Guest Blogger 2007: Alexandra Grabbe
Guest Blogger 2007: Deejay

Guest Blogger 2007: Ellen Lee

[EDITORIAL NOTE: While I am away, several excellent elderbloggers agreed to fill in for me as guest bloggers.

Ellen Lee, who blogs at The Pomegranate Tiger, is here today with a story titled The (Not So) Greying of America. Please make her welcome with lots of comments and visit her blog too.]


Some months ago, while in a nostalgic mood, I wrote the following few verses:

My mind says I’m a smooth-skinned babe Turning heads when stars align. Vibrant, fun and full of life. Sometimes silly, giddy, weird.

Blank stares tell me otherwise.
Invisible to all except fellow invisibles
And those who love me or
Knew me when-then.

Amazing how well grey hair
Works as invisibility cloak.

The grey hair and invisibility part of the above is what kept niggling at my brain.

It's evident that Western society encourages us to look young for as long as possible. We’re encouraged to use anti-aging this and anti-aging that; use anti-wrinkle creams for every conceivable body part; and use dyes to colour “stubborn, hard to cover white” hair; not to mention all the nipping, tucking and Botox injecting that goes on.

It doesn’t seem to matter that statistics show the number of seniors is growing at an unprecedented rate bolstered by aging baby-boomers. There's no doubt we're an aging population. It just seems that no one wants to admit to being part of those aging. Just look at stores and fashion magazines to see this age-denial in all its glory.

But back to the grey hair.

I’ve noticed there are fewer and fewer people my age (late fifties) – or even within a decade either side – who allow themselves to have grey or white hair anymore. It’s almost an aberration for someone my age to show their white hair. Those with clearly white hair are usually in their seventies or above. Heaven forbid a forty, fifty or sixty year-old admit to having white hair. Who are they kidding?

I think this is just another example of age-denial; that with enough collagen, botox, nips and tucks, and hair colouring, we can keep age at bay and look thirty- to forty-something indefinitely.

To me, this only adds to the problem of invisibility for elders. It’s bad enough that our youth-obsessed society doesn’t want to see elders – except in stereotyped cute, crotchety or forgetful, dim-wit roles – we elders are making ourselves invisible by trying to look like something other than what we are. If we can’t be comfortable in our own skins, then we’re contributing to the ageism that views growing older as a negative.

The grey-haired have become invisible and it’s our own fault.

A recent trip to the drugstore only reinforced this opinion. I was trying to find a shampoo for white or grey hair. On the advice of my hairdresser, I had been told to get a shampoo specially formulated for white hair. My hair had been taking on a yellowish tint from minerals in our water supply and, she said, a white hair shampoo would fix it.

It wasn’t a small drugstore. It’s a major chain that has an entire double-sided aisle devoted entirely to hair care products. One side of the aisle contained shampoos, conditioners and gels. There were special shampoos for blondes, special shampoos for redheads, special shampoos for brunettes, and special shampoos for people who colour their hair. The other side contained hair colouring products of every colour imaginable - many of them touting their ability to “cover grey”. I didn’t want to cover my grey, darn it. I wanted to let it shine through!

I finally found a shampoo for white hair, but it wasn’t easy. It was tucked away on the bottom shelf. Two lonely bottles.

I can’t blame the store for not stocking more. They respond to market demand and obviously the market doesn’t demand shampoo for the white-haired. Either that, or the white-haired don't speak up.

Maybe I'm just overly-sensitive about this.

My hair started turning white when I was quite young. My first strand of white was discovered by an annoying boy named Leo who sat behind me in second grade. He plucked the offending strand from the back of my head, stood up, and announced to the class in mock horror that I was “OLD”!

I continued to experience these random discoveries by new acquaintances throughout public school and university. “Did you know you have white hair?” they’d say, as if I'd never looked in the mirror. I got quite adept at tossing back, “That’s because I’m really eighty years old.”

