Editor’s note: To dye, or not to dye? That is the question! Meet a woman who is happy to dye her hair forever here.
I hadn’t seen my hair color in about 25 years when I finally let it go gray. I’m not exaggerating: I had a full gray streak to welcome me to my quarter-life-crisis in the early ‘90s, which I referred to as “my Susan Sontag.” A couple years later, I looked in the mirror and saw that my single streak had gone rogue, and before I could form the thought “That’s more of a Camille Paglia,” I had already started sprinting to the drugstore for a box of dye.
My Adventures in Color Land
I cycled through plummy eggplant, rich chestnut, and a brassy auburn so convincing that my now-husband said, “Oh, your mom’s a redhead too!” when he met her for the first time.
The last five years or so, with a stay-at-home job and a role as the vice-president of the PTA, I went totally unicorn. Every Sunday, I’d reach into a plastic tub full of jars of Manic Panic dye, choosing purple, blue, magenta, or green as my mood dictated, earning the nickname “Tonks” from my Harry Potter-obsessed daughters. I loved how much easier it was to start conversations with kids; I loved how much easier it was to get through the chores and errands that blighted my life when strangers would suddenly look up and smile at me because of my funny hair; I loved looking in the mirror and grinning because I liked what I saw. Frankly, it had been a while since I could do that.
It was super fun. And then, I guess, I was done.
Meeting My Gray Muse
Let’s blame my daughter: We got her ears pierced at an adorable salon in Berkeley by a woman named Rosey. She’s like every mom’s secret version of how she would look if she hadn’t married and had kids. Well, she’s my secret version of how I might look under those circumstances, plus if I were six inches taller and, ya know, had never eaten.
The point is, I loved her whole look, which was topped by a mane of long, luxuriant white hair that I assumed had been frosted to match a color called “silver lining.”
But no. Rosey was all-natural; that was her hair. I know, because I have zero boundaries or manners and asked. She was all, “This is my hair.” And I was all, “Waiiiit. Then that … can be my hair.”
What the hell. I’m 51, about to start nursing school, and making a trans-continental move, why not add hair chaos to the mix?
I announced to my friends that I would be excavating my head to see what lay beneath all those layers of dye, took myself to the beauty-supply shop, and got everything I needed for my striptease. I rinsed, lathered, repeated. And then I looked in the mirror.
My New Self in the Mirror
It was underwhelming at first. I was sure, after all this time, that I would be greeted with a glamorously silver mane, something dramatic and striking and pure. But here was my same muddy brown, with that same single silver streak. Did I imagine the salt-and-pepper that I thought had invaded my scalp? I decided to wait and see, just the same as I always did with a new hair color. A couple days in the sun, a good blow-dry, maybe a nice trim to clean up my split ends.
Over the next few weeks, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror quite a few times, and each time I stopped in my tracks, wondering who that lady was. I didn’t think “old lady,” but I did think “grown woman.” And that, friends, was a new feeling.
I am the sort of person who takes a garment off the rack, says “Oh my god, this is hilarious,” and then buys it instead of just Instagramming and moving on. But if I have learned one thing from the billions of episodes of makeover reality shows I’ve watched, it’s that “hilarious” is the very word I should be using as a red flag, not a green light.
So while “hilarious” worked for me and my hair for a while, I am now enjoying just being a nice lady who people smile at because she smiled first. I am getting to know this nice lady in the mirror, admiring how her streak of gray gives a sort of shape to her mane. It has required a shift in perception on my part, but that shift feels natural.
Put it this way: In my 20s (okay, fine, and a chunk of my teens and most of my 30s), any missed period was terrible, awful, no-good, and very bad. Then I started trying to have kids, and all I wanted out of life was a goddamn missed period. Perception shift!
Loving My Older Look
I was at a margarita party with a bunch of friends last weekend, sitting with my pal Meg, and I looked down at the other end of the dining-room table, where the hostess’s mom and her friend were sitting. One wore no makeup and had her hair in a low-maintenance bob. One was glamorous and made-up, with a chic pixie cut. Their gray heads were tilted together as they laughed and talked.
“Hey, Meg,” I said. “That’s us in a couple years.”
“Hey, Amy,” she said. “That’s you now.”
Then she let out a long, snorting laugh and said, “But I sure hope you’re right, friend.”
Because what do I want out of life? Do I really want eternal youth? Okay, well, yeah. But that’s not a thing. And really, what I want is to make friends, make parties, and make a difference. My first gray hairs were totally unearned, but now? I’ve earned every one of them, and then some. And I’m proud of what I’ve gone through. These gray hairs are my receipts: I make a habit of living my life and being present at every stage, not pretending to be someone I was 10 years ago.
I’ve always bristled when my friends bemoan each passing birthday as if someone is personally robbing them of their vaginal elasticity. We didn’t all make it to 50, you guys. Every year is precious, why would I lie about any of them? Like my stretch marks, my tattoos, and my long-ass resume, my gray hair is just who I am right now. And I think, after half a century on this planet, that I’m finally getting to know that person and like her just fine as she is.