All the silver ladies: Just because you embrace grey hair, doesn’t mean you’re a poster child for aging gracefully

All the silver ladies
Image of Guinness courtesy of M.A.C. Cosmetics
All the silver ladies
Image of Guinness courtesy of M.A.C. Cosmetics

When Liza Herz decided to embrace her grey and stop hitting the bottle, it wasn’t a statement about aging gracefully

GREY MATTER: A roundup of silver hair–friendly product picks »

As someone with a head of rapidly greying hair, I should be happy that silver hair is having a fashion moment. When Daphne Guinness launched her makeup collection with M.A.C late last year, her Cruella de Vil hair gleamed a silvery “come hither” from in-store posters. Meanwhile, Karl Lagerfeld sent silver-haired wraiths down the runway for Chanel’s Fall 2011 collection and photographed model Freja Beha with cascading silver curls adorned with camellias. In 2010, 1990s face Kristen McMenamy showcased her fearsome long grey mane in the pages of Vogue. And YouTube brims with videos of chubby-cheeked teens explaining how to “go silver,” complete with enthused calls for 40-volume peroxide, a strength best left for nuclear experiments.

The reason silver has become a trend isn’t complicated. When you’re young, weird stuff looks good: nerd glasses, unusual piercings, and even silver hair, which looks amazing against plump, rosy cheeks. Young hair is so glossy and healthy that it can usually withstand the bleaching required to go translucently white without turning to straw.

So why do I not feel cool? That’s easy—my silver is different from their silver. Mine you’d have to call “grey.”

I didn’t plan on abandoning hair dye when I did. In fact, I have always loved it. I still have metal crochet hooks from the time when highlighting meant pulling strands of hair with said hook through holes in a plastic cap. I loved hair colour even through the Crayola-yellow highlights of ’92 (let us never speak of them again). But hair colour, it seems, did not love me.

As I got older, with more grey to cover, I grew tired of explaining to disbelieving colourists that my porous hair takes colour a little too enthusiastically, and asking them to please choose a lighter shade. I was tired of policing my hairline for roots and so very tired of cracking open my wallet every third week for another fruitless round of taming nature.

In January 2006, I was coloured, cut and pushed out into a dark afternoon with an inky black helmet where my light-brown hair had been. After an evening of crying and rewashing my hair with dish liquid, I’d had enough. And in a decision that was 50 per cent exasperation and 50 per cent curiosity, I let it grow out. I was 41 and hadn’t seen my real hair colour in two decades.

When you’re old and you stop dyeing your hair, people ascribe to you all sorts of motives. For instance, that you wear your grey “as a badge of integrity and to embrace advancing age,” as anthropologist Grant McCracken suggests in his book, Big Hair. Hell no, not me. I embrace nothing. Nor am I commenting passive-aggressively on other women’s decisions to keep colouring. I do not want to be an accidental poster child for “natural aging.”

But by rejecting a grooming rite that most women perform reflexively (according to a Clairol survey, 85 per cent of Canadian women have hit the bottle), I now find myself thrust to one side of a debate about female sexuality, attractiveness and aging. I’m also, apparently, a better feminist than Naomi Wolf.

Wolf, who last year devoted 2,000-plus words to telling Washington Post readers how much better life is in one’s late 40s, spent a mere two lines describing the process of erasing her greys with what she euphemistically called a “colour rinse.” Like it’s magic water that comes out of the tap.

Twenty-one years ago, in her landmark feminist tract The Beauty Myth, Wolf lauded women who refuse to alter their appearance with hair dye, diet and makeup, but two decades on, she’s happily given herself a free pass. Why? Because when time takes away what you thought belonged to you but really only belongs to youth, your position can change.

The clanging irony is that maintaining grey hair that seems “natural” actually requires a voracious commitment to personal grooming. Hair-smoothing serum is the only thing preventing you from morphing into a frizzy-haired cat lady. Yes, grey hair adds light around the face and doesn’t emphasize wrinkles the way overly dark hair colour can—Courteney Cox, please get some highlights—but it does wash you out. If you leave the house without a quick hit of mascara, concealer, blush and lip colour, you’ll risk looking, as one stylist put it to me, “like oatmeal.”

Preventing silver from yellowing takes work. Superstar colourist and John Frieda spokesman Harry Josh, who will spend up to four hours hand-weaving the blonde highlights of superstars like Gisele Bündchen, likens silver hair to platinum blonde in its tendency to take on brassy tones: “If you have old copper piping in your building or have a pool that’s heavily chlorinated, that’ll make a difference.” He recommends alternating a violet-toned colour-correcting shampoo with a clarifying one to remove buildup.

Known as the Toronto silver set’s go-to stylist, Ingrid Reinhart helps clients grow out colour through a process of frequent cuts and woven-in highlights and lowlights to minimize the demarcation line. But there is a caveat to taking this step: “If you have grey hair, it should be really groomed and elegant,” she says. “Some people grey really nicely, [but] some grey is just not as attractive.” Ouch.

Fighting aging is a case of diminishing returns, or, as Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen said to Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
I’m done with running twice as fast. While I’m willing to adapt to a regimen of more cruciferous vegetables and less poutine, more gym and fewer Frappuccinos, some things, like spending hours at the salon, have permanently fallen from my to-do list.

For me, at least, grey is good.

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