I lost my hair-color virginity at a very tender age. I was barely in my 20s when I applied my first box of drugstore hair dye, hoping to cover up the gray hairs that had been reproducing on my head faster than I could hunt-and-pluck them.
Back then, there was no “gray positive movement” breathing down my neck, self-righteously touting the benefits to older women of letting our tresses go gray, insisting that going gray is liberating — even empowering.
You know the people I’m talking about, right?
They’re the ones who swear up and down that older women who sport a headful of gray hair are most certainly comfortable in their own bodies, inferring that the rest of us aren’t. The ones who suggest that people who allow their hair to go gray are at peace with the aging process and each of their gray strands delivers a poke in the eye to the societal standard that equates beauty with youth.
I pretty much get all those same feels every time I brush some L’oreal Preference into my hair and make those gray strands disappear. I feel empowered and strong and in control of who I am.
The fact that empowerment is easy to obtain from a $10 box at the drugstore that sometimes even comes with a coupon for an extra $2 off, well, Godspeed to me!
I not only began coloring my grays at an early age, I intend to never stop. I will be the little old lady in the nursing home who, with her last breath, asks if there is still time for a root touch-up.
Premature gray hair runs in my family. While we Brenoff women are largely healthy and live well into our 90s, we do so with a box of hair color within easy reach at all times.
My cousin, who has been coloring her gray hair since she was 22, jokes that if a doctor diagnosed her with a brain tumor, she would cry all the way home from his office, but still want to color her hair before going in for surgery the next day. She says it would just make her feel better.
I get it completely. Not having gray hair makes me feel better too — about every situation.
By the way, men who color their gray hair haven’t been spared the judgments of the Gray Hair Police. Even Men’s Journal jumped on the shaming bandwagon, telling men that, “Graying is part of aging — it’s distinguished, it’s sexually attractive, and people dig it.”
Sure it is — if you happen to be George Clooney or Anderson Cooper.
Here’s what’s at the root (pun intended) of my disdain for my gray hair: I, like a lot of other older people, simply don’t wear it well. Sure, silvery locks look good on the stylish young, but there is something to be said about the Instagram hashtag #GrannyHair, with its hundreds of thousands of posts — and noticeably not an actual granny in sight.
Gray hair may look great on someone who actively seeks it out in a bottle, but not so much when it shows up uninvited and joins the party of wrinkles, double chins and thinning eyebrows.
In my case, I lack the skin tone to wear a silver mane well. I am pale and have that kind of complexion that prompts people to ask how long I’ve been sick on days I forget to wear lipstick. When my white skunk stripe starts to appear, I look way more washed out, tired, and frail.
I call those days my “ma’am days” because that is invariably when the supermarket bagger addresses me as “ma’am” and asks if I need help to the car. Maybe, at my age, the reason I color my hair is just because I want the world to know I can still carry my own groceries? Perhaps.
Truth is, I don’t color my hair to fool anyone about my age. I don’t color my hair as an act of age denial. I color my hair for the same reason I don’t wear heels, mini skirts or turtleneck sweaters now that I am past menopause.
I do what is comfortable for me and me alone — which, when you think about, is the essence of empowerment.
And so, with apologies to everyone who wants me to believe that gray is the new black, please knock off the judging. You have your hair and I have mine. But mine will always be less gray.
Ann Brenoff was a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where she won a shared Pulitzer for coverage of the Northridge Earthquake. Most recently, she was a senior writer and columnist for HuffPost based in Los Angeles.