By my thirties, I was a pronounced salt and pepper (think Emmy-Lou Harris in the 80s). I traversed this stage of my whiteness with casual indifference. I rebuffed hairdressers who kept offering to cover up the white. It became a part of my identity.

But I don’t want you to think that I completely resisted the allure of hair colouring. At forty-ish, my youngest son – still in elementary school – asked me why I had so many white hairs. His one comment was enough to send me scurrying to the drugstore for some Nice ‘n Easy and the cycle of dying, touch-ups and refreshing.

Thankfully, this period didn’t last long. With my fast-growing hair, I got tired of touch-ups every two weeks; not to mention the necessity of timing those touch-ups with scheduled vacation time to avoid the dreaded "skunk" look while away.

I tell my friends that deciding not to colour my hair was one of the most liberating things I’ve done for myself. I'm now a silvery white and think it looks pretty good. People often compliment me on my striking hair colour. They're probably in shock that someone my age doesn't colour her hair.

It is possible to be grey and still look stylish and attractive. Just look at Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. They look terrific with their silver and grey locks.

During my internet surfing, I did manage to find a "pro" grey article: How to Love Your Gray. It's written by a New York hair stylist who says, "this once-maligned hair hue has become a new style option". Well, hallelujah! Maybe there's hope – but I'm not holding my breath.

I've taken it upon myself to be on a mission to free other women from the tedious treadmill of trying to make naturally white hair any other colour except white. (Funny how men are allowed to be white and "distinguished" rather than old, but that's an entirely different blog.)

It's time to come out of the grey closet and stop being invisible.

In this regard, I think we need role models to help the cause. I’ve already mentioned Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. They prove that you can be grey and still look amazing. I wonder if it's just a coincidence that they're Brits? For North Americans, wouldn’t it be great if a Hilary Clinton or Oprah let themselves become silver and fabulous? Anyone else?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jim Filer tells a tale of games that are played when there’s a new kid on a submarine titled, Never Trust a Sailor.]

Comments

your tale really struck home here! where is that "new york hair stylist"? i continue to be one of the only women in the room wherever i go in this city. now in my seventies, i do every now and then hear, "if i had as nice gray hair as you..." perhaps that will happen for you. as the expression goes, "what goes around, comes around."

Great post!!!! I wish my hair would turn white. Mine just gets thinner and duller. Conditioner and any thing that reads "extra body and shine" is my best friend. Sigh,

I like white hair. I think it looks elegant. I envy you.

Some years ago I began wearing wigs. My hair was thin and getting thinner (and still is). It is baby fine, straight, won't keep a curl, and frizzes at the thought of a perm. Though nature, God, or whatever, graced me with this gift I felt I didn't have to share it. I never thought about the color of the wigs I bought and simply chose an auburn that matched or slightly bettered the color I had when I was much younger. I might have to look at the matter again the next time I need a new one.

Hello Ellen,

I have often remarked that we are raising the only generation of children in the World who think that when women get older their hair turns BLONDE!!!!!
Interesting post. Thanks!

New book--for us!--on this very topic.

I haven't read it yet (but I'm preordered at Amazon and eagerly waiting):

Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, uthenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters (Hardcover) by Anne Kreamer

The excerpt I read made me hit the "Pre-Order" button instantly. I have that grayed-out formerly brunette salt and pepper hair shade and a (probably) grim job hunt ahead.

Experts agree: "Dye it!" I really don't want to, but I don't want to make age discrimination easier than it already is.

Like you, I went gray early. At 40, I was almost completely gray/silver. From age 40 to age 59, I dyed my hair. At home products did not cover the gray, so I sentenced myself to monthly expensive touchups to restore my hair to its earlier dark brown.. Even so, a week after the appointment, my roots became noticeable.

My epiphany occurred when my mom died in 2004. She had always dyed her hair since she was 30. We had to ask the undertaker to touch up her roots for the wake. We knew she would have been upset not to look her best.

