky gray or a spiky gray pixie or a sleek gray bob or… Gather pictures of beautiful women with gray hair. Imagine yourself as one of those gray beauties. Maybe try one of the transition methods mentioned above. Or just dive in and color your hair gray. You can do that now, they have a multitude of shades of silver… Gone are the days of blue-haired ladies… Unless you like blue. Ask your colorist to match your natural gray if you want to make the transition but retain the length of your hair. Or if your hair could not withstand the processing, try just transitioning to a shorter style in anticipation of the big chop. Life is about change at any age, so make the most of it!
  • Maybe just tackle this challenge like that of not shopping. Resolve not to color your hair one day at a time and it will grow out to a length where you can cut it. One thing you can count on is that hair will grow. I turned 60 this year and haven’t colored my hair since I was in my late 30s, so now it is 75% gray. But, like you, I have cool coloring and I really think that as our skin gets more faded with age, dyed hair contrasts too harshly and really is not flattering. I spend money on a good contemporary haircut and people tell me that it looks attractive. 
  • Perhaps breaking down the steps will allow a more gentle transition. Instead of 1) go natural with my hair and 2) cut it after four months of growth, Try this:  1) let go of straightening, 2) let go of permanent dye, 3) do semi-permanent dye instead, 4) let it grow for two months, 5) do a lighter-colored dye to break up the line of demarcation, 5) let it grow for an additional two months and cut and shape it, and 6) let the lighter colored dye go.  I think breaking it up into steps will really help make it less of a stressful transition and allow you to retain the hair length that you mention is important to you. Also, the time you allow yourself to let it grow may help you enjoy your wavy hair. I think giving yourself the time and allowing yourself to be gentle will do much more for you than just waking up and convincing yourself that “gray is the way to be!” While it may be the case for you, sudden change is hard, and being nervous about change is not something to be ashamed of! Also, sudden change can also cause regret, and you are so open and honest with everyone here, and we all would hate for you to be upset over something.
  • I think breaking this up into steps is a really good idea. You’ve mentioned you have to ease yourself into new clothing styles sometimes, so it seems like it might work best to implement a slow and steady plan with your hair as well. The order of that is something you’d have to decide.

Other Hair Advice (Embracing Texture, Improving Condition)

frizzy hair advice

  • I have to smile when I read about all you go through with straightening your hair, because my hair was always naturally straight. So I spent my teen years sleeping in brush or foam rollers (ouch!), and using hot rollers, blow dryers and curling irons. One day, I just decided it was all too much. So I had my hair cut to about collarbone length after telling the stylist that I needed a no-work style. Any stylist that was scornful of this was replaced immediately. I’m 60 now, and for the past 30 years or so, my hair routine is to wash it, brush it out, fluff it with my hands a bit, and let it air dry. Ironically, I get more compliments now than when I was younger.
  • Since humid season is coming soon, if you decide to try letting go of the flat iron (and maybe even just for helping make your hair healthier)  Naturallycurly.com is a really helpful site for determining what your hair needs based on all kinds of different factors. My hair is a lot like yours and it helped me go from ugly random waves to discovering my wave pattern and working with it (at least in the high humidity season).
  • Re-reading your description of your hair as naturally wavy and prone to frizzy reminded me that you might be interested in Susan Street’s (of the blog Fifty, Not Frumpy) decision during last summer’s heat and humidity to stop blow drying and flat ironing her silvery gray hair and release its natural wave: http://fiftynotfrumpy.blogspot.com/2015/07/keep-learning.html. She describes her lifelong efforts to tame her hair in terms very similar to yours, but with a stylish cut it looks buoyant and lovely in its natural state.
  • I always thought my hair was frizzy, fuzzy, rough, and impossible, until I stopped using so much shampoo. My frizz has relaxed into shiny soft curls that I don’t feel the need to straighten. I “wash” my hair with conditioner most days and only use shampoo if there’s actual dirt in my hair (like if I’ve been gardening).
  • When I had very damaged hair, I used deep conditioning treatments from a company called Lush.  You can order them online and you may even know about them already.  I alternated between a product called “roots” and another called “Jasmine & Henna Fluff Ease” – I did those twice a week for a month.  My hair was completely transformed from a dry, overworked frizzy mess to smooth, shiny locks.  Be generous with the amount you apply and let the product sit for twice as long as it recommends.  I know they are a bit pricey, but it’s really worth it.  After your hair is healthy again (like I said mine took about a month), you can use edible ingredients to make a much cheaper treatment.  Now I just use a mix of coconut oil and avocado for weekly deep-conditioning and apple cider vinegar mixed with water two times a week.  It really makes the growing out process a lot more tolerable!
  • I am a big fan of shampoo bars (yes, a bar of shampoo). They’re gentle, non-toxic, eco-friendly, travel-friendly, inexpensive, and break that annoying oily-dry yoyo cycle of traditional shampoos. I use J.R. Liggett’s and Camamu. Maybe try less frequent shampooing and in less hot water; those are both very drying. Also, eating enough healthy fats makes a huge difference in having shiny, healthy hair and skin (and it helps regulate mood, as well).
  • I had dry frizzy, very breakable hair. Two months ago, I stopped using shampoo and conditioner. I blend together organic aloe vera gel and coconut milk in equal parts, make ice cubes and put them in a container in the freezer. Each week, I take three out and put them in the fridge to thaw. Thrice a week, I take one of these thawed ice cubes and massage the liquid into my hair (with longer hair, you may need more than one). After five minutes or so, I rinse it off in the shower in warm (not hot) water. The rest of the week, I wash my hair with plain warm water. Even when I go for a haircut, I ask them not to shampoo my hair. Yesterday, my hairdresser commented on how soft and manageable my hair has become. The aloe-coconut oil mix has the perfect pH that lets your scalp naturally manage the state of your hair. Try it. And aloe gel plus vegetable glycerine (equal parts) makes a great conditioner. Leave it in while swimming, or generally to soften your hair, then rinse. More about pH balancing: http://www.thankyourbody.com/ph-balanced-shampoo-recipe/

