Bodies I Stopped Dyeing My Gray Hair as an Act of Resistance
Beauty and its pursuit can be art, a delight, a terrific party. But a party you must attend every day isn’t a party at all. It’s an unpaid job.
At thirty-seven, I’m rocking some serious silver: growing out my gray in one long, slow bonfire of my own vanity.
I hated dyeing my hair for years. My silver strands started coming in well before I turned thirty, and I had quickly settled into a rhythm of covering them: every six weeks, then every four, then every three. I’d ensconce myself in the bathroom and rub chemicals on my head, giving in to a low-level anxiety about whether my roots were showing, resolved to keep the mask intact. Whenever I thought about just stopping, my anxieties got louder: Are you ready to look a decade older? You’re a professional actor: Are you ready to never be cast again? Who knows what’s even underneath all that color? What if it’s hideous?
But the unbridled vigilante justice of #MeToo and the swelling power of a wave of women rising to say No More finally buoyed me. As I watched women around the country muster up the courage to overthrow the demons of silence and submission, I was inspired to make a brave leap of my own.
I decided to grit my teeth and stop dyeing my hair, stop living as if my primary value was as decoration, stop participating in this ritual I resent. I decided to stop believing that my personal and professional worth is contingent on an appearance of youthfulness—or at least stop behaving as if it does.
The growing-out process is agonizing. It’s the world’s slowest transformation. There’s no way to hurry it along or know if you’ll like the results when you get there, as the line separating your natural hair from your colored hair marches slowly down your scalp. Hiding was relatively easy: Duck into the bathroom with a box of Nice & Easy shade 4G and emerge an hour later with freshly blown-out brunette locks.
But shedding the disguise is laborious—crossing the country by foot, versus the easy plane ride of a dye job. The landscape morphs oh so slowly; no way out but through. The seasons change, and still you haven’t arrived. Like serving out a sentence commensurate with the time you spent evading the truth.
As slow as the process is, my mental adjustment is even slower. Even nine months into growing out my gray, every time I look in the mirror, I still get a little shock. I don’t hate it, though. I don’t exactly love it, but I feel a freedom and ease that’s new, a release from the anxiety of constantly having to freshen the disguise and worry if the mask is slipping. Such a small but elemental pleasure: permission to simply look how I look.
It’s not all pleasure, though. The early months of baring my roots were like the first tentative minutes on a nude beach, a constant cringe. I was sure everyone was looking at me. I’d preempt their imagined judgment by announcing I was growing my gray out on purpose, calling even more attention to the ugly little band of salt-and-pepper straddling my part. It felt like a neon scarlet letter, advertising not wantonness, but worse: sloppiness, a dereliction of the basic duties of womanhood. The best I could do was assure everyone around me that I had donned the letter by choice, that I knew what was I doing, that I was making a point .
But turning your body into a manifesto is uncomfortable, to say the least. One doesn’t simply shrug off a lifetime of internalized gender norms. Our world and minds are steeped in them. The male gaze has been so powerful for so long, it doesn’t require a man to wield it. It’s the water we swim in, the gaze of the world, the criteria by which we’re appraised, and by which we appraise.
This is an uncomfortable but important element of understanding systems of oppression. It’s one thing for women to look around at the patriarchy outside of ourselves, those skewed perceptions, priorities and power structures to which we’re subjected. One thing to draw a clean line between the oppressors and the oppressed, vow to turn the tables, right the wrongs, level the playing field, burn it all down. It’s another thing entirely to uproot the tendrils that have taken root in our own minds. To begin to discern the oppressive voice that sounds an awful lot like our own, and to summon the forces capable of exorcising it. To realize the world outside has seeped slowly and steadily within.
A woman’s body is made of eyes. We receive signals, gather feedback, scan reality for our reflections. We collect, like currency, the gazes, touches, and remarks that brush against us. Some of us have built our whole lives on it, can’t imagine what we’ll do when the well of male attention runs dry. Some of us resent the fuck out of the fact that it’s something we need to expend energy on tallying at all, conclude that those who value it are shallow and sad, while secretly hoarding our own small stash, relieved that it’s enough to get us by.
Women learn at a young age that our stash of currency looks bigger if we take away from those of the women around us. Men may provide the currency for this economy, but we are the regulators, enforcing sanctions on those who trade in it too freely, or who try to opt out.
The first people in my life to define the rules and boundaries of femininity were all girls. A friend who told me in the seventh grade that I looked weird in a bikini because, despite my skinny limbs, my tummy stuck out. A group of popular girls who watched me try to curl my hair in the locker room after gym class and laughed at me for doing it wrong. The daughter of a friend of my mom’s who told me she was embarrassed to be seen in public with me because my clothes were so weird. Their voices still live in my head, decades later.
I learned quickly how to turn this same sharp meanness on myself, and on other women: a preoccupation with the number on my bathroom scale; an unkind teasing of a girlfriend with a dusting of hair above her lip; a malicious, shared giggle if a schoolmate wore something that seemed to try too hard, or not hard enough. All of it wrapped up in one basic assumption: As women, our appearance is all. A lack of natural beauty can be forgiven, but a lack of perfectly calibrated effort in the direction of beauty is inexcusable, pathetic.
