No matter how dire the economy gets, no matter how broke women become, an essential truth remains: You’ll have to pry their hair dye from their cold, dead hands.
It’s not that the economic downturn hasn’t affected women’s priorities at all. The Professional Beauty Association reported that many have been extending the time between their hair appointments, foregoing facials, manicures and pedicures, coloring their hair at home and looking for other ways to save money. But go gray for the sake of frugality? No way, Jose.
Charla Krupp, author of the book “How Not to Look Old,” said that’s exactly how it should be — especially when the job market is so competitive. “Women cannot afford to go gray in this economy,” Krupp said. “When you’re competing for a job with someone who’s 10 years younger or 20 years younger than you are, being gray is the equivalent of wearing a necklace that says ‘57.’ Would you do that? You have to convey the message that you’re still in the game.”
Now brace yourselves, ladies: Krupp’s analysis goes even further.
“I tell women, ‘Go gray at your own risk,’ ” she said. “Going gray is step one of letting yourself go. There’s also letting your wrinkles show, getting fat, having bushy eyebrows. C’mon!”
To a small but increasingly vocal band of “gray-and-loving-it” women out there, Krupp’s sentiments represent fighting words. Many women who embrace their natural gray say they feel more content and more connected to their authentic selves. Plus they say their lives are less stressful: No more lengthy appointments to have their hair colored. No more panic when gray roots begin to show. And, they point out, just think of all the money they’re saving.
Anne Kreamer, an author in her 50s who described her transition to gray hair in the book “Going Gray,” estimated that she spent about $65,000 on hair color over a 25-year period.
“If I had invested that money, my daughters’ college education or my retirement would have been taken care of,” Kreamer said. “It is an actual choice that makes a difference in people’s pockets.”
But does she truly enjoy having gray hair?
“I adore it,” she said. “It’s thrilling. It’s fantastic. My hair is shinier, healthier, more vibrant. People ... stop me, literally, on the street to tell me, ‘I love the color of your hair.’ That never once happened in 25 years of dyeing my hair.”
As liberating as all of that sounds, Kreamer readily acknowledges that she’s in the minority.
“There’s not a single female senator with gray hair,” she noted. “Not a single female newscaster with gray hair. You can count celebrities on one hand: Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Morrison, Emmylou Harris. For women to have a genuine sense of this being an option, a lot more women who are professionals will have to go silver, gray, alabaster or what have you.”
Sometimes all that glitters can be silver as well as gold, as these celebrities prove by showing off their gray pride.
Sometimes all that glitters can be gray, as these entertainment and political stars prove by proudly displaying their silver hairs.
Earned Gray Hair By: Playing charming and likable scam artists/scoundrels in such films as "Out of Sight" (1996), "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) and "Burn After Reading" (2008), as well as through exposing and campaigning for the Darfur crisis.AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
Birth date: 01/05/1946
Earned Gray Hair By: Putting up with difficult men like Michael Corleone, Woody Allen and Jack Nicholson in such films as "The Godfather" (1972), "Annie Hall" (1977), "The First Wives Club" (1996) and "Something’s Gotta Give" (2003).Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 08/31/1949
Earned Gray Hair By: Sweeping leading ladies like Lauren Hutton, Debra Winger and Julia Roberts off their feet in such films as "American Gigolo" (1980), "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982), "Pretty Woman" (1990) and "Nights in Rodanthe" (2008).Getty Images / Getty Images
Jamie Lee Curtis
Birth date: 11/22/1958
Earned Gray Hair By: Trying to avoid horrifying death in such "Scream Queen" classics as "Halloween" (1978), "The Fog" (1980), "True Lies" (1994) and "Halloween: Resurrection" (2002).Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 06/03/1967
Earned Gray Hair By: Reporting the hard breaking news and asking the tough questions as anchor of CNN's show "Anderson Cooper 360."AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
Birth date: 07/26/1945
Earned Gray Hair By: Working hard as an actress, earning Emmys for "Prime Suspect" and an Oscar as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" along the way.Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 11/09/1972
