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 survey 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 , 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.
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.
Thomas HN, Hamm M, Borrero S, Hess R, Thurston RC. Body image, attractiveness, and sexual satisfaction among midlife women: a qualitative study. J Womens Health. 2019;28(1):100-106. doi:10.1089/jwh.2018.7107