I have been busy growing my natural hair color for a year. It was a challenge to watch how salt and pepper replace dark brown, not so much because I’m worried about gray hair, but because growing out of a dye job really doesn’t look that good. It was indeed so challenging that this is my second attempt.
I won’t give in to Lady Clairol’s reputation at this point, but when I first tried to let the color grow out, I was standing at the bathroom table the day before my 46th birthday and had my hands wrapped in plastic with a holiday photo after seeing it by me with four months of natural growth. A shocking white glow in the temple made me run straight into the arms of a box of drug colors. I would not attend my own birthday party in such a miserable condition!
But I haven’t dyed my hair since then.
Although the 12-month mark is just a little over half for most women who grow their color – the typical transition period is 18 to 22 months, depending on how fast your hair grows and whether you are ready to really do it to cut short – it is far enough into the process that I know I can get to the end.
Last year I joined several Facebook groups set up as support systems for women with gray hair. It’s a little stab in the heart that women with gray hair need support groups, but the struggle is real. Whether you’re switching from color to natural gray or just controlling life as a woman with natural gray hair in a youth-oriented culture, you may face criticism from friends and family, workplace prejudice, and the kind of self-doubt that – if you having no people to lean on can result in a few hours on a colorist chair.
The Facebook group GGG Going Gray Guide was created by Jan Westfall Rogers, a beautician and author of the Going Gray Beauty Guide. The group has almost 15,000 members of all ages. I talked to five of them about their “Going Gray” experiences: Amanda Ball (46, picture above), Debbie Rodney (64), Kay Brooks (67), Gloria Cullins (71) and Sarah White (71).
When did you start coloring your hair?
Amanda: I was in my mid-30s.
Debbie: I started highlighting my medium brown hair in my 30s. Finally, in my 50s, the highlighting was just not enough to disguise the gray hair, so I went all brown. But my hair was dye-resistant and the white roots reappeared soon after leaving the salon. I went to a large-volume developer to try to keep it on my hair. It stayed a little better, but it made my hair so dark! Light golden brown dye looked black on my hair. My hair dried out and became thinner. I also had to dye it every two weeks so that the white roots didn’t show through. I still said “I will dye until I die.“I couldn’t imagine not dyeing, but I was so tired of chasing those white roots and planning my life for the next dye job. Honestly, I hated it.
Kay: I was 17 when I tried to hide the centimeter wide gray stripe from my hair. I would flip the part in my hair to hide this streak and I don’t think anyone ever noticed. It never occurred to me to dye my hair until much later, when I was 20, the streak got wider. I decided to color it myself, and to my dismay the gray turned orange. My new best friend became a beautician who saved me by frosting.
Gloria: I started playing with color on my hair in my late teens – just lemon juice in the sun to lighten it. It didn’t work that well, but it was the right thing to do. As a high school graduate, I was cast in one piece as an Indian virgin. I felt like the role that calls for black hair. I liked it so much that I kept it that way for a while. In my mid-20s, I became a hair model. My stylist wanted me to get either platinum or auburn. I chose reddish brown because of course I had a lot of red in my hair. I kept it red for about eight years before I lived in West Texas. The sun was so intense that my hair looked brass colored. At that time, I got the lightest blonde one-step color I could get and put it on my hair once a month.
Sarah: I was 34 when I first noticed that I was going gray. I dyed my hair black for 10 years (1985 to 1992 and then three years). I completely changed, then colored again and then finally changed.
Why did you decide that enough is enough and that you turn gray?
Amanda: I had dyed my hair brown for about four years when I decided not to use the hair dye. I couldn’t keep the color of my hair consistent. Tired of the smell, the chemicals, the mess, the time and the costs, I saw a woman in my circle of friends who stopped coloring. I was 39 when I stopped dyeing and went fully at 40.
Debbie: When I was 62, I joined the Going Gray Guide FB group. I have seen so many beautiful women with all kinds of silver and gray hair. It was really a moment of the light bulb. I immediately decided that I would not dye it again. It was an exciting insight! All these trips to the salon; all the money wasted; all the time I dyed my hair myself (I got color all over my bathroom); all the worries about showing my roots; Afraid to let the wind blow that would expose my roots to the world – in a moment everything was washed away and I felt like a free woman!
Kay: I enjoyed frosting my hair once, but I generally didn’t like having anything on my hair, so I let it grow out after that initial frosting.
