I Am Not My Gray Hair. My Hair Is Not Me.

alizagraying_edited-1

Photo credit: Clark Mishler, Anchorage, AK

We have almost no role models as women for going gray with gusto.

A few years ago, in my mid-40s, I decided to stop dying my hair. Like many women, I’d been coloring my hair since my 20s. Every few months, when I’d see flecks of silver appear at the roots of my hair, I’d go in for another touch up or go in for an entire overhaul of color, a little more auburn here or a little magenta there. I lost the memory of having my natural hair color long ago.

The journey to gray — or returning to my roots — has included coming to grips with my own emotions and thoughts about aging and mortality; adjusting to the transformation in my appearance and learning to recognize the grayer me; and dealing with questions and negative comments from others that dredge up old fears and insecurities.

My hair saga actually started about seven years ago — post-partum with my first and only child — when my hair began falling out and didn’t stop. I had nightmares of thin cottony wisps of hair on a shiny scalp and imagined having to resort to a female version of a comb-over or shaving my head entirely bald and taking up wearing bold head scarves.

At some point, as I struggled with what I perceived to be massive hair loss, two thoughts occurred to me:

  1. I’m not dying. I should be grateful that the worst that is happening to me is that I’m just losing my hair.
  2. I’m fascinated and appalled by how much emotion I’ve attached to my hair and how I’ve come to think of my hair as an important part of my identity.

So I cut my hair.

At the time, I blogged about it:

I can’t explain how liberated I feel. I thought I’d feel as if I were missing a limb, reaching for my long locks and finding nothing there, washing my hair and feeling a loss. But I don’t. Other than the occasional reflex to pull my hair out of a ponytail — which isn’t there anymore — I am not missing the length at all.

If I am going to cry about this at all, it is that it took me so long to just cut away the sad reminder of my 20s and 30s and to embrace my 40s with gusto.

I am not my hair. My hair is not me.

“The attitude of others about gray hair on women is remarkably fraught with misperceptions and mixed emotions.”

For many women, going gray can be a complex decision. On the one hand, it can be liberating to no longer feel the need to cover up a natural aspect of oneself. On the other hand, the attitude of others about gray hair on women is remarkably fraught with misperceptions and mixed emotions. No matter how much we want to say that we don’t care what other people think, we’re human, and we do. Even I fell into the trap of considering what other people thought about women and gray hair.

I was asked about my gray hairs for an article titled, “Gray Hair: Job Asset or Liability?” Here’s what I said at the time:

“I don’t actually mind them, but … no one takes women more seriously because we have gray hairs on our head…Women who are gray are considered ‘tired’ or ‘old’ or … ‘She’s not going to fit in.’ Gray-haired men, on the other hand, are seen as ‘seasoned,’ ‘experienced’ or ‘distinguished.’ It’s so subtle in a sense, because no one ever talks about it. I just think that we look at the gray hairs as making women lesser.”

Today, I’m at the stage where I’m owning my gray hair. I no longer look in the mirror and do a double take wondering who is looking back at me, straining to recognize myself beyond the gray frame. Sometimes, I forget I’m gray, and then am surprised when someone says something about my hair. And they do.

I’m often stopped on the street, at the store, at conferences and events, by women who literally run up to me, then lean in and whisper, “I love your hair!” They inevitably punctuate their compliments with “I wish I was brave enough to do that.”

“For some women, my gray seems to be a beacon that they watch from a safe distance as they contemplate their own appearance.”

Going gray conjures fear. Fear of aging is only part of it. Fear of not recognizing ourselves. Fear of rejection. Fear of disappearing. Fear of becoming irrelevant. For some women, my gray seems to be a beacon that they watch from a safe distance as they contemplate their own appearance.

Just the other day, I walked into a board meeting, and a woman, 50, who also sits on the board came up to me and squeezed my arm saying, “I just wanted to tell you how much I love your hair. You walk into a room, and it just shines.” She ended by saying she and her husband were talking about her going gray. He is for it. She is still on the fence. (For the record, my husband says he loves my grays, or “platinum,” as he calls it.) I encouraged her to give it a try.

