My 50 Shades of Gray

Photo by Anita Scharf
dorthy rice hair
Going gray: the author embraces her hair’s changing color.

A local writer examines what her hair has meant to her.

Like many women, my relationship with my hair is complicated. I’ve loved and hated it, often in the same day, and spent a small fortune trying to tame it.

My hair’s natural state is blah brown, and so curly/frizzy it gains more width than length as it grows—what a friend once called “pyramid hair.” I grew up in San Francisco’s Sunset District, in the 50s and 60s, and as every curly-headed girl knows, moisture is not our friend. What the city’s signature fog did to my mop earned me the childhood nicknames Brillo Pad and Bozo (as in Bozo the Clown).

I yearned for long, straight hair the way other girls dream of owning a horse. Hair like my younger sister’s. Hair like all the popular girls at school. Hair like the chick on “The Mod Squad.” To wear it down, in a ponytail, pigtails or braids. That was the impossible dream. If I had hair that could do all that, I could be anyone, do anything.

Mostly, Mom cut mine short. At the kitchen table, with blunt scissors, using a bowl as a guide. What she called a pixie cut.

During the 60s and 70s, the hair-scape improved, marginally. I had natural hippie hair and was sometimes called Jimi (after Jimi Hendrix, with his loose Afro). Not a look I’d aspired to, but loads better than Bozo. At least Jimi was cool.

In the 80s, during my David Bowie phase, I rocked what I hopedwas an edgy punk hairdo. Short and spiky on top, long enough in the back to wrangle an actual braida pencilthin one, but still. Photos now reveal it for what it really was: a mullet.

At 35, after the birth of my second child, gray hairs began sprouting in earnest. It never occurred to me not to cover the gray; altering my hair’s natural state was second nature. This was in the 90s. I was in a bad marriage and struggling at work. To escape reality and boost my confidence, I spent long hours at a salon a few blocks from Sacramento’s state Capitol.

Reverting to idols of younger years (Stevie Nicks, Rapunzel, a dash of Farrah Fawcett), I cultivated long, beachy waves, the furthest I could get from what my hair did on the natural. This meant double and triple processing, plus marathon, arm-numbing blowouts twice a week.

One lunch break, I crossed Capitol Park to the salon, enjoying spring before the 100-degree doldrums hit. Dani, the salon owner (whom I’d faithfully followed from shop to shop since my mullet days), approached with a ledger in her hands.

“You’re our No. 1 customer,” she said, her eyes magnified behind cat-framed glasses. “You’ve spent over double what any other client has.”

Her expression as she plucked at her blue-tipped mohawk was hard to read, but more surprised than pleased.

Um, I’m going to have Elena do you from now on,” Dani said. “She’s better with the blowouts and processing. I’m really more of a stylist.”

After a decade catering to my increasingly conventional hair whims, Dani was bored with me.

Despite the time and money lavished on my hair, the slightest hint of moisture and poof, frizz bomb. Even in Sacramento, far from coastal fog, I kept a tight-fitting cap in my purse or pocket. Better unseen or irreparably squashed than frizzy.

For the next 20 years—through a second divorce, the birth of a third child at 45, climbing the civil service career ladder from clerk typist to executive director of a state agencyI continued to spend a sizable portion of my paycheck fighting a losing battle against my hair’s natural inclinations. Root touchups, highlights, complete color changes, and every new, “miracle” straightening process I found advertised in the beauty magazines. Somewhere past 50, my scalp rebelled. It itched. I broke out in bumpy, red rashes. Then, after one excruciating, scalp-sizzling straightening treatment, entire fistfuls of hair cracked off at the roots.

I canceled all my hair appointments and went cold turkey.

When my graying roots had widened to a few inches, I hacked off the rest, which left me sporting a severe, saltandpepper helmet, not so different from the pixie cuts of my childhood.

As if by magic, I acquired a new superpower: invisibility. On the familiar streets of downtown Sacramento, acquaintances darted past me without a glimmer of recognition. I’d become a ghost. I fantasized about a new career as a jewel thief or spy—there was no chance I’d be identified in a lineup.