Earned Gray Hair By: Saving patients' lives and seducing nurses or fellow residents as Dr. Mark Slone of ABC's hit TV show "Grey’s Anatomy."AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
Birth date: 01/19/1947
Earned Gray Hair By: Being an Emmy-winning TV cook, running a Savannah, Georgia, restaurant with her sons, and publishing five cookbooks.AP / AP
Birth date: 12/29/1947
Earned Gray Hair By: Serving drinks and talking about his ex-baseball days at the bar where everybody knows your name in the classic TV show "Cheers."Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 12/09/1934
Earned Gray Hair By: Being one of England's greatest actresses, earning an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and a Tony -- as well as trying to control 007 as M in the James Bond movies.Getty Images / Getty Images
Robert De Niro
Birth date: 08/17/1943
Earned Gray Hair By: Seeking revenge on those who attempted to kill him in such "mobster" movies as "The Godfather Part II" (1974), "The Untouchables" (1987), "Goodfellas" (1990) and "Analyze This" (1999).Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 04/02/1947
Earned Gray Hair By: Forging a long music career that has garnered her 10 Grammys over 29 years, as well as suffering the devastating loss of music partner Gram Parsons, who died of a drug overdose in 1973.AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
Birth date: 07/13/1942
Earned Gray Hair By: Fighting the dark side, hunting down replicants/androids and recovering important artifacts in such films as "Star Wars" (1977) "Blade Runner" (1982) and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008).Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 08/24/1970
Earned Gray Hair By: Pinning politicians down with tough questions as moderator of NBC News' "Meet the Press."AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images
Birth date: 11/03/1956
Earned Gray Hair By: Rising from blue-collar background in Salt Lake City to a successful comedy and acting career (not to mention surviving criticism of her performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a 1990 baseball game).Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 09/02/1951
Earned Gray Hair By: First from working long shifts at the hospital as "St. Elsewhere" (starting in 1983) and then from conducting criminal investigations involving the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps in "NCIS" (starting in 2003).Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 02/20/1956
Earned Gray Hair By: Making political satire and sociopolitical commentary every week as host of HBO’s "Real Time."AP / AP
Birth date: 10/27/1924
Earned Gray Hair By: Working for civil rights with her late husband, actor Ossie Davis, as well as forging a distinguished acting career that has spanned some 60 years.Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 08/19/1946
Earned Gray Hair By: Serving as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993-2001, writing his autobiography "My Life" in 2004 and campaigning with his wife Hillary during her 2008 presidential run.AP / AP
Birth date: 05/15/1948
Earned Gray Hair By: Governing the state of Kansas from 2003-2009 -- and serving as the 21st Secretary of Health and Human Services.Reuters / Reuters
Birth date: 11/28/1962
Earned Gray Hair By: Having to be funny every night as host of Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show."Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 04/30/1926
Earned Gray Hair By: Winning eight prime-time Emmys (more than any other actress) and an Oscar for "The Last Picture Show" (1971) -- only to be eliminated from "Dancing with the Stars."Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 05/25/1969
Earned Gray Hair By: Seeing the frightening clothes in peoples’ wardrobes before she helps make them over on TV’s "What Not to Wear."Getty Images / Getty Images
Birth date: 1827
Earned Gray Hair By: Being an undead vampire on "The Munsters" (her real-life portrayer, actress Yvonne De Carlo, died in 2007 at the age of 84).Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Birth date: 06/22/1949
Earned Gray Hair By: Letting it go that way for her performance as a domineering magazine editor in "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006) -- garnering her an unprecedented 14th Oscar nomination as well as a Golden Globe.20th Century Fox / 20th Century Fox
Indeed. It doesn’t matter that Meryl Streep’s hair looked fabulous in “The Devil Wears Prada.” It doesn’t matter that U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is just plain cool-looking. Most women aren’t ready to go gray. Not yet, anyway. These days, 50 continues to be the new 30 — in large part thanks to hair dye.
