When I meet someone for the first time, it is not uncommon that they stare quizzically at my hair, instead of my face, during the conversation. After a minute, some bolder folks come right out and say, “Is your hair naturally gray like that?” Some people think I’ve actually dyed salt and pepper highlights in my hair. While I love that they think I am hip enough to have thought of artificial gray highlights, I have to tell them the truth: It’s all mine.
I discovered my first gray hair in high school. We were on a youth church trip, painting houses after a hurricane in South Carolina. It was a friend who spotted the offending hair, which I attributed to the bucket of white paint I’d accidentally leaned into. A few years later my roommates in Paris noticed some white hairs again. No amount of persuasion could convince them that it was still the high school paint incident. My father had gone prematurely gray, so I reluctantly assumed the legacy had been passed on to me. I headed for the nearest Parisian salon, where getting a haircut was not only a linguistic adventure, but a good chance to get some advice on dying my hair. Thus, began my dance with gray.
I came away with a fantastically stylish short do. I didn’t manage to convey my interest in hair dye to the stylist, who had been dismayed by my poor attempts to converse in his native tongue. Two years later, I asked Marlon, a stylist at a chic San Francisco salon what he thought about my then noticeably gray hairs. Keep it gray, Marlon urged, it makes you different. He gave me a short style with bangs that accented the gray. I wasn’t sure what to think, but I wore it anyway.
When I went home to my native southwest Virginia with its more conservative hair climate, my local hairdresser encouraged me to color it. It’ll make you look younger, she argued, she herself wearing a several different colors of reddish-brown in her long hair. My mother whole-heartedly agreed. So did many of my girlfriends. To them, going gray was a definite sign of getting old. Why would I want to be gray when I could easily cover it up? Together they were so persuasive that I spent several seasons using a washable rinse to cover the gray. It was a sad day when the stylist told me that the rinse wasn’t strong enough to hide the gray anymore.
When I arrived in Prague, the last thing I wanted to do was look different. I spent my days trying to blend in, exchanging my American running shoes for heeled boots and buying my clothes a size smaller than I would have back home. I watched the other passers-by on the street and tried to find a style I’d like to imitate. The Czech women seemed glamorous from a distance, but I found it hard to imagine myself traipsing through the city looking so put together. In various shades of red, brown or black with the occasional blond, the heads were remarkably coiffed, if somewhat artificial. Even the women of my grandmother’s generation seemed to wear something other than the purplish-blue perm, familiar on grandmothers back home. Although I saw fashionable women wearing a rainbow of colors on their heads I’d seen only punk kids dare to wear back home, I didn’t see a gray hair on a woman in the city, except perhaps on the heads of elderly tourists.
At first, I didn’t dye my hair in Prague for a variety of reasons, dealing with the language seemed too daunting, and I didn’t want to pay top dollar for an English language salon. Then, I met Radek, and while I doubt he was actually attracted to my gray hair (he claims he was), still he has never wanted me to dye it. In his eyes, natural gray is more stylish and interesting than the artificial dyed look that’s on nearly every other head. Although at times I’ve wished to have my full head of dark brown hair back, it’s always nice to know that the man I’ve married thinks the gray suits me. By now, the gray look has become part of who I am.
When I read Slovena Drakulic’s account of the hair dye situation in Eastern Europe in her collection of essays How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, it became clear that during communism, at least, women didn’t have much choice for color if they wanted to cover up their gray. If you didn’t want to look “old” then you bought the same drugstore red that your neighbors wore. With that limitation in mind, it doesn’t surprise me that now over 20 years later today’s Czech hair dye jobs run the gamut from wild and funky reds, blues and greens streaks to more conservative, shiny one-color jobs. Looking natural doesn’t seem to factor into many of the dye jobs. However, looking young, sexy or remarkable seems critical to the culture. Nowadays, walking through the elementary school that Anna Lee attends, I notice wild colors and streaks on many of the preteen girls. Although Anna has begged for some pink hair, so far, I’ve held her at bay. If I’m not going to color my own hair, I don’t believe she needs to either. Yet according to fashionencyclopedia.com, Europeans have been dying their hair since the 16th century, so I imagine before too long Anna will have her own hair dye experience. Hopefully, it’ll be of the washable variety.
On a recent trip to the Krkonoše Mountains, we sat beside two women of my mother’s generation in a café. Sporting similar haircuts they each wore a large strip of red bangs in the middle of dark brown hair. They were modestly dressed and otherwise unremarkable, except for the shocking strip of color framing their faces. I wondered if they were covering up a batch of gray, or if they just had the fancy to try something wild. Either way, they made their statement.
While hair color is ultimately a personal statement, culture plays a role in establishing the approved range of possibilities. Sporting a funky red streak is perfectly normal for a Czech woman, but it’d likely be a sign of something amiss in a similarly-aged woman from my rural hometown. My mother recently sent me an article from a Virginia newspaper called “Working in a Gray Area” on how hair color affects the workplace. Although it’s increasingly trendy to sport gray hair au natural in the US, at least for celebrities and women of fashion, ordinary working women are still fighting against discrimination in the workplace for letting themselves go gray. The article relates the struggles women face to maintain a certain level of youth and vitality in order to appear attractive to employers which translates simply to non-gray hair. It’s a façade and many women are protesting with go-gray blogs and a new version of the “gray panther” movement, showing that women can be successful and professional without needing to color their hair.
I’m a bit surprised that a few strong-minded Czech women didn’t realize the potential strength of going gray naturally and bucking the communist system by being different in the meantime. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and dyed hair for women is far more culturally accepted than natural gray, in both Czech and US cultures, although times may be slowly changing.
Three children and nearly ten years of marriage have aged me, I joke, though I don’t notice my gray hair now as much as I used to. I’m always surprised when I see someone doing a double-take at my hair, and I have to remind myself that for most people, it’s not every day they see a relatively young person with a full head of gray hair. So, I smile and remind myself that someday, if I’m lucky to live that long, hair color will be the least of my worries.