Gloria: When I got to the point with this light blonde one-step paint where my roots didn’t show up because my hair matched them, I tried applying a golden blonde paint on my hair, but it just wouldn’t take time. I finally gave up and just stopped coloring. In the late 30s, I had completely switched to my natural hair color.
Sarah: I was tired of planning life / work events according to my coloring plan.
Some women get a pixie cut, others only have a white ankle due to the uncomfortable phase, others make highlights or lowlights to keep their natural color. Which transition technique did you use?
Amanda: I thought I would get my hairdresser to help me with the cut and color transition, but in the end I never colored it again. I was fed up with coloring and wanted to let it grow out as quickly as possible, so I decided to cut it gradually.
Debbie: Since my roots seemed to be very, very light and my dyed hair was very dark, my stylist recommended two options: bleach all my hair pale blonde or achieve heavy highlights. I chose the highlights. I highlighted it twice, about a month apart. All hair was bleached after the second visit. My stylist then applied a soft beige toner and cut it shorter to minimize the bleach damage.
Kay: I remember seeing this gray streak reappear when the frosting grew out, and I was so grateful that I still had this white hair and not the orange. I had long hair but didn’t think about cutting it off while I was growing out. However, there were many decorations along the way. I accepted my fate to have white hair until I asked my longtime stylist Mike to dye my hair at a weak moment in my 30s. He didn’t want to because he loved my white hair. After a while I persuaded him and the appointment was made for a Saturday. I received a call the previous Friday that Mike had passed away unexpectedly. I considered it an omen and again accepted my fate to have white hair and never looked back.
Gloria: The transition was so easy for me because I did it that way. I only gradually walked through the dark reddish brown, to a medium reddish brown, to a pale strawberry blonde, to my beautiful white. It took months, but it was so subtle that not many people noticed it unless they hadn’t seen me in a while.
Sarah: As soon as I was through the early skunk streak phase, I let it continue to grow. From an early age I was mainly pepper with salt. I got more silver with age and am now doing a pixie cut because my hair is so thin.
Between the negative feedback from friends and family and the harrowing skunk streak stage that some women struggle with, it can be emotionally difficult to finally drop the dye. How was the transition for you?
Amanda: It was terrible and lonely. I was really embarrassed. I didn’t have a support group or someone to encourage me. I was afraid of being rejected, especially at work. I kept my long hair pulled back tight and started cutting it gradually, getting shorter and shorter.
Debbie: I can honestly say that it was not difficult for me at all. It was a very positive experience. I laughed at it and was excited to see the progress I was making. I received encouragement and positive feedback from my family and friends. I was lucky enough not to get any negative comments at all. I kept my hair short and cut it every month during the transition. I cut off the last colored hair in seven months. I never looked back and never had a moment of doubt that I was doing what was right for me.
Kay: It was a struggle – a time-consuming and expensive struggle – to have this white hair, especially when I got older. Dealing with curls, waves, curls, occasional yellowing, thinning, not growing as they used to be, etc. I have drawers and bags full of products that I have researched or seen in stores and that I cannot walk away from because they may mine are saving mercy (until the next product comes). At the beginning of my gray age of over 40 years – without the internet and too young to have friends with whom I could exchange information – I was completely alone.
Gloria: I really had no problem. My hair was almost white so that I no longer had a skunk strip stage. When I saw my true color, I accepted it. Those closest to me thought I should continue coloring it while strangers loved my color. I have received so many compliments from friends and strangers, men and women. I loved that part. Some of my family members kept telling me I had to dye my hair. I told them I loved it the way it was. I’m not sure I would have been successful if I stopped coloring cold turkey. Being in the design business may have been a bit of a hassle for me, as my appearance was very important to build customer trust.
Sarah: It was easy when I was through the early skunk streak phase. My husband supported me. Strangers said how brave I was. Others said it would age me. My family didn’t care what I did as long as it made me happy.
What do you think about your gray hair today?
Amanda: Since I completely transitioned, I’ve had more compliments on my hair than I’ve ever had in my life. I love my hair now.
Debbie: I think I look so much brighter and healthier with my platinum silver hair. I think the light color flatters my skin and eyes. I would not consider going back to the dye for a second.
Kay: My white hair defines me now – how I dress and how I wear my makeup. I love it and am confident.
Gloria: I love my hair – color, texture and length. I was blessed with a great head of hair with natural curls, but not too curly, a beautiful color and the kind of texture that can do it all.
Sarah: I love it! I get a lot of compliments from strangers wherever I go.
Photos: Guillermo Umbria, Carl Madaffari
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