Todd Bush, a longtime hairstylist in New York City, suspects that people will keep coloring their hair no matter how many celebrities and power brokers go gray in their lifetimes.
“I’ve never once in 24 years had someone come in and say, ‘Make me look like Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show. I just love that steel-blue-gray thing she’s rockin’,’ ” Bush said. “I don’t think I ever will.”
Why hair color gets us so worked up
What is it about hair color that triggers such an emotional response — and such a willingness to spend money — from so many of us? While this area of life may initially appear to be trivial, superficial or even silly, a closer look reveals that it’s anything but.
In short, people’s hair color is intimately tied to the aging process. And for many women — and men — aging is not trivial or silly at all. It’s downright serious. This helps to explain why hair color can get us thinking about our identity, economic viability, fertility and even mortality.
“How many things can you control as you age?” asked Linda Warber, a Seattle hairstylist for the past 24 years. “A lot of things you can’t control. Which is why people turn to color: It’s something you can control relatively easily.”
Kreamer said it goes even deeper than that.
“Everyone has a mental picture of when they looked their best, when they were at their peak of everything — physical powers, mental powers — and that’s the look that people want to freeze,” she said.
“But the reality is that we’re a constantly evolving creature. You can’t stop it in any way, shape or form. If you embrace your biological age, you can actually extend your life expectancy. They’ve done studies that point to that.”
Kreamer added that we don’t fool anyone about our biological age when we dye our hair. While doing research for her book, she learned that people can still guess others’ ages pretty accurately regardless of their hair color.
So why bother, then? Experienced hairstylists say there’s a reason — albeit an unfair one.
“It’s cliché but true: When men go gray, they look distinguished. Women look old,” said Bush, the New York stylist. “I mean, how many women with gray hair are sex symbols? How many female George Clooneys, Steve Martins and Anderson Coopers are there? None that I can think of.”
David Stanko, a hair colorist at the New York salon Angelo David and a hair-color consultant for Redken, stated it even more plainly.
“In actual fact, gray hair is not that attractive,” Stanko said. “It’s rare that you have the Olympia Dukakis snowy-white, beautiful look. Or Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ — her hair looked snowy and white and clean. Just like gray paint, just like soot and dirt on your car, gray hair just looks dirty and old and unkempt.”
This impression of gray hair keeps us buying all those boxes of Clairol or Just For Men, or rushing back to the salon every five weeks. And even though those hair-color appointments require a significant time commitment, Stanko noted that those very appointments often represent the only real break a busy woman gets.
“It’s a haven for women,” he said. “They can turn off the BlackBerry. They can talk about themselves, or just sort of space out a little bit. It’s comfort time. It’s me time .... Plus it keeps people feeling good. When your hair is cut and shiny and colored, it’s like buying a new blouse.”
A symbol of self-acceptance
Autumn Lingle, one of Warber’s clients in Seattle, said she loves going to the salon and having her hair done. These days, though, she’s going in for cuts only, not for color.
Her decision to abandon the dye after years of maintaining a dark brown color had nothing to do with money or time.
“It was extreme self-acceptance,” she said. “When I turned 50, I accepted who I am. I still wear makeup. I still work out. I eat really healthy. I just thought, ‘This is it, folks. I’m not going to pretend anymore.’ ”
Lingle has been struck by how many of her friends have praised her for being so brave for going gray.
She figures her decision will save her about $1,200 a year — a sum of money she can use to pay for textbooks for her daughter in college. It’s also made her happy to think that her new look could give her more gravitas in her city government job in a suburb of Seattle.
The biggest motivation for giving up color, though, involved wanting to be herself.
“I like it. It’s very freeing,” Lingle said. “There’s some power in age and some relaxation with it.”
Lingle was hit with an unexpected plot twist, though. Not terribly long after her decision to go gray, she learned that the city government she worked for was cutting positions, and she would be losing her job.
Would she reconsider coloring her hair again before heading out on job interviews? She paused for a minute, then answered.
“No, I’m not going to dye my hair. I’m going to go as I am, take it or leave it,” she said with a laugh. “It will be interesting.”