Out, Out Gray Hair!

Part 2: Two Kinds of Women

To dye or not to dye

It’s a subject of fierce debate among women (and men) of a certain age. To dye or not to dye gray hair. Me? I’m, of course, a die-hard dyer!

On the subject, there are two, sharply divided schools of thought — summarized by these telling quotes:

“They’re not gray hairs. They’re wisdom highlights.”
Author Unknown

“There’s a reason why forty, fifty, and sixty don’t look the way they used to,
and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise.
It’s because of hair dye.
In the 1950’s only 7 percent of American women dyed their hair;
today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles
where there are no gray-haired women at all.”
Nora Ephron

My Gray Hair Saga

Born in New York, raised there and in Las Vegas (a sorta Los Angeles suburb), I was schooled in the Nora Ephron “to dye or die” school. My mother started dying her hair at such an early age that she actually could not recall her natural hair color when questioned about it at the age of 80. “Your color I suppose. I guess.”

Growing up, I inhaled a steady, heady mixture of hair dye, hair spray, nail polish, perfume, cigarettes, and swimming pool chlorine. Hardly surprising I made frequent trips to the ER for our asthma. But it made me tough.

My Chic Mother

My mother was a platinum blonde, a brunette (briefly) a strawberry blonde (very cute), a red-hot redhead, and, for a time, sort of an ashy blonde seductress. But the one color she never sported was gray. She also wore wigs, hairpieces, and hats. Oh, the hats. And the hatboxes and the hatpins. But even on hat days, her hair was perfectly dyed and coiffed.

Mom suffered many health ailments and injuries. She had unsuccessful back surgeries and lived in chronic pain. But she never missed an appointment for a touch-up. She took pain meds, used a walker, and later an electric scooter. She may have grimaced and groaned, but chic — By God, the woman was chic to the end!

The Sacred and Salacious Salon

Her not-to-be-missed appointments to the beauty parlor for hair and nails were sacred. The salon was, in fact, her house of worship, mental health clinic, social hour(s), and spa all rolled into one. If I was lucky and didn’t have school, I’d go along. It wasn’t boring. Las Vegas beauty salons in particular were glamorous hotbeds of gossip. Who was Elvis sleeping with this week? You might not get just the name of his latest gal pal, you might even get a glimpse of the very chorus line dancer in question sitting under the hairdryer — right there next to your very own mother, chatting up a storm. Unreal but real!

As a women’s libber college student, I, of course, swore I would “never” do anything unnatural, like dyeing my hair. That “policy” position lasted until the first gray strand appeared. Then, by the time I was forty-something and found pulling out multiple individual strands of gray hair too painful, I began reconsidering my feminist position. Fortunately, I had a convenient “out.” I was on TV, and “for the sake of my job,” I started coloring my hair.

Color Me Do! Away Gray Hair

And faster than you can say “do or die,” I was on the color merry-go-round. “Let’s go a little redder.” “How about a little lighter.” “Maybe even a little lighter.”

Soon I was doing a respectable impersonation of my mother in her blond hair phase until .. Until  Handsome Hubby said, “Stop. Enough with the hair lightening. I married a brunette. I’d like to continue to be married to a brunette.”

So, I eased up on the bleach or whatever lightening product my hairdresser used.

But I was hooked. Like my mother, I vowed to never go gray. The question of to dye or not to dye had been answered.

Flash to these 2020 and Sheltering in Place

In normal times, I get my roots touched up every three weeks. If I go longer without a touch-up, even one week longer, I look like I’ve been on the losing end of a snowball fight where a much taller opponent lobbed a bucket of snow on top of my head.

When the sheltering in place began, I had hoped for a hair miracle. I had hoped my gray hair would somehow suddenly grow out shimmering, silver, and smooth. It did not.

After 45 days of sheltering in place and no hair color, my fast-growing hair had a distinct — and distinctly unattractive — color division, dingy brown, and dingier gray.

Desperate, I texted my hairdresser, offering a bribe for bootleg dye. No dice. Dowdy and depressed, I started wearing a hat indoors.

My Pusher

Thankfully, after two months, my hairdresser took pity on sad-sack customers like me and mixed up batches of customized hair color. Like a junkie scoring a fix, I met my dealer — I mean my hairdresser — outside her salon. She gingerly placed a paper bag with my stash — I mean hair dye, gloves, special hair dye brush, and instructions — down on the ground and quickly stepped back. We exchanged brief greetings and I rushed home.

With trembling hands — both from excitement and fear— I readied my fix. I was ready to dye! It was a messy, time-consuming process. But the magic worked! The gray was banished. My self-esteem was restored.

Order is Restored

I looked to the Heavens and waved. I knew my mother was smiling, finally at peace once more. From her vantage point up high looking down, those months of unsightly, untended gray roots must have been really disturbed her heavenly Zen!


And why does hair turn gray? I say blame it on the kids! But for a more scientific explanation, consider turning to the Library of Congress.

4 replies
  1. ARP
    ARP says:

    I used to be a dyer. But my hair is super dark brown, so I never went any lighter than I could do on my own… which wasn’t much! I’ve had gray in my hair since my early 20s. April of 2019 was the last time I dyed it, though, and surprisingly, I don’t hate it. As it turns out, I have a streak of white on top that looks like it was deliberately placed there, and I kind of like it.

  2. Sharon Marett Smith
    Sharon Marett Smith says:

    Such a timely discussion. My red (dyed) hair was such an enormous part of my identity, especially in show business, that to even contemplate going grey was sacrilegious. But, genetics had other opinions on that topic. I was Snow White around my face and the part, with the Seven Dwarfs in the back. Realistically, I should have dyed my roots every two weeks, but I added more and more highlights until I was blonde! Ugh! I dyed my hair for the last time on April 3, 2019. I actually like my grey hair and feel empowered and liberated. Choice is a wonderful thing. Do what makes you happy 😊

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      Well put. Personal choice is the answer. Doing what makes YOU happy, not what society says is right, is the way to go.


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