I Stopped Coloring My Hair After 20 Years—And I Wish I’d Done It Sooner

Thinking of ditching the dye and embracing your gray hair? Find out why one woman wishes she’d taken the plunge sooner.

My stylist found my first gray hair when I was 16, and by my 20s, I’d developed a shock of gray near my right temple. That was the beginning of what would become an exhausting, decades-long coloring routine, doing my best to nail the right hair color so no one would know my secret. Although I had no doubt what had caused my gray hair—my dad was completely silver by 30—I was, after all, a young professional and felt too young to be going gray.

But I was tired of covering up. I looked around and thought about the older women in my community who had densely colored hair—it was so obvious they were covering a full head of gray! I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s the point?” And “Why, then, am I still coloring my hair?” I knew that it wouldn’t be any easier to grow gray gracefully if I procrastinated, waiting to take the plunge at, say, 60, 70, or 80. So, I decided to go gray now at age 48, before the other signs of aging set in.

Why it took me so long to go gray

I’d been looking into it for a while, doing online research to understand what to expect. One thing that made me drag my feet was knowing the transition would be very awkward. The first time I thought about it in any sort of a serious way, I remember looking at my calendar and thinking, Maybe after that class reunion. Maybe after that wedding. Maybe after…after…after. Eventually, it became clear that there was never going to be a perfect time. There would always be something on the calendar, so I just had to go for it.

My reluctance was also rooted in this idea that gray signals old, a baseless but age-old cultural bias. I had to confront the thinking that being brunette equaled beautiful and young, while being gray equaled unattractive and ancient. I tried to remember that those elderly women with jet-brown hair didn’t look any younger; it was quite the opposite, in fact. Plus, my goal had never been to look younger than I was—just to be a reasonable version of my current age, whatever that might look like.

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confident woman and her mother go grey at the same timeCourtesy JA Photography

My mom and I chose to go gray at the same time

Coincidentally, my 78-year-old mom transitioned to gray at the same time. We live in different parts of the country, so I had no idea that she was doing this. I mentioned to her on one of our phone calls that I was letting my hair “go gray,” and she responded, “What? Me, too!”

We spent some time on the phone comparing notes about which temporary rinses from the drugstore we were using to ease the growing-out phase. Turns out, we’d selected the identical brand and shade! So, it ended up being a mother-daughter affair, and it was fabulous to see each other after we’d both gotten through it, turning gray “together” from a distance.

Quitting the rat race of color was liberating…once the awkward phase passed

When I finally took the plunge, it was so freeing! I said goodbye to the scourge of tedious touch-ups—which I had had to do every three weeks, either with an at-home root touch-up kit or an expensive trip to my stylist. And after the drama of transitioning, it was pure joy to have a hair-care routine that was suddenly effortless. No longer did I have to babysit my color; all I had to do was periodically get trims. I even took the opportunity to grow out my bob past my shoulders. So now I have gray hair and long hair, apparently both no-nos for women my age. (Who makes up these rules, anyway?)

But let’s talk about that transition for a minute. I’m not gonna lie—if you do this, you’re going to look funny for bit. My motto became, “Wear it like you mean it.” And I did. I walked out the door with confidence, pretending I looked “normal.” Although it was awkward for a while, I knew there was no other way around it, and I was determined! That said, I did have some funny experiences. Once I was out to lunch with a friend, right when my hair was super odd-looking. It was half-faded color, half-white, so this extreme mixture of the two. The server delivered our food and lingered, speechless. Finally, he said, “Your hair is so amazing! It is like finding a spotted owl in the forest!” My friend and I had a hard time not bursting into laughter. He later came around with a giant cookie—on the house.

Going gray invited a lot of unsolicited opinions

My decision to go gray—which is a decision you can’t hide—also brought out the naysayers. I consulted my stylist, letting her know I was committed to doing this, and she was not interested in helping me at all. She adamantly opposed the idea because she was certain I’d look 10 years older. I really don’t believe it was because she saw it as a loss of business either, but rather that she equates beauty with youth and dark hair.

Also, while I was enduring the awkward transitional phase, I discovered that the elderly white-haired women from church were my most vocal, harshest critics. I actually thought they’d be my biggest fans, but nope, they scolded me, saying I was too young to go gray. But you know what? People now tell me that I look younger than when I was “auburn.” Isn’t that ironic!

Kathryn streeter and her husbandCourtesy JA Photography

Where I found support and encouragement

The only opinion that mattered to me was mine and my husband’s. Initially, he hesitated when I told him I wanted to stop coloring my hair, but a day later, he said to do what I wanted and that he’d love me no matter what. And guess what—he loves my gray! He truly thinks I am more beautiful today than when I was a L’Oréal brunette.

I also got a lifeline of support from an encouraging online support group. It was a forum of women who were all going through this, and we’d post pictures, share experiences, and exchange product recommendations for keeping hair soft during the process. It was great to be surrounded by women who were sharing the same experience, and I made some great friends in the process.

What I hear all the time now from friends and strangers

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been out and had strangers comment on my hair. When their spouse isn’t with them, men tell me they wish their wife would stop coloring. Women generally say something like, “I love your hair. I would do that, too, if only my hair would look like yours.” I assure them I had no idea what mine would look like, so how do they know what theirs would look like? Then, I offer my phone number so they can reach out for encouragement. I tell them I’ll be their biggest fan. Some of them have taken me up on it, and when they’ve gotten to the other side, they always say how grateful they were for the help.

I like to say, “Embrace what has been given to you.” Don’t hope to look like me or anyone else—just be you. After the long journey to go gray, the most fun I’ve had is encouraging and empowering other women to embrace their own age and appearance. It’s been super rewarding for me to watch others’ transformations and cheer them on because I know how hard it is, but that it’s most definitely worth the struggle.

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