“Your hair is stunning.” I never expected to hear something like this. In my mind I would get grotesque stares and whispers. As I walk by, I would hear people say things like “Wow, she looks old” or “There goes the Crypt Keeper.” Stunning, I was unprepared for, especially considering my husband Jim and I were at a charity gala in Houston. The other women in attendance were perfectly made up, had long hair, and absolutely no one had a strand of gray.
My decision to go gray stirred up a lot of emotions and anxiety. Fear is probably a better word than emotions and anxiety. I was down right terrified. In addition to being terrified I had an identity crisis. If I wasn’t the tall red headed girl, then who would I be?
I colored my hair once or twice for fun before I got serious about covering up my grays. I was in my early twenties when gray hair started taking over my scalp. In my mind, gray hair was a sign of being old and in my twenties old was not what I wanted. I wanted to have fun and go dancing. No one had gray hair at the club, except maybe for the creepy old guy. I didn’t want to be the creepy old lady. So I started the ritual of coloring and maintaining.
For a while I was a blonde. I guess I wanted to find out if blondes do have more fun. But I eventually settled on red, Ferria 56 to be specific. For years that was my go to. Every 4 to 6 weeks I would hit the drug store, grab a box, and cover up the strip of gray that revealed itself where my hair parted.
This was my routine for nearly two decades. After Jim and I got married it was something we did together. We met a man who would color his wife’s hair and Jim decided it was something he could do to. Coloring my hair was one of the ways we would bond.
So the decision to stop coloring my hair was one I did not take lightly. I had turned 39 a few months earlier. Somehow the idea popped into my head. Maybe it was because I was tired of coloring my hair, maybe I was tired of the maintenance, maybe I was just tired of spending the money, maybe it was because 40 was knocking. Really I’m not sure what the catalyst was, but the idea was there and once it settled in my head I decided to do it. Well I decided to do it once I knew I had Jim’s support.
While I pride myself on being an independent person, this was one decision where Jim’s opinion mattered. I knew it was important that Jim find me attractive. And if he was going to be turned off by me having gray hair, I needed to consider that. He was for it.
October in 2013 was the last time I dyed my hair. We had one more box of hair dye in the house and instead of waste it, we used it. The last dye gave me time to reflect on my decision and to talk to other people about their ideas and thoughts about gray hair.
One of the first things I heard from people when I decided to go gray was it was brave. Brave was not the word I would use. I guess I associate brave with running into a burning building to carry someone to safety. But as people shared their stories I heard some very interesting things. What I discovered was the decision to dye or not to dye had a great deal to do with when the grays started to show. Most women who started graying early were more likely to cover it up but most who started to go gray later were more accepting. The women who were okay with going gray tended to see it as a rite of passage. Gray hair was an indicator of experience and wisdom.
It took several months to get my hair long enough to cut out all of the red. I was planning on going short to get all the red out. I asked Jim how I should cut it, without hesitation he said I should have it look like Carol from “The Walking Dead” because she is a bad ass. At the time I was not a fan of the show (only because I am a huge scary cat). I did a Google search and found a few pictures of Melissa McBride and showed them to Jim. He said yup, that’s how you should cut it.
Now, I was not only going to lose my red hair but I was going to cut it super short. Enter identity crisis.
This was about the moment I began to wonder who in the world I would be after I cut my hair. It never occurred to me just how much a part of your identify is wrapped up in your hair. Up to this point in my life, I was known as the tall red head. And I was on the brink of losing that. If I wasn’t the tall red head would would I be, the tall older looking woman?
My hair got long enough and it was time to figure out who this new person would be. Two months after my last color I went into SuperCuts to chop off all the red. I failed. I got most of the red out but I was too chicken to cut it all off. My brave lasted until I sat in the seat to cut my hair. I think the girl cutting my hair was just as nervous as me. Who wants to be responsible for taking shoulder length hair and cutting it down to about an inch of hair?
About a week later I decide to go all in. This time instead of going alone I bring Jim with me. I show the stylist the picture saved on my phone. “I want my hair to look like this.” The stylist hesitates, she even looks back at my husband who gives the nod of approval. Next thing I know the clippers are on buzzing away, followed by scissors removing the last traces of red from my hair. Identity crisis number two.
The person I see in the mirror shocks me. I even try sneaking up on the mirror, but the person looking back is a stranger. I just don’t know who she is.
The first few days after cutting my hair I was afraid to go out and show people. I was so nervous about their reactions, especially people who know me. Reactions varied from people who thought I was going through chemo (but wouldn’t say anything, just gave sympathetic stares) and people who thought it looked awesome.
It didn’t take long before I settled into this new person. And here is the thing, I liked her. I discovered that I was allowed to say things that when my hair was red would get people infuriated. My life was simplified, in part because my hair was super short and easy to manage, but I was also not worried about maintaining my color.
My husband still thought I was sexy. My daughter still called me mom. My family loved it. And my friends stayed my friends.
Looking back now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But in the moment changing my hair felt huge. Maybe when you stop the dye, you meet the real you.