One of the first people I tell about my decision is Cathy, a childhood friend living in Lawrence, Kansas. She e-mails back, "That’s so funny. Just last week, I had a lot of white highlights put in my hair for the exact same reason! I’m hoping it grows out that beautiful snow color, but I fear it’ll be more like old lady pubes. (But hey, Emmylou rocks! My husband is totally hot for her.) And you’re going to be one of those fabulous-looking white-haired women in great scarves and sweaters over cigarette leg pants. There are few really stylish white-haired women here," she continues. "Most of my friends color. The gray hair tends to be on the college professors: long and unkempt or — ugh — braided. Makeup is critical, I think. Even with my white streaks, I find myself wearing brighter lipstick (which, in my case, is Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer in Raisin). It makes all the difference. Fun!" Cathy’s instant feedback is inspiring. "Cool," I think, "I’m part of a movement!"
I am now consciously assessing my overall look. I begin to realize that having freshly dyed hair has always seduced me into believing I had camouflage for a multitude of sins: the extra 10 pounds around my waist, the out-of-date Polartec leisure clothes. I’ll need to peel off layers of denial. Or maybe to be slightly kinder to myself and abandon a certain inertia. First on the list: Join a gym. Losing the extra weight could boost my confidence and counterbalance the insecurity I may feel as my hair goes gray.
It’s a real struggle. How to reconcile my cheerleader-like enthusiasm for the principle of an authentic self with the reality of my roots growing in? The pep talks do zero to address how crummy my hair actually looks. What if, at the end of this experiment, I’m reborn as an old hag? I obsess about other women’s hair. Super-blonde looks white to me; salt-and-pepper seems drab; all New York City women seem to have that telltale halo of root residue around their faces. But no one else has inch-long roots!
I am in a total funk, mourning the end of my youth even though I haven’t been "young" for some time. My mother and grandmother both colored their hair until the day they died (my mother at almost 70; my grandmother, over 90). I imagine my mother’s response to my going gray: "Why don’t you just perk up your color a bit? You’ll feel so much better about yourself."
Okay, I’m on the emotional high-diving board. Letting my hair go white (which will be the color, of course — no dingy gray for me) isn’t coping with illness or real loss, for Pete’s sake. "It will be fine" is the mantra I repeat to myself. And if it isn’t, I can always dye my hair again, right? I realize that giving up artificial hair color is the last step in my evolution away from corporate executrix. In the 1990s, I was an executive vice president of Nickelodeon, where I often felt like I was wearing someone else’s Armani uniform. Now I’m crafting my individual self: freelance writer and mother, no longer defined by my title and what I wear.
I am not brave enough to go cold turkey. Having a giant skunk streak down the middle of my head, I discover, is a horrifying prospect. So I work with my colorist to soften the transition; she puts in blonde highlights that will blend in with the gray roots as they grow. She puts a toner over the whole thing to blur the edges between colors even further. I’m not so sure about this strategy — I look like I’m trying to go blonde, not white. I trust her to know what she’s doing. I was addicted to color, and if I need the colorist’s equivalent of Nicorettes or methadone to help me break free, so be it.
It’s my 49th birthday, and I’m feeling okay.
I have lunch with a male friend whom I haven’t seen in some time, and he tells me that I look like a movie star. You can’t beat that feedback! Then again, I’m actually ash-blonde right now. So what’s he really commenting on?