I abruptly decided I was not going to dye my hair for the next 30 years. I had all the dye bleached out and sentenced myself to being blonde until my hair grew out over the next year.

Now I love it. I work in Manhattan; I almost never see any women with long straight silver hair. I have never gotten so many compliments on my hair. Countless times I have been told, I would let my hair go gray if it looked like yours.

Going silver seemed to be a particularly brave thing to do since my second husband of five years is sixteen years younger. But no one has mistaken my for his mother.

My three month old grandson adores my hair. If you are curious, look at the sidebar on my blog.

This issue first arose for me this weekend at Gnomedex when I met Ronni. Until now, although I am 66 and have been "covering the grey" since 40, it has never occurred to me not to color my hair. I have a friend who is in her mid-80's and colors her hair. My mother, who died in her mid-80's colored her hair until she died. I am not sure I would find being gray liberating; in fact, at this moment I find it frightening. I think I have more work to do on this issue.

Amen! I can't count the times a new hairdresser hinted at the benefits of dying my grey hairs. I'm still at the salt and pepper stage, though my diet is very high in saline now. Then I met a hair dresser who suggested highlights to make the salt and pepper mix even throughout my head of hair. Gone was the grey patchy look, now I have this wonderful speckled surface that I very much like. The added benefit is I only have to do highlights every few months or so. It is my way of expressing the chic grey in my person, how to (literally) grow grey gracefully.

It's it rather sad that just being who you are, a women in grey, is considered brave or outspoken in our societies?

I liked Mary Jo's perspective.

I once asked an older friend, who used to dye her hair in her 40s, why she stopped in her 50s. She said, you can fool yourself and society with dying your hair. But, once your public hair starts going grey, you can only hope of fooling society.

Will you share the name of the shampoo you finally found? Thanks

My hair is grey, and I wish it were white. I do use a shampoo for greying hair (currently, Pantene's Silver Expressions) and have used various "silver" shampoos for years.

I don't color my hair because I'm lazy. I'm simply not inclined to make the effort. However, people who want to color their hair should go for it. If it makes you feel better, why let someone else dictate your choice.

While I deplore some of the attitudes toward aging, and sympathize with those who are afraid of looking their age, I still believe that the way one carries oneself, smiles (or doesn't), looks confident and secure or dejected-- makes the greatest impact. I've seen too many cocky little white-haired old ladies who look smart and happy. Can't do a thing about my wrinkles, but I can do something about my face, and it looks better smiling.

I loved this blog!

My hair is still red. I like the white that has crept in near my ears. When I met my husband, he was dying his hair. I convinced him to stop putting on all that chemical goop, which was, no doubt, bad for his body and the environment. I would never dye my hair. I agree that we all need to speak up. If more elder folk spoke up, perhaps people would begin listening.

I strongly support this point of view about allowing my hair to age right along with me, whatever color the strands become.

One of my blog posts some months ago discusses this very topic in "Red Head Aging Naturally." This has always been my perspective and is just one of the attractions TGB has had for me, because so many of us share that same attitude.

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir, but I do appreciate everyone's comments.

Naomi, the hairdresser's name is Mark Garrisson. In the article, he makes it sound like it's some hot new trend in Manhattan.

Mary Jo, my hair is about the same shade of silver as yours and I have never been mistaken for being older than I am either.

Judith, I ended up finding two shampoos. One already mentioned is Pantene Silver Expressions and the other one is called Light Blue Shade (by Laboratoire Cosmepro, a Canadian company based in Quebec).

Jenclair, I agree that it's a personal choice. If people want to colour their hair because it makes them feel better about themselves, that's fine by me. I just want women to at least consider the alternative and realize it's not as bad as society would make it seem.

My hair used to be blonde. First it went dark, and now it's going grey. I like the grey. What the heck...I'm 58, and I've earned every one of those grey hairs!

Back in the day, I used to wonder why I never saw any blondes going grey. I figured it had to be one of two things: either the process was so gradual that nobody noticed, or people thought they looked so horrible that they had to dye it.

