It happens to everyone: That day when you’re tending to your tresses and you notice something glinting in the light. It’s the first white hair to set up shop on your head, unexpected and uninvited.
Yes, going gray is obviously an aging rite of passage, much like puberty and the first fine lines on your face. But it’s viewed through very different lenses depending on gender. For men, “salt and pepper” locks are widely considered attractive—swooned over, even. (Just think of a middle-aged George Clooney and the red hearts that have circled his head on movie posters everywhere.)
Now, count how many movies you’ve seen in which the female love interest has silver strands. You rarely witness anyone but a blonde, brunette, or redhead serving as a romantic lead—yet no one would bat an eye if her male costar had streaks of gray.
So WTF is that all about? “There does seem to be somewhat of a double standard when it comes to men with gray versus women,” says Judith Thorne, PsyD, a North Carolina-based clinical psychologist who works with Doctor on Demand. “Men are often said to be ‘distinguished and sexy’ when turning gray. Women, not so much.”
“Men are often said to be ‘distinguished and sexy’ when turning gray. Women, not so much.”—Judith Thorne, PsyD
This hair-brained hypocrisy isn’t just frustrating—it can be downright damaging to a woman’s psyche. “Graying hair has been experienced by many women as a narcissistic wound… compounded by society’s glorification of youth and by the accompanying feeling of invisibility among women as we age,” says Jill Gentile, PhD, a New York City-based psychologist.
Why can’t our culture perceive women’s gray hair, too, as a thing of beauty? Thanks to genetics, I’ve been getting silver streaks since the age of 15. And I’ve been dying my roots to hide them since my mid-20s, when the strands came in an overwhelming abundance. It’s pricey, time-consuming, and simply another oppressive aspect of being a woman that’s plain ol’ unfair. (And illogical, when you think about it.)
Thankfully, a change is coming forward—one in which empowered, badass women are going against the grain and taking pride in their sterling streaks. “More and more women are embracing their age and ‘roots’, supporting the organic, ‘this is who I am’ mentality,” says Dr. Thorne. You can count it as another clap back against the rampant sexism in today’s society, and further proof that the term “anti-aging” is on its way to being passé.
Keep reading to learn more about the embrace-the-gray movement.
“My mom said I always had a small patch of silver from a child but not noticeable (I don't remember seeing grey hair as a child but my hair was thick and long so my mom would comb it and put it in really funky styles). As a young adult, I had dreadlocks but I would dye them black so they would look "healthy" and shiny. About 6 years ago, my hairdresser at the time said, "why are you dyeing these wonderful greys?!! People are paying to put grey in and covering yours up!". I stopped and embraced my silver patch. When I cut my locs off, my "mojo" (yes, that's what I call it) burst forth in all its glory… Did I say how thrilled I was to find this community?” @gummzeee #grombre #gogrombre
Why gray hair is having a moment among women under 50
Earlier this year, Chrissy Teigen gave some Twitter PDA to her graying locks—no surprise considering how open she’s been about stretch marks, period skin, and a whole range of other taboo topics. “I have a skunk like streak of grey hair and I’m actually very into it,” she wrote. “My Cruella dreams are coming true!”
While Teigen’s steel-toned streak hasn’t made its public debut on social media yet, tons of other women are stepping up and showing off their salt-and-pepper strands. For instance, an Instagram account called Grombre features women of all ages and stages of gray—many of them in their 20s and 30s—sharing why they’ve decided to celebrate their hair’s natural evolution, rather than fight it. (Its 26.5K followers prove there’s definitely an audience for such gray-hair realness.)
Lots of them are simply over the expensive and time-consuming process of visiting the salon every month—a sentiment that Sarah Villafranco, MD, can relate to. “I woke up one morning shortly before my 44th birthday and realized I didn’t want to color my hair anymore, at least not for the purpose of covering up my gray,” says the doctor, who’s also founder and CEO of Osmia Organics skin care. “It was a sudden, unexpected revelation: ‘Oh wait, I don’t actually have to keep doing this every four weeks!'”
Dr. Villafranco adds that losing her mother at a young age gives her a unique perspective on the aging process. “[I’m] keenly aware of what a privilege it is to age at all,” she says. “As a physician, I’d love to see us all focus on our health and wellness more than our looks.”
“I feel more like myself than I have in the years since I started coloring my hair.”—Sarah Villafranco, MD, founder of Osmia Organics
Meanwhile, Lisa Fennessy—the 40-year-old photographer and blogger behind This Organic Girl—went back to her natural roots as a matter of principle. “One day [it] struck a chord in me,” she says. “I got really pissed. Society had taught me to cover up and keep up instead of embracing the aging process… [and] there I was, standing in line at my local salon, perpetuating this paradigm. So I stepped out of line to create change and a shift in the way our daughters think about beauty.”
Dr. Villafranco also hopes to help shift the conversation, particularly in the world of beauty. And she’s feeling great doing it. “I feel more like myself than I have in the years since I started coloring my hair—it’s liberating and surprisingly empowering,” she says. This is a common reaction when women start to think about ditching the dye, according to Dr. Gentile. “I’ve come to see in my practice that as women claim a sense of agency and empowerment to reveal themselves, they’re less inclined to buy into dictates for appearance that society prescribes,” she says.
Of course, if you’ve read this far and still have no desire to break up with your colorist, that’s cool, too. Simply realizing that the decision to dye or not to dye is yours—not society’s—is a step in the right self-loving direction.
Another aging milestone that can throw a gal for a loop: Finding the first gray hair down there. It helps to remember that anti-aging is literally impossible, so you may as well roll with the changes.
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