Meet The Young Women Redefining What It Means To Go Gray

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I still remember that excruciating moment when a colleague stood over my chair, squinted at the top of my head, and said loudly: "Are you going gray?" Thanks. I was 25 and really had no desire to draw attention to the silvers starting to poke through my naturally dark hair. Not long after that, I started getting my hair colored to cover those stubborn strands. But over the years it's left me wondering: Why do we have such an issue with gray hair?
"People usually notice their first grays in their early 30s," says trichologist Anabel Kingsley of leading London hair clinic Philip Kingsley. On average, Kingsley says, over half of our hair will be white (unpigmented) by our 50s. But she adds that hair can start turning gray much earlier for some people, and is strongly reliant on genes.
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So our parents and their hair history can be a strong indicator of when we’ll start to go gray. Jessie Young, a 21-year-old student from London, admits she was a little shocked to find her first gray at 15, but it wasn’t completely unexpected. "My mum was entirely gray by 30," she says, "so I guess that affected my feelings about it because there was some sense of inevitability." Although she currently has no desire to cover the grays she has, Jessie says she’ll see how she feels in a few years when it becomes more noticeable in her brunette hair. "I hope I can just embrace it," she says. "I’ve dyed my hair white before, and if it happens naturally then it will be a lot cheaper to keep up."
Martha Truslow Smith, of Charlotte, North Carolina, decided to stop dyeing her hair two years ago at the age of 24, when she realized that the stress of "falsifying an appearance" and covering her roots was chipping away at her self-esteem. She says it created "a miserable pattern I could see myself locking into, like so many women, for years to come." She set up an Instagram account, Grombre, that now boasts more than 8,000 followers, both to give her encouragement on the hard days when she was growing out her hair, and to create a platform to celebrate the beauty of gray hair. She’s strongly in favor of reframing the conversation to move it from being something to be ashamed of to something to be loved.
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"I am so sick of being told what to look like," Martha says, insisting that it's important for women to take control themselves. "I don’t think women have suddenly lost any taboo or shame of gray roots. Growing them out takes profound bravery that often doesn’t go unnoticed, for better or for worse, but what I’ve found to be more powerful than any negative words is the ability to look in the mirror and be able to see myself, not a version of me others have told me to construct." Katie Petersen, 34, from Portland, Oregon, agrees. After deciding to stop coloring her hair a year and a half ago, she now rocks a neat brown bob streaked with silver. "I know it’s hard not to worry what others think, but ultimately, do what feels right for you," she says.
"Nobody really cares about your gray hair as much as you do."
Martha warns, though, that going gray shouldn’t be considered a trend and that embracing it isn’t for everyone – and that is okay. Beauty journalist Sali Hughes has brilliantly documented the trials and tribulations of her own graying hair and insists on the right of every woman to make a decision that suits them, be that ditching the dye or grabbing it with both hands. Writing for The Pool, Sali declared: "All we 'should' be doing, as ever, is encouraging women to do with their bodies whatever they damn well please."
It is undeniable, though, that despite gray hair positivity and platforms such as Grombre, there is still a stigma attached to graying hair, especially when it begins prematurely. As such, our relationship with our locks losing their color can be complex, and one we don't always feel comfortable talking about. Personally, I was struck by how many friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers shared their stories, once I asked the simple question: "When did you find your first gray?" If I thought I was the only one who'd found more and more gray hairs before my 30th birthday, I was most definitely wrong.
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One 27-year-old who got in touch but didn’t want to be named described how she had spent almost an hour the night before her wedding plucking out every single gray hair she could find — almost 100 strands in total. Although she doesn’t color her hair, she does admit feeling both self-conscious and conflicted over it: "Rationally, it doesn’t make sense to spend money on, but it sticks out and bothers me."
A 31-year-old who spotted her first gray at 17 told me how a streak of silver hair on one side of her head makes her feel self-conscious, despite reassurance from friends that she’d look cool leaving it uncovered by root spray (a non-permanent color in a can, which she says has been a game-changer for her as she can dye her hair less frequently). "I get self-conscious about it because I think it ages me and I don’t like how it looks on me," she says. "Some of my guy friends said it would be cool if I let it grow out as a streak but I don’t know if they’d say the same if I was gray all over."
Elizabeth Hodge, a 31-year-old mother of four living in Florida, was 13 when her mom spotted her first gray hair. "At the time we just laughed about it but over the next couple years the gray hair quickly multiplied," she explains. "By the time I was 15 some friends would tease me about it and pull one out to look at it in amazement." At 17, her cousin, a hairstylist, began coloring her roots every four weeks. But after a decade of this routine, Elizabeth decided enough was enough. "I didn’t want to spend the time and money, and also I was curious about what my natural hair looked like," she says. "I was frustrated with the apparent general expectation that young women don’t have gray hair. I got my premature gray hair from my dad and he was never pressured to color it; in fact, his good looks were often attributed to having gray hair."
Anabel agrees that there is a double standard between the sexes when it comes to going gray. "It’s generally acceptable for a man to sport gray hairs," she says. "It’s even thought of as attractive and distinguished — hence the phrase 'silver fox.'" But for women, she says, it can be a different story: "It signifies becoming less desirable and is associated with the negatives of aging. The fact of the matter is that society puts more pressure on women to remain looking youthful."
Whether you choose to dye your hair, leave it natural or streak it through with whichever
color suits your mood, in the complex world of graying hair and society's relationship with it, there is only one solution, and Sali said it best: Do whatever you damn well please.
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