No matter how dire the economy gets, no matter how broke women become, an essential truth remains: You’ll have to pry their hair dye from their cold, dead hands.
It’s not that the economic downturn isn’t affecting women’s priorities at all. The Professional Beauty Association reports that many are extending the time between their hair appointments, foregoing facials, manicures and pedicures, coloring their hair at home and looking for other ways to save money. But go gray for the sake of frugality? No way, Jose.
Charla Krupp, author of the book “How Not to Look Old,” said that’s exactly how it should be — especially when the job market is so competitive. “Women cannot afford to go gray in this economy,” Krupp said. “When you’re competing for a job with someone who’s 10 years younger or 20 years younger than you are, being gray is the equivalent of wearing a necklace that says, ‘57.’ Would you do that? You have to convey the message that you’re still in the game.”
Now brace yourselves, ladies: Krupp’s analysis goes even further.
“I tell women, ‘Go gray at your own risk,’ ” she said. “Going gray is step one of letting yourself go. There’s also letting your wrinkles show, getting fat, having bushy eyebrows. C’mon!”
To a small but increasingly vocal band of “gray-and-loving-it” women out there, Krupp’s sentiments represent fighting words. Many women who embrace their natural gray say they feel more content and more connected to their authentic selves. Plus they say their lives are less stressful: No more lengthy appointments to have their hair colored. No more panic when gray roots begin to show. And, they point out, just think of all the money they’re saving.
“If I had invested that money, my daughters’ college education or my retirement would have been taken care of,” Kreamer said. “It is an actual choice that makes a difference in people’s pockets.”
But does she truly enjoy having gray hair?
“I adore it,” she said. “It’s thrilling. It’s fantastic. My hair is shinier, healthier, more vibrant. People ... stop me, literally, on the street to tell me, ‘I love the color of your hair.’ That never once happened in 25 years of dyeing my hair.”
As liberating as all of that sounds, Kreamer readily acknowledges that she’s in the minority.
“There’s not a single female senator with gray hair,” she noted. “Not a single female newscaster with gray hair. You can count celebrities on one hand: Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Morrison, Emmylou Harris. For women to have a genuine sense of this being an option, a lot more women who are professionals will have to go silver, gray, alabaster or what have you.”
Indeed. It doesn’t matter that Meryl Streep’s hair looked fabulous in “The Devil Wears Prada.” It doesn’t matter that Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s pick for Health secretary, is just plain cool-looking. Most women aren’t ready to go gray. Not yet, anyway. These days, 50 continues to be the new 30 — in large part thanks to hair dye.
Todd Bush, a longtime hair stylist in New York City, suspects that people will keep coloring their hair no matter how many celebrities and power brokers go gray in their lifetimes.
“I’ve never once in 24 years had someone come in and say, ‘Make me look like Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show. I just love that steel-blue-gray thing she’s rockin’,’ ” Bush said. “I don’t think I ever will.”
Why hair color gets us so worked up
What is it about hair color that triggers such an emotional response — and such a willingness to spend money — from so many of us? While this area of life may initially appear to be trivial, superficial or even silly, a closer look reveals that it’s anything but.
In short, people’s hair color is intimately tied to the aging process. And for many women — and men — aging is not trivial or silly at all. It’s downright serious. This helps to explain why hair color can get us thinking about our identity, economic viability, fertility and even mortality.
“How many things can you control as you age?” asked Linda Warber, a Seattle hair stylist for the past 23 years. “A lot of things you can’t control. Which is why people turn to color: It’s something you can control relatively easily.”
Kreamer said it goes even deeper than that.
“Everyone has a mental picture of when they looked their best, when they were at their peak of everything — physical powers, mental powers — and that’s the look that people want to freeze,” she said.
“But the reality is that we’re a constantly evolving creature. You can’t stop it in any way, shape or form. If you embrace your biological age, you can actually extend your life expectancy. They’ve done studies that point to that.”
Kreamer added that we don’t fool anyone about our biological age when we dye our hair. While doing research for her book, she learned that people can still guess others’ ages pretty accurately regardless of their hair color.
So why bother, then? Experienced hair stylists say there’s a reason — albeit an unfair one.
“It’s cliché but true: When men go gray, they look distinguished. Women look old,” said Bush, the New York stylist. “I mean, how many women with gray hair are sex symbols? How many female George Clooneys, Steve Martins and Anderson Coopers are there? None that I can think of.”
David Stanko, a hair colorist at the New York salon Angelo David and a hair-color consultant for Redken, stated it even more plainly.
“In actual fact, gray hair is not that attractive,” Stanko said. “It’s rare that you have the Olympia Dukakis snowy, white, beautiful look. Or Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ — her hair looked snowy and white and clean. Just like gray paint, just like soot and dirt on your car, gray hair just looks dirty and old and unkempt.”
This impression of gray hair keeps us buying all those boxes of Clairol or Just For Men, or rushing back to the salon every five weeks. And even though those hair-color appointments require a significant time commitment, Stanko noted that those very appointments often represent the only real break a busy woman gets.
“It’s a haven for women,” he said. “They can turn off the BlackBerry. They can talk about themselves, or just sort of space out a little bit. It’s comfort time. It’s me time. ... Plus it keeps people feeling good. When your hair is cut and shiny and colored, it’s like buying a new blouse.”
A symbol of self-acceptance
Autumn Lingle, 52, one of Warber’s clients in Seattle, said she loves going to the salon and having her hair done. These days, though, she’s going in for cuts only, not for color.
Her decision to abandon the dye after years of maintaining a dark brown color had nothing to do with money or time.
“It was extreme self-acceptance,” she said. “When I turned 50, I accepted who I am. I still wear makeup. I still work out. I eat really healthy. I just thought, ‘This is it, folks. I’m not going to pretend anymore.’”
Lingle has been struck by how many of her friends have praised her for being so brave for going gray.
She figures her decision will save her about $1,200 a year — a sum of money she can use to pay for textbooks for her daughter in college. It’s also made her happy to think that her new look could give her more gravitas in her city government job in a suburb of Seattle.
The biggest motivation for giving up color, though, involved wanting to be herself.
“I like it. It’s very freeing,” Lingle said. “There’s some power in age and some relaxation with it.”
Lingle has been hit with an unexpected plot twist, though. Just this week, she learned that the city government she works for is cutting positions, and she’ll be losing her job.
Will she reconsider coloring her hair again before heading out on job interviews? She paused for a minute, then answered.
“No, I’m not going to dye my hair. I’m going to go as I am, take it or leave it,” she said with a laugh. “It will be interesting.”