Not Dying to Stop Dyeing

The decision to start coloring my hair was easy; the decision to stop doing it is proving more complicated.

Like every other woman in my family, my first gray hairs sprouted in my late teens. We Brenoff women have terrific genes in just about every other regard - we dance well into our 90s and aren't plagued by much in the way of disease or debilitation. But when it comes to the color in our hair follicles, it's all over by 30.

At first, I lived by the hunt-and-destroy method, each morning facing off against the gray hairs that sprouted overnight. I yanked and pulled, but soon faced the inevitable: I would be bald if I didn't stop pulling out my hairs one-by-one. Plus it hurts.

And so I began to color. For the first decade or so, I dutifully scheduled appointments with the hairdresser every six weeks. But soon, that wasn't enough. My hair grows fast and within a month, I would be sporting a white skunk stripe down the middle. Given the expense of each salon appointment, I eventually switched to the do-it-yourself products from the drugstore. With the sacrifice of a few old tee-shirts and towels, it was nothing I couldn't handle.

As my cousin, who has been coloring her hair since she was 22, once observed, if a doctor diagnosed either of us with brain tumors, we likely would sob uncontrollably the whole way home and then color our hair before going in for surgery the next day. Think I'm exaggerating? For months, I used a product that burned my scalp to the point it turned raw, and still I colored.

Eventually, I found a hair-coloring product that didn't require 45 minutes of leave-in time -- and didn't burn my scalp. And I use it faithfully about once every 10 days, despite the instructions to wait six weeks between coloring.

Which leads me to how to stop. The truth is, I don't know how. I am reminded of a friend's grandma who, well into her 90s, found herself living with my friend's family. Lonely and having buried multiple husbands and all her friends, she deeply sighed one night at dinner and lamented how she wished she knew how to die. Her family of course dismissed such talk, but her words stuck with me. She didn't know how to stop what had been started. I get it.

That's kind of how I feel about coloring my hair. No one tells you how -- or when -- you are supposed to stop. Intellectually, I know there will be a day when I no longer color my hair. But how do you know when that day is? Will it be when my children go off to college? After my youngest child's wedding? At the birth of my first grandchild? Or will I be the little old lady in the nursing home who with her dying breath demands that the hair colorist be brought in for a final touchup?

I ask myself what propels me to keep my hair dark brown, when it long ago decided it wanted to be white. And the truth is, it has very little to do with fear of aging and a lot more to do with an unwillingness to look and, some might say, act my age. I'm one of those people frequently mistaken for someone much younger, and I admit I like it. So sue me.

Yet, I approach every woman I see with long flowing white hair and question her about it. I want to know both how the world sees her and how she sees herself. I also ask why she decided to stop coloring and am always shocked to hear many say they never colored in the first place. (That generally leads to mental calculations about how many schools could have been built with what I've spent in pursuit of brown hair.)

Yet my favorite story -- and yes, I collect "going gray" stories -- came from a woman friend who holed up on a small Greek island to write a book with the false assumption that she'd be able to find hair color there. Turns out that the only Greek colorings available were all unnatural hues of red and, with no real alternative, she went au natural for five months.

She wound up meeting the love of her life on that trip and as much as I'd like to put a fairy tale ending on this, the last time I saw her, she was a solid brunette again -- one who had developed a keen appreciation of head scarves and who had learned the lesson of never traveling without an emergency box of hair color. Amen, Sister.