Why Can’t We Handle Naturally Gray Hair on Women?


Gray is here to stay.

A NEW STUDY from the Crown Clinic shows that, in the court of public perception, gray hair ages women twice as much as men. Clearly, the U.K.’s largest dealer in hair transplants might have an agenda in releasing that information to the public, but it reveals one very telling fact about our society: we can’t handle naturally-gray hair on women.

The #GrannyHair trend of 2015 celebrated silver locks on young women. The hottest celebs — including Dascha Polanco, Zosia Mamet, and Rihanna — embraced gray wigs, extensions, and dye. But even as adventurous fashionistas “dared” to go gray, hairdresser Nicky Clarke shamed the Duchess of Cambridge for having the audacity to show her natural grays a few months after the birth of her second child, Princess Charlotte.

Kate Middleton isn’t the only icon to feel the pressure to cover up her gray hairs. What Not to Wear star Stacy London has had her signature gray streak since age 11, and even stipulated in her Pantene contract that it could not be dyed. Don’t hold your breath waiting for another silver hair to pop up, though. In the world of western fashion, gray hair is a novelty for the young. After all, what’s the female equivalent of a silver fox?

Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

We celebrate gray hair on Anderson Cooper, Harrison Ford, and Anthony Bourdain, but expect their female counterparts to dye, dye, dye until they look ridiculous as perfect blondes and brunettes. Only then can Dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Glenn Close let their “youthful” dye jobs slip. Even then, it’s preferred to be a gradually lightening blonde than show your true — silver — colors.

I don’t say this to call out any of these actresses, or to shame anyone who covers her gray in general. Women’s fashion choices are their own to make, and everyone finds empowerment in a slightly different place. But the fact remains that Western society has no idea what it means for women to age naturally.

Moreover, there’s a brutal double standard at work when it comes to women and aging. That’s why we point and laugh when a 33-year-old mother of two lets her roots show, and act horrified when Uma Thurman, Renee Zellweger, and Meg Ryan — not to mention  social media’s latest victim, Lil’ Kim — step out with different-looking, post-procedure faces. In both cases, we ask: “Why would she do that?” And, in both cases, the reason we ask is the same.

Women who buck long-held trends do so at their own peril, but what’s the reward for the risk? In Going Gray: How to Embrace Your Authentic Self with Grace and Style, journalist Anne Kreamer explores how abandoning her dye routine changed her life. She tells The Guardian:

There are so many myths about going grey that … you realise are total hogwash. About how you’ll look old. About how you’ll look as if you’ve let yourself go. About how you can never have long hair again. About how you’re invisible. About how you’ll kill your career. It’s simply not true.

U.K. beauty brand White Hot Hair specializes in “products for grey and white hair” that “brighten, cleanse, condition and add shine and definition.” The company’s website provides community posts for women who have embraced natural aging. White Hot founder Jayne Mayled thinks that her niche market can help women combat the graying double standard: “Men who embrace their grey are treated as if they’ve found a cure for cancer. … Women … [a]re either brave or mad. It would be good to change that.”

Kreamer and Mayled are leading a movement to help women embrace their natural graying process. As with most sticky, gendered situations, nothing about the aging double standard will change without activism and purpose. In a sexism-charged corner of our lives, even the simple choice to put down the dye box or cancel your appointment is a form of activism. Camilla Palmer, the author of Kreamer’s Guardian profile, observes:

To me, the decision to go grey is political, too. I want my children to see what a real live middle-aged woman looks like. There aren’t really any grey-haired women under the age of 50 in the public eye — where are the women who are genetically wired to go grey early? I know they’re around — I can’t stop spotting them. Of every colour, age and walk of life, these women are motivated by political, gender, financial and style stances.

We need to know what women look like when they age naturally, but we have no metric. Everyone — from girls and young women, to middle-aged housewives, to the elderly— deserves to see what the progression of time looks like, without the fear that drives so many women to desperate procedures. We need to push back against the pressure to remain artificially young, and it begins with embracing the aging process that visits us all.