Two years ago — on the first day of summer in 2018 — I colored my hair for the last time. I didn’t know then that it was the last time or that a switch would flip a few weeks later, with me deciding seemingly out of nowhere that I was done with the dye that had hidden my true hair color for most of my adult life (ever since the silver strands that started showing up in my teens became too numerous to pluck).
I want to share a little about what I’ve learned along the way but also want to offer a disclaimer, because this is one of those subjects that seems fairly mundane and inoffensive on the surface but can definitely stir up feelings. So: Let it be known that my official Position on Hair is that we all have the freedom to do what we want with our own and that coloring it is fine. And if my tone sounds negative in anything I say about dye, that’s just representative of where I arrived in my own experience and not of any conviction that everyone else should feel the same.
Anyway! Without further ado, here are my discoveries (and a little photographic look at the journey, because it should come as no surprise that I documented it!):
my five silver-hair surprises
The ugliest part of the transition was also sort of the best.
A skunk stripe is a rite of passage on the way to becoming a silver fox (at least if you go cold turkey on the hair color like I did). It’s admittedly not the best look, and it lasts what feels like forever.
But although I’m glad to be past that point, I actually look back on it with some fondness — because those early months were when I was rediscovering my natural hair after not really having seen it for a dozen years. That was super exciting (and involved more than a little staring down my roots in the bathroom mirror, as if I could will them to grow with my eyes).
I didn’t have to get a neck tattoo to prove how young and edgy I am.
There was a minute when I wondered if I might need to go that route (or at least a comparable one … as a neck tattoo probably won’t ever be the answer for anything in my life). The point here is that even after committing to my natural color, I couldn’t really envision how that change would look for me — having never personally known another 30-something woman who’d gone gray and also not knowing if I’d need to compensate somehow in an effort to not look a lot older or like I’d “let myself go.”
An internet image search was of course where I went for answers, and the first picture that popped up was of an edgy-looking model with heavy eye makeup and lots of tattoos (including a prominent one on her neck). It’s safe to say her gray hair definitely didn’t make her look old, but I still wasn’t sure how I could mimic her look without attempting an entirely new persona I’d probably never pull off. (I think I landed on possibly investing in more pairs of ripped jeans … Ripped jeans seemed safe).
Fortunately, the surprise I eventually discovered was that my real hair wasn’t out of place on my real self. I didn’t need any grand reinvention to accommodate it and still look like me, rather than some much older or more unkempt caricature. Instead, as my hair grew in and I settled into it, it actually seemed like we were a package deal designed to go together.
I can now go to Costco with my head uncovered and not feel naked or ashamed.
This may sound silly but is actually a sign of major progress, because it involved unlearning a lifetime of messages about gray hair being ugly (or at least unacceptable before a certain age … whatever that age might be). Early in my transition, I usually covered my hair with a wide headband or a hat in public — in part due to the above-mentioned skunk stripe but also because it’s not always easy to start showing something you’ve for years gone to great lengths to hide.
This self-consciousness faded over time, and the surprise here isn’t so much that it eventually diminished but, rather, how surreal it sometimes still is to be comfortable in the world in my own skin (or hair, more specifically!). Sometimes, it’s even a step beyond comfortable: I may or may not secretly claim a sort of revolutionary status in bucking traditional beauty standards. (Who cares if no one is interested in me or in any revolution as they’re going about their grocery shopping.)
I feel like I look a lot better now than I did with dye.
To be fair to all the wonderful hair stylists out there, including the ones I’ve had, I know I should acknowledge that not all dyes or dye jobs are equal. So when I say I look back at photos from the past few years and see my hair as looking a lot less pretty dyed than it does now, that’s not some blanket assertion that dyed hair can’t be beautiful — especially when it’s done by someone with actual training and technique.
I’ve been in both boats, dye-wise, so I definitely know the difference between what comes from a salon and what comes from my sweet husband at our kitchen sink. I reached a point, though, where the upkeep needed to keep my roots hidden was more of an investment in both time and money than I wanted to spend at a salon. Thus by the time I had enough gray to necessitate monthly colorings, I just resigned myself to fighting my ongoing battle through boxed dye — not because I ever loved the resulting color but just because it covered something I thought I had to hide.
When I decided to grow out my natural color, I was pretty sure I’d like it — but I was still surprised how much better it looked on me than any shade of fake brown I’d had in recent history. It was also fun to find I now have natural highlights, which are much simpler to come by this way than in a salon!
I’m basically a kid again (even if my hair says otherwise).
What has maybe been the most surprising part of this transition is that I actually feel younger than I did with dye. Not since I was about 18 had I freely lived with my hair as it naturally was, without any plucking or coloring — so returning to that way of being almost half my life later was like reclaiming a piece of my youth, even if the resulting hair color was different this time.
Even as the novelty of that experience has worn away, I’m still so glad to have left the cycle of perpetually hiding hair that has the audacity to keep showing up in its true color. Because truly: The best and healthiest outcome of this transition is that I no longer hate or go to great lengths to hide my hair just because outside influences have long said that’s the way to go when you’re gray.
And while I’m not aiming to be uber-evangelistic on this issue, I do hope that my story offers encouragement to anyone else who is where I was with hair dye — using it more from a place of shame or perceived necessity than because it actually enhances her life. To her, I’d say: Your natural color is a legitimate option, so don’t be afraid to give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised to find the best version of yourself in the process.
I'm a print-journalist-turned-wedding-photographer who fully believes in the value of telling true stories beautifully. By means of a camera, I am a curator so my clients can be keepers of their most important moments.
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