Jessica Berger Gross | Longreads | July 2018 | 21 minutes (5,335 words)
We’re in London, somewhere between the British Museum and Piccadilly Circus. It’s Thanksgiving week, and my then 9-year-old and I have been winding our way through the late November afternoon on a marathon walking tour of the city. But now we’re lost. I stop a woman who looks to be in her mid-40s, about my age, to ask for directions, and I quickly realize that she’s one of them: attractive, fashionable in an appealingly unconventional way — and with completely, unabashedly gray hair. Forget the directions. I peel off my hat to show her what’s doing underneath, where I have three months’ worth of roots. “Brilliant. Keep going,” she says. “You won’t regret it.”
For years, and more and more in the past year or two, I’d see them on the street — the striking silver hair on an artist type in her 40s on the sidewalk in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side; the shock of a long gray braid down the back of a fiftysomething woman at a thermal spa in Iceland; the short, gray bangs and bob on my sixtysomething neighbors at the farmers market in rural Maine. The surprising beauty of a woman in her 30s with unexpected, natural gray. Not to mention all the millennials — and Kim Kardashian — dying their hair bottle gray.
Throughout my 30s I’d been a vigilant hair colorer, doing whatever it took to remedy and right the gray roots growing out from my middle part. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when coloring my hair went from an occasional, even enjoyable, splurge — an optional luxury — to a required part of regular beauty maintenance and of my looking professional and pretty. But as I entered my 40s, I found my feminist and aesthetic selves at war each month when I sat in the salon chair.
Then the world changed. The New York Times needle impossibly tipped the wrong way: Trump was elected. During that bleak late autumn and winter, after the fall foliage–filled weekends of knocking on doors for Hillary, I cried myself to sleep and woke up to the steady drum of anger and disbelief. Then, almost a year later, the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and I spent my evenings half ignoring laundry and bath time and bedtime, so that I could keep up with the #MeToo news cycle. Twitter went from a procrastination time suck to a daily engagement in feminist dialogue, with a fervor the likes of which I hadn’t felt since Women Studies 101. We’d entered a time of resistance against our abuser and pussy-grabber in chief and his cronies, and like so many women, I’d absolutely had it with the constraints of patriarchy.
Now more than ever, I resented — even hated — the dye. Having to dye my hair was one more patriarchal rule I didn’t have time or patience for. And Trump’s ridiculous orange dye job made me see the deceptive element in hair color and want to run even farther from the bottle. It’s not just that I didn’t want to keep up with the hassle and expense of coloring my roots a dark brown every four weeks and highlighting the rest of my hair every few months. I wanted to become the kind of woman who could give myself permission to go gray, who’d embrace authenticity and realness, and stop running from the reality of aging and mortality. But could I do it?