I began my natural hair journey in the absence of a “natural hair movement.” In 1998, there were no blogs or vlogs about how to care for natural hair. I would not read my first book on the topic until 2004. I shaved off my hair and learned to care for it without a chemical relaxer by trial and error. Long before you could buy natural haircare products for black women in discount chains, I had to purchase my haircare products online.
Sistas would openly admire my hair but admit they would never go natural. I would only see other black women with natural hair when I traveled to Oakland or Harlem. One day, I was approached to do a photo shoot because natural hairstyles were rarely represented in black hair magazines. Those photos later appeared in Hype Hair, Sophisticate's Black Hair Styles and Care Guide, and other magazines. Times have changed, and natural black hairstyles are trendy again.
After 20 years of coloring my hair, I shaved it all off recently to go gray. Now, I am encountering a new form of resistance. Women have strong opinions about my decision not to dye my hair. There is no middle ground. Those who proclaim to love it call me brave. Those who hate it have visceral reactions. “I will never go gray!” several women have declared, as if I were a proxy sent to beckon them to the silver side. My hair a harsh reminder they too are aging.
While embracing our natural hair texture has gained popularity and is viewed as a celebratory act of self-acceptance and a rejection of Euro-American beauty standards—that does not extend to allowing our hair to go gray.
When I had to change salons because my hairstylist could not adjust to my transition, I realized going gray was more complex than I anticipated. For many years, I dyed my hair at home, venturing periodically into the salon for a cut or a trim. I knew my stylist's lack of support was not about losing money. Still, I was tired of being pressured to color my hair every time I sat in the chair, even after making my position known. Ultimately, I decided the prejudice she was grappling with would have to be resolved without me.
American culture has promoted stereotypes that make women fear being rendered invisible and labeled unattractive if we embrace natural signs of aging. During a recent talk show appearance, Rosie O’Donnell was encouraged to share a self-deprecating story about how her gray hair made her an embarrassment to her teen children and less noticeable to fans—likening her new look to resembling a “grandma.”
The same week, Matt LeBlanc shared a story during an interview about going gray prematurely while filming the hit show Friends. LeBlanc was referred to by the host as a silver fox, with his “salt-n-pepper” hair being applauded as a “triumph.” In 2016, a Match.com study found that 72% of women found men with gray hair hot. Men are encouraged to accept their gray, but women are held to dramatically different beauty standards.
Black women face additional pressure to conform to society. We are statistically more confident in our looks than white women, but more sensitive about our hair. Black hair is so politicized, we are still dealing with natural hair bias that allows open discrimination in our schools and workspaces. While embracing our natural hair texture has gained popularity and is viewed as a celebratory act of self-acceptance and a rejection of Euro-American beauty standards—that does not extend to allowing our hair to go gray. I find it odd that only two of my female relatives sport naturally gray hair (one is my 87-year-old grandmother), and I am the only one with silver hair at events with other black women over 40.
So when are women allowed to age?
Going against societal expectations by going gray feels like I have embarked on a mini feminist revolution.
Contrary to popular belief, gray hair is not exclusive to women over 50. Many people start to gray in their 30s, and some go gray around their hairline even younger. I noticed my first batch of gray hair at age 19. Similar to going natural by forgoing chemical processes to straighten hair, I believe more women would make the choice to go gray if they knew how to care for their hair and found a hairstyle that was complementary.
I made the decision to transition because I was tired of hiding my gray hair and wanted to eliminate as many toxins from my life as possible. From my tweens until the age of 20, I used chemical relaxers and I began dying my hair in my teens. While I do not have definitive proof hair products caused any health problems, there is evidence linking the chemicals in relaxers to an increased risk of fibroids among black women, and hair dyes contain carcinogens. Because hair grows resistant to dye as we age and I needed to color it more often, I decided not to expose myself to more chemicals. I owed it to myself to make healthier choices.
Going against societal expectations by going gray feels like I have embarked on a mini feminist revolution. Everyone changes as they get older. Why should women be discouraged to hide who are they becoming? Why should men be allowed to feel comfortable in their skin as they age and women be made to feel less attractive because of the changing hue of their hair? Sexual appeal is not defined by one physical characteristic; sensuality is much more complex.
For me, going gray has been a transformative experience. After years of coloring my hair to make it look more interesting, I am left with this fascinating blend of silver hair with tones so unique it cannot be replicated in a salon. Sometimes, I stare at it and imagine how I will look as it grows longer. Every silver coil exemplifies effortless beauty and a proclamation to the world that I embrace my natural hair, and I love who I am becoming.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
Would you let your hair go gray? Have you already? Let us know in the comments below!