“So what was your inspiration for dyeing your hair silver?” I asked one of my college students. I teach creative writing and English part-time at a local University of Wisconsin campus, and I have quite a few 18 to 20-something students with beautiful dyed silver hair. I thought this student might say “Daenerys,” the Game of Thrones character made famous in the TV show by Emilia Clarke, or “a mermaid,” because her hair is long, flowing, on the lavender side of silver, and curled. But she surprised me by replying, “Elsa.”
I blinked. “From Frozen?” I asked.
“I’m a big Disney fan,” she added.
Well, her hair did have a sort of ice queen sheen to it, now that she mentioned it.
Whether their inspiration comes from fictional characters such as Elsa and Daenerys, or real-life celebrities such as Gwen Stefani and Kylie Jenner who’ve given silver a try, many young people have been coloring their hair gray for a few years now — and in turn, they’ve inspired some middle-aged women to embrace their own silver selves.
Menopause and Gray Hair
If you’ve been considering going back to your (gray) roots now that you've hit menopause, now just may be the time. Silver is “chic, sexy, edgy, and super on trend,” writes Cindy Marcus in 37 Incredible Silver Hair Color Ideas to Try This Year.
Of course, being “super on trend” may not be a priority for you; the reasons middle-aged women are embracing their natural gray and silver beauty seem to be as varied as the women themselves.
1. To Save Money
Cynthia, 59, from Chicago, writes that she got tired of the money she spent every few weeks in the salon. “I had dark brown hair with red and caramel highlights, and so it was really hard to touch up my roots myself. I used to spend a lot each year at a high-end salon. With the money I save, I’ve taken some really cool vacations. My silver hair looks great, and I’ve gone to Costa Rica and Hawaii!” Lorraine Massey and Michelle Bender, authors of Silver Hair: A Handbook ($9.32, Amazon), estimate that some women in big cities can spend over $70,000 over a lifetime of getting their hair colored in salons.
2. To Save Time
Many women who’ve stopped dyeing their hair say they’ve grown resentful of the time it takes: Hours in the salon every few weeks and at home every ten days or so between salon visits touching up roots. "My time is just more valuable than that,” my friend Laurie from Madison says. “It’s driving time, it’s time in the chair, it’s time at home. I don’t know how many years of my life I’ve spent dyeing my hair, but at one point, I was just like, I’m done!”
3. To Look Lovely
Many women who’ve gone gray talk about the compliments they receive. One of them is Lisa Peet, 55, a writer and editor from New York. Thirteen years ago, Lisa’s then-boyfriend (now husband) suggested she let her hair go gray, and she decided to give it a try. She’s kept it gray ever since because she loves it. “It looks fabulous, and I get compliments on it from random folks on the street constantly — from teenage girls to dapper men to lots of women my age. It's definitely a part of my look. It's also way healthier and thicker. I get a nice cut and sometimes use a little product to keep the frizz down, but basically it's trouble-free.” Massey writes that women who go gray tell her they get more compliments than they ever did when they dyed their hair, and that “…many women say their silver hair makes them feel sexier, more open, and beautiful.”
4. To Embrace Freedom
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Women who stop dyeing their hair talk about how liberating and freeing going gray has been. “When I turned 50, I decided I wanted to live authentically,” says Candace, an advertising executive in Boston. “I stopped coloring my hair and basically got a buzz cut. It was so liberating! And the icing on the cake? My young colleagues say I look hip!” Mindy Greenstein, author of Lighter as We Go ($13.24, Amazon), who let her blond hair go silver, is quoted in Silver Hair as saying: “It’s a real sense of freedom. I know that silver can be linked to getting old, but I’m a two-time cancer survivor. To me, getting old is a good thing! Now my hair is an expression of who I am, not the artistic talents of a colorist.”
5. To Be a Feminist
Lori Day says that she chooses not to dye her hair in order to make a feminist statement. “I refuse to be a slave to beauty in a way men are not,” she says. She prefers to prioritize her time and money toward more important and meaningful things, such as work, family, being the board president of a large domestic violence organization, writing, and political activism. She is 55 and doesn’t believe that to stay relevant she needs to look younger; in fact, she wants to be a good role model for her daughter and all younger women by showing them, “It’s okay to not fight aging.”
How to Go Gray Gracefully
Inspired to go silver? Here are some pro tips on how to do It beautifully.
1. Understand the science.
Women complain about what a difficult and “ugly” process it is to grow out their gray. If you are like me (which is to say, you have a third-grader’s understanding of chemistry), then perhaps you’ve always wondered why women don’t just dye it that beautiful Elsa-lavender shade of silver of my college student while it grows out. Amy Akiva, Master Colorist at Amy Akiva Hair explains it this way: natural (non-white) hair contains melanin, while white hair is the absence of melanin. So hair is actually a natural color or white, and the “salt and pepper” together can give the hair a gray appearance. Say someone has 60-percent brown hair and 40 percent white hair. You can dye that hair 100-percent Elsa-lavender-silver, but it will still be 60-percent brown and 40-percent white when it grows out. So if a woman is looking to stop coloring her hair all together, dyeing it that fashion white is not going to fix it.
2. Start with highlights and lowlights — that is to say, start with a really good colorist.
Amy Akiva says that highlights and lowlights can help the transition to gray hair. If a woman is used to seeing herself with a dark hair color, highlights can help ease her transition to having white hair, and a gradual transition can keep her looking professional. She suggests adding highlights while gradually stopping the single process color, until all the hair is light. Another option for those with darker hair is to stop the single process color and begin putting in lowlights, starting with heavy lowlights and gradually reducing them. Once all the hair is light, Amy usually suggests clients coming in for a glaze or toner. For clients who are already blondes, Amy suggests a round of very light highlights and toning the colored hair to a cooler, white finish. After 14 years of coloring hair, Amy has found that her happiest clients are those who are working with their gray: it’s not the first thing they see when they look in the mirror, but a little of it is worked in to their colored hair.
To keep white hair looking beautiful, Amy suggests using purple shampoo for counteracting brassy or yellow tones; Sebastian’s Cellophanes, an ammonia-free colorizing gloss treatment ($14.95 at Amazon); and a good conditioner to keep white hair from looking dry.
Just as there are a myriad of reasons a woman would want to embrace her gray, there are just as many reasons why a woman would want to continue coloring her hair: to look or feel young, to avoid discrimination in the workplace, because they like how it looks, and so on. I color my hair my natural shade of brown out of a sense of identity: This is who I feel like I am. Maybe someday I’ll feel like a silver-haired Kelly, but for right now, brunette Kelly still feels like me.
I researched this article with a sense of distance, then; this is a hot topic for other people. But I have to say, after talking to women who have embraced their silver selves, and studying photographs of some of the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen, all in silvery-gray hues, I can see myself going on this journey in the much nearer future than I’d once thought. Someday I’m going to stop frequenting the salon and touching up my roots at home, I’m going to save time and money, embrace my silver self, experience a sense of freedom and liberation, stick it to the man (who, by the way, feels no compunction to dye his own gray hair), and I’m going to look badass, bodacious, and beautiful.
Just not today.