Turning down Newbury Street on my walk, I catch sight of myself in a shop window: mask, sunglasses, no longer the brunette I was just a year ago. I don’t avert my gaze but take in the new reality — a full head of gray hair.
Even though salons in Boston opened months ago, I’m still waiting to make my first appointment. My husband, Art, and I agreed in March 2020 that the eventual loosening of restrictions imposed by the pandemic wouldn’t apply to us until there was a vaccine and treatment for the disease. In our mid-70s with pre-existing conditions, we choose to tough it out, believing we’d be safer at home.
I’d been talking to friends about wanting to let my hair grow out for years, for so long that no one believed I’d ever be ready to say, "No" to the fine shade of brown, "No" to the chemicals, "No" to the expensive highlights. The pandemic was like a shove off the dock, forcing me to swim in the deep, murky lake, ready or not.
How did it start, this dependence on a dye job every month? I remember the moment. My hairdresser and good friend Franco said to me, scissors in hand as I sat in his chair, both of us peering into the mirror before us, “Janet, you may not want to hear this but it’s time for some color. Think about it before your next appointment.”
He said the emerging gray wasn’t enough to be striking but just enough to deaden my fair skin. I was in my early 40s, living in Manhattan, trying to balance life as a single parent with my career aspirations. I needed to look good, not deadened. And although I hated the stench of chemicals, the time and money required to put a little color in my hair, he was right. I did look better, or so I thought.
Coloring my hair was never about denying my age. I've always been quick to say how old I was, probably to a fault in my corporate life before I retired. I’d find some way to slip my age, or the year I graduated from college, into conversations, feeling the need to deflect any suspicion that I was too young or inexperienced for my position as a managing director at a large financial services company. I was the same age as the men at the very top of the organization. I wanted them to know that in the early 60s we could have been sitting side-by-side in algebra class. It may sound defensive, but I was a small woman — barely 5’2” — who was always mistaken as younger than I was. I claimed gravitas using any available evidence.
Was there an invisible turning point where trying hard to look good backfired?
My hair appointments became routine. In my 60s, retired, I began noticing older women with beautiful, uncolored hair. The salt-and-pepper and the silvery-white would catch my eye and I’d ask Art, “See that woman? Don’t you think her hair is gorgeous?” He’d nod in agreement. I began to envy those self-possessed women who sparkled confidently in the light. What might my natural shade look like?
I also noticed elderly women whose dyed hair made them look desperate to appear younger than they were. A color that might have worked well during their 50s and 60s no longer complimented their skin. My original reason for coloring my hair was to look good. Was there an invisible turning point when trying so hard would backfire? Yes, I concluded, time to get ahead of that curve.
Heading home from my walk, I’m happy for the women and men who’ve been seeing a professional and have reclaimed a look they’ve missed, and for the barbers and stylists who have been able to survive the lockdown and are back at work. Art and I have been trimming each other’s hair with a barber kit he bought online, and although our cuts are choppy, they’ve been sufficient. Watching a stripe of gray hair reach my earlobes wasn’t so bad. A baseball cap, a chic fedora and a headscarf like Rhoda's saw me through days when I was sick of the patchy look.
Washing my hands, I study my hair in the bathroom mirror. I believe it’s thicker, healthier in its natural state. Lucky to be old enough for the vaccine, I’ll be fully immunized soon. Sometime in late March or April, I plan to sit in the salon chair again for a good haircut, but I’ll keep the gray. The shine catches the light and puts a smile on my face.