The life-changing magic of discovering gray hair

Gray is the perfect neutral.
Gray is the perfect neutral.
Image: Reuters
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You are older now than when you started reading this sentence, which means you’re just a little bit closer to death. And that’s terrifying. So it’s no wonder that we fear signs of aging. Gray hair, which can be easily dyed, is something many people prefer to hide.

But grays are nothing to be ashamed of. They can be a point of pride, as Selma Hayek, 52, noted on Instagram in February when she posted a photo highlighting her incoming grays, saying she’s proud of them. Hayek also points out that the grays serve as a reminder that time is short. “One of the reasons I don’t dye my hair is because I don’t have the patience to sit through it,” she told The New York Times in 2017. “I don’t want to spend what’s left of my youth pretending I’m younger and then not enjoying life.”

Hayek is not alone. Women worldwide are increasingly embracing gray hair and, with that, themselves. Although it may not seem like such a radical proposition on the surface—after all, it’s just hair—the change indicates a deep transformation. It is one more sign that ideas of what constitutes beauty are shifting and expanding to include all kinds of people—even those older than 30!—and that cultural pressure to conform to a particular aesthetic is giving way to the movement toward authenticity.

Personally, on the cusp of my 47th birthday, I’m pleased with the development. The timing is just right for me. After decades of dying my hair at home for fun, I developed an allergy to dye in my early 30s, having forgotten all about a bleach job I was doing while studying for a contracts law exam which left me with a tingling brain and a blistered scalp. Long before my head healed, I swore to never color my hair again. At the time I had no grays, but I knew that when they came, they’d be staying. Even a less toxic dye means tampering with my hair, which I came to realize was totally fine, whatever color it was.

Now, I do different things when I need to switch it up or pass the time, like considering a new pair of glasses for my dwindling eyesight and counting the sprouting grays. I spot new strands frequently, and for some reason, they delight me. Each seems like a small victory, a sign of arrival. I don’t know which of life’s many stresses prompted the change, or if it’s just, well, age, but I consider their presence a kind of triumph. They show I’m a survivor, and seem like a tribute to my strength.

One reason for the delight might be my aesthetic preferences. I’m a fan of the uneven, the imperfect, the scarred, and the scratched. I love frayed jeans and worn sweaters, exposed seams and big stitches, blemishes, bleach marks, and paint splotches. When it comes to fashion and art, I favor that which has endured and shows the marks of time over that which is shiny and new.

Gray hair, moreover, is a kind of personal kintsugi (金継ぎ). Kintsugi, or gold splicing, is an ancient Japanese practice that uses the natural cracks and breaks in pottery to highlight a piece’s beauty. It calls attention to the lines made by time and rough use, emphasizing them rather than hiding them. This practice—also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い ), which literally means gold mending—derives its beauty from breaks and imperfections. Similarly, I see my incoming grays as a delicate silver paint that signal my value. I’m not an old bowl to be thrown away, but one whose experience and endurance merits extra appreciation!

Perhaps more importantly, graying is natural, and fighting natural processes seems like an exercise in futility. Graying happens when your body stops generating melanin between the ages of 34 and 44 in both men and women. At that point, when hair falls out and grows back, the new strands are often stripped of color. It takes time, money, and effort to pretend there’s melanin where there is none and it won’t change the underlying facts.

None of us are getting any younger, so why not start appreciating that age has many benefits, of which the young know nothing? One of the upsides of getting older, for example, is feeling less pressure to conform and more freedom to be yourself. You stop trying to be pleasing to others and start to understand better what gives you pleasure. Another benefit of aging is that you mellow, like a fine wine, and realize that resistance is taxing and that acceptance is relaxing. So you get wiser about picking your battles, and more conservative about expending precious energy and resources.

I may not wish to go gently into that good night—but like Hayek, I also won’t spend my remaining time trying to recapture the past. Youth may be wasted on the young, but the older, wiser me knows better than to waste middle age feigning youth.