Gray Hair Transition Resources

Conclusion

I haven’t decided which path I’m going to take just yet, but the information and insights shared by readers will definitely help me to make my decision.   I’m going to explore the various options, but in the meantime I have cancelled my Saturday hair appointment with my stylist and don’t plan to return to her.  The organic color alternative is still on the table, but I haven’t made arrangements to do that as of yet.   Basically, everything is still on the table at this point, which is kind of freeing in a way.  I have committed to nothing, but just embarking on this exploration is a positive step for me.

What I know is that I have to take steps to release myself from “hair prison.”   I can go gray, embrace my natural texture, change the length or style, or do some combination of these things. But what I’m not willing to do is maintain the status quo.  It’s not working for me anymore and I’m ready to release myself from the bondage I’ve been living with for far too many years.  As with my recovering shopaholic journey, I know my hair woes won’t be resolved overnight.  Even if I cropped my hair ultra-short today, I’d still have to deal with the emotional issues attached to my hair.   As long as I’m making progress, I’ll be happy, but that’s not to say that I won’t do something dramatic. I just don’t know yet.

The bottom line is that I am not my hair and my hair doesn’t ultimately define me. Nor do the wrinkles on my face or the number on the scale.  While I’m very wrapped up in what I look like and it’s a significant part of my identity, I know there is much more to who I am than my exterior.   But as I inch toward my fifties, I need to consider all of the facets of my life.  I want to examine what is and isn’t working for me so I can make changes and move powerfully forward toward the rest of my life. I’m tired of feeling stuck and like I’m treading water.   It’s time to break free, and any thoughts or conversations I have in that direction are a good thing and something to be grateful for.

I will close with this comment from a dear longtime reader:

  • I’m reminded of a concept I learned from Havi over at The Fluent Self website. She calls it “fractal flowers.” Basically it means that whatever you are working on or dealing with right now is secretly helping all of your other projects and issues under the surface. This means that even though at first glance, you would think that hair is not as important as something like your health, by tending to it (hair), you are actually making a difference with that and other “bigger” issues (health or whatever) because everything is connected. I hope that makes sense.

Not only does this make sense to me, it sums it all up perfectly.   Maybe the change that I’m beginning with my hair will radiate out and help me to get unstuck and transform my life at large. And perhaps my doing so will enable others to do the same…


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