Sometimes, we just need permission to do something we fear . Because there will be naysayers. The person who says you look “ tired and dull,” and that a little hair color could do a lot to perk up your look (yes, said to me). Or our own inner voices expressing every fear we have — real, imagined, rational and irrational. “I will no longer be attractive or sexy if I let my hair go gray.” I’m pretty sure that one is not true.

We have almost no role models as women for going gray with gusto. Those of us who have stopped coloring our hair can do a great deal of good by being visible and vocal about our choice to embrace our gray. Going gray is a choice. Choosing not to let the gray show is a different kind of choice. Most of us are blessed with an abundance of choices in our lives. Hair color is such a small one in the whole scheme of things. Be thankful you are still alive and in a position to even be able to consider such a choice. First world problems, you know?

If you’re considering going gray, I say:

Do it. Embrace it. Own it.

Repeat after me: I am not my hair. My hair is not me.

And call me if you need me to talk you off the ledge.

Aliza Sherman is a speaker, author and web pioneer who has championed women in tech since the 90s. She first went online in 1987, and in 1995, she started the first woman-owned Internet company, Cybergrrl, Inc., and the first global Internet networking organization for women, Webgrrls International. Newsweek named her one of the “Top People Who Matter Most on the Internet” in 1995. In 2009, Fast Company called her one of the “Most Powerful Women in Technology.” She is the author of 10 books including PowerTools for Women in Business, Mom, Incorporated and Social Media Engagement for Dummies. 

  • I posted about the same topic today, funny. I love your perspective and it’s true that it has a lot to do with our fears. As for looking tired, I think it all depends on how we take care of the rest of us. I’ve seen women with gray hair who simply rocked it! They move with confidence, dress well, carry themselves well. It’s all a package. And yes, why is it so unfair that men look ‘mature’, ‘sexier’ when they are ‘salt and pepper’? Grrr….. Anyway, great post and thanks for sharing your courage!

    • I agree that good health and attitude – confidence – can make a huge difference in how we carry our gray hair. BTW, I just spoke about this topic yesterday at a women’s leadership conference and was told I should use the word “silver” instead of gray! Fascinating how there is so much attention paid to the nuances of the words that describe this transition.

      • Anything sparkly must be more valuable…hahaha! Fascinating indeed.

  • Joyful Girl

    I love this so much; thank you for writing it! ‘ve never died my hair and am going increasingly gray in my thirties. I always treated it as an inevitability that I would “have to” start dying once I go gray enough. Now I see not dying it as a beautiful option that might better align with my values and model aging acceptance for my kids one day.

  • fuggsandfoach

    Thank you ! I love it and I love my black and white hair….. Take me a me or leave me be:-)

  • Abby

    I’m 29 and already well on my way to the same beautiful shiny silver-white hair my mom has. I’m embracing it!

  • I have my hair pulled back with precision into a ponytail that carefully brings all of the very little remaining dark hair on to the top of my head. There is an appearance of dark hair but in reality I am almost completely grey. I have been dying my hair for the past couple of years but over the past month wondering how to make that transition to my full grey – Your post has been completely inspiring! Going Grey with Gusto! I’m thinking this is the month for some Gusto.

  • Louise Bale

    I am my gray hair, my hair is me. Every strand of gray, and there are many, represents a story, a struggle, a year well lived, a loss, a challenge, a hurdle gracefully cleared, a hurdle not so gracefully cleared, a day well lived, an accomplishment, moments of despair, periods of sadness, the hardship of motherhood, the joy of motherhood, a successful career that entailed a long trail of gray hairs to accomplish. I am in my 40s, I should be gray. I’ve earned every gray hair and I want to display them with pride because they represent my amazing, well lived life.

    • Naheed

      Absolutely! I decided to stop colouring my hair when I turned 40. I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I had people commenting on my great highlights & realsed they meant my grey hair. There are people who “tell” me what I “should” do but I am (I realise) lucky not to care about what others think of me or say I should do because I know best. If I want advise I have friends whom I can turn to for the truth. I am my hair & irs me. When I cut mine I get people telling me things too, it’s hair, it will grow back.

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread