Going Gray for 48 Hours

A woman tries out going gray for 48 hours to find out how gray hair changes the way people treat her.

By Mackenzie Brown
Had I not had gray hair myself, I probably would have written Frank off as a lech. As it turns out, he’s the most interesting and exciting man I’ve met in a while.A Little RespectFlirting may be easier in the wig, but shopping is definitely harder. At the Boston outpost of Lilly Pulitzer, where pink-and-green is forever and women of all ages buy classic shift dresses, the young blonde salesgirl smiles and says she recognizes my sundress. (I bought it at the New York store.) But she doesn’t bother to point out the sale rack or ask if I’m looking for anything special, as she does with the college-age customer who arrives shortly after I do. When I emerge from the dressing room in a caftan that’s way too big, she says it’s the only size left and turns her attention back to the coed. I make one last effort. "Do you have anything appropriate for a bridal shower?" I ask. "Really, anything in the store," she says, after trading annoyed glances with her coworker. Of course, maybe I’m getting the cold shoulder not because of my "age," but because I look like a wig-wearing weirdo.Leaving the store, I pass a bunch of kids sucking down cigarettes. A girl with a lip ring shouts, "You’re rocking the gray hair!" and she really does sound impressed. Her friend, a white kid in a Rasta hat, chimes in, "Cool granny." That’s right, you little punk.In New York, I make the mistake of trying to shop at Scoop, the current It Girl emporium, where it takes a full 15 minutes for a salesperson — a man with fake gray streaks in his hair — to acknowledge me. I realize I would feel out of place here even without the wig, if only because I have actual flesh on my bones. So I hop the subway uptown.As I sway along, I begin to notice all the older women on the train, the same way you notice pregnant women when you’re pregnant yourself. Having gray hair, I realize, has helped me find an assertive part of myself that rarely makes an appearance. Most of the older women I know make their own rules, regardless of whether they look their age. When I put on the wig, I inadvertently mimic their aggressive-but-polite behavior. I approach men. I badger salespeople until they pay attention to me. I even send my food back when a restaurant botches my order. You might say I grow up.On to Chanel. In the unlikely event that I am nominated for an Academy Award, I want Karl Lagerfeld to design my Oscar dress. Still, I’ve never felt comfortable shopping at the store. I’ve always felt too young and unsophisticated to try on those outrageously expensive clothes. But in my wig, I look, well, richer, like I belong in an $8,000 suit. Apparently the pretty, 40-ish saleswoman thinks so too. "Can I start you a dressing room?" she purrs. I rattle off my "I need something to wear to a bridal shower" spiel, and she guides me to a nubby pink-and-gray suit. "It came in this morning. It’s the only one we have in such a small size," she whispers conspiratorially. "Wear the jacket with jeans if you’re trying to look hip, or add pearls if you’re going for a more mature vibe." I hold the suit up to my body, visions of society fund-raisers dancing in my head — the same head that appears to be shedding all over the jacket! The saleswoman delicately picks the long gray hairs off my shoulders.Mortified, I scurry to the dressing room and try on the suit. And all of a sudden, I am a hologram. From one angle, I see me. From another, I see me with slightly wider hips and slightly thinner skin, the evidence of many summers spent in the sun: I see my mother. So this is it — this is what I will look like at my child’s college graduation or my 20th wedding anniversary. This is me with my life passing before my eyes in a dressing-room mirror. And it’s passing incredibly quickly: It seems like just last week I was trying on my mother’s clothes because I wanted to look her age. Now I see it’s possible to look her age — to be her age — and not begin to fill her shoes. I have my life, full of possibility, but I wonder if I’ll ever be successful enough to afford a Chanel suit, or have a child’s graduation to attend or a wedding anniversary to celebrate. My mother has had all those things, and they’ve made her feel accomplished and loved and safe.

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