A Gray Area? Rethinking Hair Norms

Eager for authenticity, more women are celebrating their silver locks rather than hiding them, while more image-conscious men are choosing to color theirs.
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We've had the generation gap and the gender gap. Are we ready to tackle the "gray" gap?

As long as can be remembered, there has been a double standard about going gray. Men -- like George Clooney, Richard Gere and Bill Clinton -- not only expose their lightening locks, they seem to improve with them! Men who add color are sometimes left with that unnatural, strange orange look.

Now this may be changing. Products are better and vulnerabilities more apparent. On a recent NBC Today Show, I talked with Donny Deutsch about midlife graying. Donny -- looking great with his salt and pepper -- told me that more men were visiting salons these days, not only to color their hair, but for pedicures and manicures. The thing is, he said, "most men don't come clean about it ... I don't know one man who does. " I added that as we live longer, we are all challenged by our youth-obsessed culture, whether we talk openly about it or not. We both agreed that men were paying more attention to their appearance, but were less comfortable sharing their grooming routines with other guys the way women do.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing call to arms among women to resist anti-aging messages. Authentic beauty is in. Plastic is out. "Go gray!" we hear. "Be proud of your silver locks. It's cool, even sexy!" And while many women support the new trend -- especially when it comes to 'others' taking the leap -- there is still ambivalence about it all. "I would do it in a minute, if I wasn't scared I'd look like my grandma," or "I'm more than ready, but what will everyone else think?" are common responses. Even those who are eager to take the step say, "It's not being gray that concerns me, it's how to make the transition that does."

In spite of the wish to jump on the "50 is the new 30" bandwagon, most men and women express legitimate angst about the impact gray hair can have on their careers, their relationships and their self-esteems. Men want to seem hip enough to land good work. Women worry it will add years to their faces and possibly even send the message they are letting themselves go.

In truth, there aren't many visible female role models for this "go gray" movement. Not one of the 15 women listed among the Fortune 500 female CEOs had gray hair last year and only five of the 93 women in Congress show their gray. There are a few actresses, like Betty White, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, who proudly sport their white manes on screen, and even the occasional part that requires gray for the role -- remember Streep went white to play The Devil Wears Prada's Miranda? But public displays celebrating female gray are still rare and fleeting.

While bucking the five-decade long tradition of coloring gray hair raises a variety of fears among women, a "Gray Movement" does seem to be catching on. It is supported by our ever-increasing aging population; women interested in finding ways to look attractive, without resorting to radical measures to turn back the clock. And although men continue to have an easier time with their gray -- being viewed as distinguished, even elegant -- more have become cognizant of the pressure to appear younger that exists in our culture.

Women are fighting back by rebelling against age-defying campaigns and more men are recognizing that they are facing challenges of their own. The fact is, we all age and we all ultimately turn gray as we do. And, as we live longer lives -- with heads of gray for many more years than ever before -- the gender gap seems to be narrowing as we cope with this reality. In other words, things aren't so black and white anymore.

Some "gray" facts:

•Graying is a natural phenomenon that comes with age as follicles at the base of the hair shaft lose melanin.
•Graying is primarily genetically determined. We most often see gray when our parents and grandparents did.
•Poor nutrition, Vitamin B and iron deficiency, thyroid problems, albinism, smoking and other environmental toxins may also contribute to graying.
•Caucasians tend to start graying earlier (in their early 30s), than Asians (late 30s) and Afro-Americans (mid-40s).
•While, on average, most people begin to gray between the ages of 30 and 40, white hair can appear at anytime. People who go gray before 40 are considered prematurely gray.

Facts about our graying population:

•More than 40 percent of Americans will have some gray by age 40.
•If people didn't color their hair, half of our current population would be 50 percent gray.
•More than 50 percent of women color their hair. Approximately 15 percent of men do, although some say many more men keep it hidden.
•There are 78 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. The oldest turned 65 this year and 10,000 more will reach that milestone every year for the next 19 years.
•Last year alone, approximately 2 billion dollars were spent on women's hair coloring products and $150 million on men's.
•The average woman spends $330 a year on coloring her hair.

So, what are we to make of the rising interest in women letting their hair go gray and more men coloring theirs?

The double standard around going gray is rooted in the different roles that looks play -- and have played for thousands of years -- in men and women's lives. Let's remember that women's primary function throughout history was to attract a mate and procreate. Just a little over 100 years ago, the average life expectancy was about age 48, so that women often died before they had much white hair. As a result, there is a strong association between the appearance of gray hair and a woman's loss of fertility, as well as her value to society. This connection is likely hard-wired into the brains of both men and women. It's only since the feminist revolution that women's roles have widely expanded and their lives have extended beyond child rearing age. In the 1970s, when dyes and chemicals were found to safely remove gray, coloring hair became a routine way for women to avoid appearing old and feeling less valued.

In contrast, men's primary function throughout history has been as caretaker of their clan; to hunt and protect. For thousands of years, a man's value was based primarily on his strength and power. A little salt -- or even totally white hair -- was not, and still isn't necessarily, associated with the loss of that role. In fact, white hair was thought to mean greater hardiness, the ability to survive long enough to attain greater wisdom and increased power. Just think white wigs on our founding fathers. In Colonial times, many men wore wigs to look older and to enhance their patriarchal appearance.

As women's roles continue to expand, graying hair has the chance to be associated with more modern societal values. There are more women in the work force than ever before, many gaining high-level positions that come with added power and influence. With these advances come more visible gray hair and more women who embrace it as a style statement. It's not about letting hair go gray or being passive about one's looks, but about going gray in a proactive way.

At the same time, men have begun to feel less ashamed about caring for their appearances. Men are becoming more comfortable publicly making efforts to look younger, not only by dyeing their hair, but by sometimes admitting to regular use of plastic surgery and Botox. Once viewed as signals of vanity, insecurity or femininity, these grooming practices are increasingly viewed as routine ways for men to look good and keep fit as they age.

"To gray or not to gray?" It is just one of many choices that adults face as they age in the midst of a youth-driven culture. Eager for authenticity, more women are celebrating their silver locks rather than hiding them, while image-conscious men are choosing to color theirs. Another gender divide seems to be crumbling.

Do you think the double standard surrounding gray hair is changing? Are more women in your life considering letting their hair go gray? Are more men coloring theirs?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my websites at www.FaceItTheBook.com and www.VivianDiller.com. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit) or continue the conversation on Twitter.

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