If one were to take a look at the social media feeds of people near and far, a curious phenomenon will reveal itself. Mixed in with the standard lifestyle posts starring fitness enthusiasts, makeup artists, and luxury travel are a conspicuous number of individuals with grey or greying hair. As we age melanocytes in our hair follicles (the same cells that produce our glorious skin colors) stop producing melanin, which leads to a loss of pigmentation in our hair.
In the past when hair started to grey, it was standard practice to conceal this marker of middle to late age. However, COVID lockdowns forced people to either dye their own hair or throw in the towel, at least temporarily, in acquiescence to their natural greys. “COVID hair,” a term used to describe the lack of professionally tended hair went from being abhorred to lovingly embraced. While closely tied to global loss, the “grey hair movement” has emerged triumphantly from the ashes of the pandemic.
COVID shook the world and reset values both personal and institutional. Lives were lost and close brushes with death changed what was considered valuable. A logistically necessary reprieve from hair color due to lack of materials or access to stylists has transformed the landscape of hair care. Society’s perspective on grey or greying hair has shifted dramatically over the half decade. According to a January 2021 report by Mintel, in 2020 64 percent of at-home hair color users surveyed said that grey hair should be welcomed. This is a vastly different attitude than what the market research firm discovered in a similar survey conducted in 2016. Only 23 percent of hair color users said that grey hair was something to be embraced.
It was Michael Jordan who changed the game for men dealing with hair loss when he shaved his dome clean in 1989, kicking off an entirely new type of sexy that found men ditching their struggle hair for bald heads. Now the “naturalistas” of the natural hair movement have arguable paved the way for acceptance of the “silverista.” The natural hair community has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Legislation such as the CROWN Act of 2022, which bans race-based hair discrimination in the workplace, within federal programs and public accommodations has passed in multiple states within the U.S. Famous non-binary, women, and femmes such as Solange Knowles, Viola Davis and Janelle Monae all wear their hair natural. The “Black is beautiful” aesthete is a political message and a declaration of self-love. Natural and “protective” hairstyles like Zendaya’s faux-locs are all the rage, but we are still struggling to find it broad acceptance of grey hair worn by Black women. For Black women, who have for so long sought to reach a place of self-acceptance around texture, going grey may be a bridge too far.
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A cursory Google search of “Black women grey hair” reveals a plethora of photos of you’ll find Black women influencers like Mildred Bean and Donna Cerise who have gained a significant following because of the color of their hair. When it comes to celebrities, only two women – Nichelle Nichols and Ruby Dee – came up in the search. Only a handful of notable Black women who have fully accepted their grey or greying hair come to mind, such as Mara Brock Akil, Lisa Bonet or Donna Brazile. Perhaps this is due to research showing that Black people grey slower than whites. “Black don’t crack” is a proud statement for those of us who are “women of a certain age.” Keeping people guessing our age could be a national pastime for Black folks. But this declaration requires that we remain unlined and age-defying in appearance. It is one thing to dye your hair silver or ombre as part of a trend like Sevyn Streeter or Raven Symone. It’s also easier to be seen as “cool” when the rest of you is young, or at least young-ish as in the case of Tennille Murphy, an Instagram star in her early 40s known for her glowing skin and voluminous mass of greying curls. In realm of living celebrities, representation is sparse.
Gendered ageism prevents many Black women in the middle of life to forego dye. Eurocentric beauty standards, combined with youth worship, make it more difficult for mature Black women to relinquish hair dye. While I haven’t done an official study, it appears that white women are more likely to accept their white hair than Black women. Perhaps this is due to the dearth of Black representation in media. Perhaps they are more likely to embrace their silver because light hair is coveted (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, anyone?) and blonde hair is close to grey or white in color. In an interview for Vogue, actor Helen Mirren shared the ease of her decision to go grey after wearing a white powdered wig as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George. “I have to say it was very easy for me because my hair was always blonde.” Diahann Carroll was a timeless beauty who wore her hair jet black hair until she passed away at 84. Was this a result of beauty standards of older generations? Or was it the result of the pressure to live up to a certain ideal after being heralded for her beauty for her whole life? Did her friends or agents pressure her to keep coloring her hair?
I chose to stop dying my hair a couple of years ago and have chosen to go gray. The decision was an easy one to make during the pandemic, but the pressure to color my hair is always there. I recently took new headshots and a close girlfriend said that she couldn’t see my greys in the photo, which was a good thing since we’re judged harshly for looking older. Another friend has asked me on more than one occasion why I spend so much time in the gym and invest in the care of my skin when I don’t bother to color my greys. I told her that I liked the contrast between my face and hair. She shrugs my response away. To her it is inconceivable that I would want to look this way.
Grey hair isn’t for everyone, but there are growing numbers of us transitioning or have gone all the way grey already. Whatever our choice, make sure it’s your own.