This effort is exhausting. The studied accentuation of certain elements (eyelashes; cheekbones; thick, pigment-rich hair) and a tamping down of others (the crinkled skin around the eyes; the curve of a full belly, the bright insouciance of a varicose vein). Less of this; more of that. The names of women’s beauty products tell the tale: booster, eraser, volumizer, minimizer. We mustn’t let anything be.
Here is the hard truth: patriarchy is also perpetrated by women—cisgender women, especially. We make up more than half of the world’s population. We play an outsize role in raising and socializing children. Ain’t no worldview getting predominate without our help and active participation. It’s women who teach our daughters that we need to lose weight, color our hair, get a chemical peel, stay toned and tight (or joke about being slobs if we don’t). It’s women who edit and subscribe to magazines that reinforce the message that our appearance is the single most important thing in our lives. The specific rules and boundaries vary across cultures, but in many of them, women actively guard the fenceline of suitable feminine behavior.
When those girls told me in junior high that I was doing womanhood wrong, I believed them, and I believe them still. My solution, then as now, was to decide that doing womanhood was dumb. In high school, the first time I heard Ani DiFranco sing, “I am not a pretty girl. That’s not what I do,” I thought Yes ! Pretty is not just something you are, it’s something you do . And something you can decline to do. When I played the song for a college boyfriend and told him how much it resonated with me, he tried to assure me that I am, in fact, pretty. “You don’t get it,” I told him. “No, you don’t get it,” he replied. “You have no idea how pretty you are.” I groaned in frustration.
The whole thing struck me as painfully clichéd—the kind of thing a good guy was supposed to say to his insecure girlfriend. It felt like he was acting out a role in a movie, one I had no interest in performing in. I didn’t want to be the pretty girl who’s charmingly unaware of her own beauty, making her all that much more alluring. What I was trying to express is the utter irrelevance of being pretty. The vacuity of it. The stupid, boring smallness.
I tried to explain to him: A woman who doesn’t care about her surface has no safety net standing between her mind and the world. That’s what all this obsession with appearance serves to do—it arrests our attention at the border of our bodies, prevents it from roaming free. It’s the ultimate control mechanism, shrinking a woman’s world to the size of her own measly physical perimeter. A woman busy doing pretty is busy not doing a lot of other more important and useful things.
While I talked a big game about recusing myself from the economy of beauty, I was never able to fully cash out. Underneath the table, my fists clung tightly to the small stash of tokens I’d been granted. I wore baggy overalls in college, tied bandanas on my head, rolled my eyes at the sorority girls with all my counter-culture friends. But when half the theater department—all my dearest friends, a mix of men and women—got drunk one night and decided we should all shave our heads, I hemmed and hawed.
I watched my gorgeous best friend Rita jump right in and offer up her long dark waves to the buzzer without hesitation. I remember thinking, She can get away with it . Rita was all symmetry and soaring cheekbones. She wielded a beauty so sturdy, so undeniable, she could afford to be cavalier about it—and she was, which only amplified it. She was, first and foremost, cool. Even with a shaved head, Rita would still be beautiful, would only be more so. I was equally vivacious, but I lacked her bone structure and rockin’ bod. My hair was nothing special, but without it, I’d just be a lump of overalls and a couple of droopy jowls. I couldn’t do it. I needed to hang on to just enough tokens to stay in the game.
It took me until age thirty-six to be brave enough to let go of a conventional mane of brown hair, yielding it finally not to a razor, but to genetics. Many of the women I look to now for strength and inspiration I know only on Instagram, where the #grombre hashtag unites a disparate community of women of all ages and ethnicities who are reveling in letting go of performative youth. Like a virtual coven, #grombre nurtures a particular brand of feminine power that’s rooted in sisterhood, in nature, in glorious unconstraint. It feels like resistance and celebration and liberation—the modern-day version of throwing our bras into a bonfire.
It feels like resistance and celebration and liberation—the modern-day version of throwing our bras into a bonfire.
And like a word you just learned and start hearing everywhere, I suddenly find myself surrounded by real-life women letting their gray come in—I see them at the grocery store, jogging by me at the lake. To these women, I send the silent message, Yes. I see you. You can do it.
This is not to say that we need to abdicate the whole realm of beauty to be sufficiently pure. There are women who love the way they look with dyed hair. More power to them. And a red lip looks divine under a mane of silver. Beauty and its pursuit can be infused with great joy and creativity and expressiveness. It can be art, whimsy, delight, and celebration—a terrific party. But a party you resent but must attend every day isn’t much of a party at all. It’s just an unpaid job.
Quitting a job, even a job you hate, takes courage, which is what this historical moment is asking of all of us. It’s asking us to gather the courage to speak up, and to listen; to unearth and air our own long-buried truths, and to muscle past our defenses and fragility to grapple with the truths that others are bringing in to the light.
I have no illusions that my gray hair is going to vanquish the patriarchy—the one surrounding me or the one within. But this is how change happens: inch by painful, beautiful, awkward, determined inch.
Photo of the author