I've been known to dye my hair for a role in a play, but I like my grey.

This is so right on. A few months ago, I went to a lecture given by Dr. Bill Thomas, a professor who also happens to be one of the founders of the Green House Movement (house hold like environments for those who have to be in nursing homes). Dr. Thomas talked about this very thing: aging and not being afraid to let ourselves accept the normal functions of aging. He said our society "adultisizes" our babies and children. In other words, we dress them as young adults, wearing trendy clothes, ears pierced, make up at early ages, all so they can be in with the "in" crowd, even in their very early years.

And, our society also adultisizes our older generation. We only accept those who look like the mainstream of a younger generation: no grey hair, face lifts and Botox to avoid wrinkles, dressing younger.

I found his statements profound, and true. Societal influences all ages, unfortunately, not always in a good way: be thin, be young (though not too young), no wrinkles, etc. etc. etc.

For me personally, I have come to terms with my age, my wrinkles (though I don't particularly like them even though I earned them) and even my graying hair. Onward and upward!

Good post, Ellen. Thank you. The "gray hair as an invisibility cloak" idea is familiar. My wife talks about it. It's something she feels. Eight or ten years ago I was in my fifties and had just started my consulting business. I colored my hair. I wanted to erase the gray and bring back the natural color of younger days. I wanted to level the playing field as I took my consulting act on the road. I have never felt so false or embarrassed. People who knew me obviously could see what I had done, but except for my sister, no one spoke of it. Fortunately it didn't take too long for my natural colors to re-emerge and I was able to face the world as who I am, not as some youthful avatar I thought people might prefer.

What is GREY POWER without having the COURAGE to walk around with natural Grey, Silver or White hair? We need to overcome this fear of growing older as an elder and start expressing our thoughts and feelings the way they are. If we continually want to hide the colour of our natural hair I'm sure that we are also hiding 'other' things in life.

Well, I can't comment about white hair...I'm 67 and I have some gray hairs, but mostly they're thin and a dull brown. I keep it short and cut it myself, because it tends to stick out at the most inopportune times. Having to make an appointment with a hairdresser just doesn't work.

And since I joined the ranks of the invisibles long ago, I'm free of concerns like that. I'm having too much fun playing with my various projects.

Ellen: whooo hoooo! It's so great to read about hair. I love hair, on men and women. No hair is fine, too! It frightens me to think that I need to color my hair to be a person. So I don't. In the past I've dabbled, but found it too disconcerting, like living a lie. Also too time-consuming, expensive. For several decades, hair stylists got on my case to color my hair. Recently, stylists have complimented my hair, and asked me not to color it.

I agree, gray = invisible to younger people. I've been run off the sidewalk countless times when encountering college students--I am invisible to them. But when I see a head of silver hair, I want to go up to the person and run my fingers through it. Silver hair calls to me in a way that a dyed, coiffed do never has and never will.

I do plan to play with it though, streaks of cerise and electric blue, I think, maybe just the tips. Not to look younger, purely to have fun with it! Be visible in a quirky way. An entirely new interpretation of a "blue-haired old lady." If you know Liz Henry, a phenomenal writer, you'll see how to have fun with hair.

Great post! I used to dye my hair but got tired of retouching and worrying about the wind blowng and gray roots showing. It's been really liberating since I decided to be natural. I like the silvery shade it is and get compliments on my hair.

This whole anti-aging obsession is boring. Your examples of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are perfect since they also have their normal faces without botox and surgery that make people look scary.

Loved this post. I am 39 and found my first grey hair at 16. In August I made the decision to stop having my hair dyed every 4 weeks and grow it out. I'm about halfway there. I will be totally grey/white by my 40th birthday and I love it. I think there is nothing more striking than a beautiful head of white hair. Read the book "Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, uthenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters" (Hardcover) by Anne Kreamer--it's terrific!

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