Thankfully, whatever its flaws, my hair grows fast. Within two years, it was long enough to tug into a reasonable facsimile of a French braid. Multihued strands twined between my shoulder blades like colorful embroidery threads. No more helmet of shame.

Women of a certain age began to sidle up to me on the sidewalk and in the Bel Air produce aisle.

“You are so brave,” they whispered. “My husband would never allow it.”

This Greek chorus assured me that while I looked great, gray hair would look awful on them.

The first few times this happened, I was flattered. Bravery was an improvement over invisibility. But when the reaction became predictable, it started to feel weird. It’s not as if I’d rescued a family from a burning building. Was I a hero for venturing out in public?

Enter my sisters, one older, one younger, both of them still raven-haired, thanks to the miracle of hair dye. We met for lunch at Tower Cafe.

As she took our orders, and without a moment’s hesitation, the pierced and tatted 20-something waitress congratulated me on my beautiful daughters.

“Motherdaughter lunches are the best,” she added, beaming down at us.

A lifetime of sibling rivalry reared its ugly head. I’d weathered invisibility. I’d basked in unearned heroism. But being mistaken for my sisters’ mother? I would not, could not, give them the satisfaction.

With humble apologies for the years I’d gone missing, I returned to my colorist.

Fastforward five years. At another lunch with my sisters and our partners, my older sister announced she was ready to go gray.

“Wouldn’t it be fun if the three of us did it together?” she asked.

My younger sister’s boyfriend—also in his ’60s, with gorgeous white hair—blinked at his beloved’s long, dark tresses. He pushed back his chair and blurted, “I didn’t know you dyed your hair.”

Awkward,” my older sister muttered, sotto voce.

“Mysister went gray,” the boyfriend added, dropping into a more somber tone, “I think it makes her look old.”

I’d met his sister. She didn’t look old. She looked her age.

I didn’t say anything. No point starting a family feud. But inside, I fumed. Why are men allowed to age gracefully, to own their years without being labeled old? And what’s wrong with old, anyway?

At 62, my inner ’60s activist roared to life. I went gray again.

My sisters didn’t. My younger sister, the one with the white-haired boyfriend, concedes she’ll likely go to the grave with long, dark hair. I don’t grudge her that choice. It’s hers to make.

My hair is now a long cascade of mixed gray, white and gunmetal, with a smidge of dyed brown left at the tips—a reverse ombré. For years, younger women have been paying to flaunt their dark roots in the name of fashion. I flaunt my lighter roots with no effort at all.

Before COVID-19 and the closure of all but essential services, I indulged in “cafe writing when I needed a break from my home office. On one such outing, the proprietor of a favorite coffee shop, a woman about my age, slipped from behind the counter to deliver my almond milk latte. I looked up from my laptop to thank her.

“I just had to tell you how much I love your hair,” she said. “It’s so sexy.”

From invisible to brave to sexy. In the decade since I first went gray, the hair color landscape had transformed. Beautiful, sophisticated, white, silver- and gray-haired models now grace the pages of fashion catalogs and magazines. Instagram style mavens, Facebook groups and blogs encourage women to embrace their natural, evolving color.

The self-distancing imperative added a new twist to evolving attitudes toward going gray. After months of missed visits to the hair salon, many women saw more of their natural color than they had in years. Some—like my older sister—decided that, having made it this far, why not let nature take its course.

Whatever women choose to do with their hair post-quarantine, I foresee a time when going grayor notis simply a personal choice. One that doesn’t raise the specter of ageism, sexism or unearned superhero status. One that doesn’t alter how a woman is perceived or how she perceives herself.

The impact of the coronavirus on lives, livelihoods and peace of mind has been catastrophic and enduringWhile an inch or more of gray roots is neither, your hair professional likely suffered financially during the quarantine. Gray hair needs love and care, too.

Who knows?—I may add purple streaks. After all, it’s only hair.