Embracing the sea hag within.

growing up

I’ve been on the hair color pipe since 9th grade, addicted since my first bottle of Sun-In, seduced by the promise that blondes would have more fun. I remember the look on my mother’s face when she saw those first brassy streaks. It was the same expression she wore when I walked down the stairs, my shins covered in bandages, the day I decided to try out her razor.

“You have no idea what you’ve signed up for,” was all she could say.

Shortly after I turned 40, the tween age of an adult woman’s life, my hair caregiver gently worked into our conversation that she would need to start adding a base color to the hair in between my foil-covered blonde highlights, “just to cover the grays.”

“How much gray?”

“Oh, you know, some.”

“Should I let it grow in?”

“Lord, no! You are too young for gray!”

So color we did, as highlights morphed into full-on brunette. Then color I did, when there was just no way to get to the salon every three weeks to keep up with my fast-growing hair. Then color I wondered, when my husband asked if I were challenging the dogs to a shedding contest as he pointed to the dyed hair that had fallen out overnight and collected on my pillow.

I announced at that juncture, 18 months ago, that I was going to stop coloring my hair. I would stand in solidarity with a handful of girlfriends who were, by choice or circumstance of health, doing the same. I had a grand plan: I would wean myself slowly, switching to non-permanent color, adding in highlights as the gray grew in covertly. It would all happen seamlessly, elegantly.

I didn’t make it a month. I did not stand in solidarity with anyone, because there is no magic, elegant way to transform from an altered state to a natural one, and I had no intention of showing that stark, ugly line of demarcation. But that line kept threatening to advance.

If you are worrying about what comes next, know this: I am not embarking on a crusade for or against hair color. There are plenty of truly important crusades worth fighting, and hair color is a stupid issue by comparison. I don’t give a hot hoot what anyone does with Ms. Clairol. Nevertheless, I have a decision to make, one I’ve postponed long enough.

I have read skimmed Anne Kreamer’s book. I have eavesdropped on private salon conversations. I have thought about women and appearance and convention and my young children and the gossip. I have thought, and thought and thought about this silly, vain, ridiculous topic. And, for me, here is what I see:

What I do best in my work is solve problems. It is what I have done for more than 20 years with a good track record of success as a young, energetic change agent. But I am no longer that young wild card, and I hope to have 20 more years of career ahead of me. When a company is in trouble, suffering the fallout from some unwise folly, the people looking for a problem solver will invariably say, “what we need is someone with a little gray hair.”

What they mean, not consciously, is that they need a man with gray hair. And they mean a man because, Helen Mirren notwithstanding, so few women are willing to stand up as visibly well-seasoned – especially if doing so means having to survive that unattractive transition from pigment to pale. As Fievel’s dad said, if growing up were easy, it wouldn’t take so long.

Today it has been six weeks since my last dip in the dye. “By Thanksgiving you’re going to look like a sea hag, so you’re gonna need a kicking haircut,” JoBeth said 10 days ago when I told her this time I really meant it, I was giving up the hair color pipe.

And I do mean it this time, fully aware of what I’m getting into. I’ll be a sea hag for a while, embracing a different kind of adolescence. I know that on the other side I will look in the mirror and feel grown, complete with silver temples. And a kicking haircut.


  1. I applaud you Jennifer! I am still trying to highlight the gray and I’ve known for a while it’s not working. I’m keeping up the blonde highlights so they will mix with the gray in hopes no one will notice – ha. I’m almost there with you in giving the whole thing up and embracing my age and the gray. You will look fabulous!


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