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I Dye My Hair … But Not To Get Rid Of The Gray

It offers me something else that's, well, kind of surprising.

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Roger Cabello/Trunk Archive
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I found my first gray at 25 while staring in the mirror at my fiancé’s parents’ house. Under the 1980s’ domed bathroom lights, I plucked the hair out and prayed the process would slow down.

My own family was shocked when I told them, adding, “Your great-grandmother didn’t find her first gray until after her 50th birthday.” (Their motto was, “dye until you die.”) I wasn't really worried though; I'd been dyeing my hair since high school.

I always enjoyed transitioning from brown to red to blonde, picking and choosing color based on my mood. The first time I dyed my hair, a friend stood by mixing together the contents of several bottles. It was our very own chemistry class. The chemicals swirled together hypnotically as my new color revealed itself.

My love for dyeing lasted into college, barely diminished by a minor mishap that turned my brunette locks into a muted pumpkin orange. It was so close to Halloween that I told people it was a tribute to my favorite holiday.

I continued to dye my hair until my early 40s, volleying between various hues of browns and reds. Black washed me out and blonde was too light for my skin tone — lessons learned in my many decades of dyeing. I’d discovered I would never be a blonde during a bold period in my junior year of high school when I went platinum.

There were times when I thought about stopping. As I aged, I wondered what it would be like to allow my gray roots to spread and take over. “Freeing,” a coworker told me when I was in my 30s. She’d grown tired of the expense and time. “The first few months I walked around like a skunk, half gray and half black. Eventually, it all turned.”

While I admired her courage — and the gray complemented her black-rimmed glasses and artistic lifestyle, I was sure I’d never look so cool. As time took over and I managed two jobs and four children, I let my color slide. Grays poked up near my crown and along my hairline. “Mom, you have sooooo much gray,” my teenage daughter said. She grabbed my phone and took a picture of the underside of my hair. I expected to be mortified by how much I’d let myself go but was surprised to find I enjoyed the grays.

As I continued to allow them to flourish, I was pleased with the highlights they brought to my hair. A few months later, I spotted a bottle of fire-engine red dye. For a brief moment, I wanted to grab it and throw it into my basket. Imagining myself with a bold red appealed to me. The idea of a new look after months of gray and brown was tempting. I picked up the box and rushed to the register before I had a chance to change my mind.

The dye rang up cheaper than marked, and I considered it a sign. Fire-engine red, here I come, I thought while sirens rang in my head. It wasn’t until I got home and sat in the kitchen watching the stove timer tick down from 30 that I even thought about why I was dyeing my hair. It wasn’t to get rid of the gray, but it was a way to control the one thing I felt I still had some control over — my hair color.

Middle age meant so many changes. I recalled my first hot flash months before, the rise of heat over my head and neck. My husband’s midlife career change threw us into a financial whirlwind.

Children grew into teens with their own changing bodies and needs, which had shifted our family dynamic. With all these major changes, I wanted to take back control. That is exactly what dyeing my hair offered — control, just as it had when I began dyeing it in high school.

Back then, I was going through changes, too. My body had developed earlier and faster than those of my friends. And my life was different than theirs. My mother died, leaving my grandparents to raise me. Dyeing my hair allowed me to have a say in who I was.

When I looked into the mirror at 44 years old and saw myself, a striking redhead, I felt like I could breathe. I hadn’t dyed my hair to wash away my grays, but rather to find some level of control in a life that seemed to be spiraling. I brushed my hair, tossed the box in the trash and felt centered for the first time in ages. The $5 I’d spent to find that was well worth it.