"How Does My Hair Look?" - Thoughts On Going Grey and What That Might Mean, If Anything.

by Michelle M. Johnson

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I suck at compliments. It’s not that I don’t know how to share positive observations about others. In fact, I feel rather confident that I’m good at giving compliments; what is a compliment if not an expression of one’s positive opinion on someone or something, and I am nothing if not opinionated. But, all the same, I suck at compliments…receiving them that is. And, I don’t think I’m alone in this. Compliments are hard for most folks: the praise usually pops out at us from nowhere, catches us off guard, is typically focused on something we’re self-conscious about (our looks, our work, our behavior, our choices), and tends to be a bit of a conversation stopper (Cue awkward silence after a delayed, “Thank you.”). This may not be you, but it is without a doubt me. 

As fate would have it, I tend to be the recipient of compliments on a regular basis (Fate doesn’t allow us nearly enough opportunity to practice what we love or what we’re good at, does it? Where is my daily opportunity to taste new chocolate varietals or photograph rare and adorable kittens?? Fate is a real you-know-what.). And, you’d think I would get better and better at receiving compliments because they are more often than not for the same thing: my hair. Sounds awesome, right, getting weekly, sometimes daily compliments on your hair. 

“Why on earth are you writing about this?!” you might be saying, but please hear me out.

My hair has been going grey (Yes, I know the color grey is spelled with an A, but I have a thing for British spellings, and this is my blog, so #SorryNotSorry.) since I was 19 years old. It was a slow process in the beginning, a strand here and there, something mostly only noticeable by me or folks taller than myself who had no concept of personal space (you know the type). But, once I had a child, and really after I turned 30, my body decided to hell with pigment and embraced a color spectrum spanning silvery white and maroon-y brown. I really didn’t pay it much attention as I had known many beautiful white-haired women (my grandmother and my great aunts were especially good at rocking sparkly tresses), and while I did dye my hair for a short while in my late 20s (a deep Sharpie Black to remind myself that while I may have become a mother, I still had a punk rocker’s heart), I eventually came to the realization that I would much rather spend money on new shoes and new tunes than on new hair color.
My rainbow collection of Chucks has started to expand into colorful Doc Martins...
I know I have a problem, but look how pretty!! :)
And, then came all the unsolicited advice: “You’re too young to go grey!” “You’d look younger if you dyed your hair its natural color.” (Whaat?? Grey IS its natural color!) “You’d look awesome if you accentuated those mahogany streaks!” “From a distance, those greys look platinum blonde; have you ever considered going full Marilyn?” These sentiments sometimes came from friends and family, but more often than not, these sorts of backhanded compliments came from absolute strangers. Oddly enough, the running commentary on my hair color didn’t cause me to run for the closest salon or box of Loreal Soft Black #3. It infuriated me as my partner in awesome, Steve, was also slowly going grey (and in a really interesting way, I think – his white tufts have come out in a hurricane pattern, which I love:), and not a soul had a thing to say about his decision to let his hair do its thing! I was like, “What the hell!? If George Clooney can do it, so can I!”  In fact, that became my battle cry during my early to mid-30s, and that quip was on the tip of my tongue, ready to slice and dice anyone’s suggestion that I should dye my hair to match my age.

Fast forward to my late 30s/early40s, and the comments on my hair color dramatically changed as well as became more frequent. Also, where before the devilishly polite suggestions to dye my hair came exclusively from folks hovering in and around my age, now the observations about my hair and its color came from all age ranges, folks much younger and much older than myself alongside folks in my peer group. Additionally, and without a doubt, these comments are now full-on compliments rather than creepily intrusive suggestions at self-improvement. I’ve had teenagers marvel at my long silver hair claiming to look forward to the day that they too have tresses in this color scheme. I’ve had much older men gaze at me (rather uncomfortably, if I’m to be quite honest) and exclaim “Promise me you’ll never dye your hair!” And, I’ve had women floating through all ages of maturity gently touch my hair in wonder and sigh, “I wish I could do that…” as if I had just played Chopin effortlessly on a grand piano.

These sorts of experiences happen to me regularly: while shopping for clothes or groceries, while waiting in line for the bathroom, while sitting in movie theatres, while going about my daily business, whatever that may be. And, I’m always rather stumped as I spend very little time on my hair; I wear it long as I find a ponytail the easiest and most versatile of all hairstyles, and I have my husband cut my hair because I would rather spend the money that gets dropped on a hairstylist on something I love and enjoy (Shoes! Music! Art Supplies! Chocolate! Craft Beer! Fine Wine!).

So, what I’m saying is, my hair isn’t really compliment-worthy, and yet the compliments flow regularly (especially if I blow my hair dry…how weird is that??), and, try as I might, I continue to be awkward with them. I used to try to use humor to deflect the attention folks throw at my hair, calling myself a Silver Fox or referring to my hair color as “diamond dust” rather than grey, but that only made folks wish to have hair like mine even more, leading to questions about my hairdresser, which got awkward because I’m like, “uh, my life mate; I bought him special scissors to cut my hair because I thought the grade school Fiskars ones wouldn’t be good enough.”

Recently, while I was out for my morning walk, I happened upon another such woman as myself: a young-ish face, shrouded in an analogous collection of grey, white, and silver tresses. I took it upon myself to “pay it forward” as it were, and tell this woman that I thought her hair was beautiful, that she was rocking her natural color…And, I totally scared the crap out of her (I really wasn’t thinking the situation through: we both were clearly working out, and I should have respected her personal fitness space!). But she smiled at me and thanked me all the same. We started politely chatting for a bit about the weirdness of getting compliments for having grey hair, something we put absolutely no effort into achieving, and I revealed that I simply didn’t understand what all the fuss and attention was about. She very quickly stated, “It’s because we’re brave!”
“Ha!” I blurted out (seriously, I almost guffawed!), “We’re not brave! (I really need to find this woman and apologize!) "Bravery is putting yourself in harm's way for others, bravery is doing something dangerous, bravery is doing something even though it frightens you!” She continued to smile and we both went on with our workouts, she in one direction and I in another (something I ABSOLUTELY do not blame her for!!). And, even though my gut response to her assertion that we were brave for going grey was preposterous, she got me thinking about this from a different angle: is it brave to simply allow your body to do what it does naturally?

Later, ironically on that same day last week, a video popped up in my fb feed AND was shared on my timeline by a friend (Thanks, Rachel, for sharing, and thanks, Christi, for tagging me:). It seems to have gotten many views, so perhaps you've seen it. If not, here it is for your convenience:)

The judgement this young lady received felt all too familiar, but unlike myself, the unsolicited “advice” came from an online source; she didn’t have the opportunity, as I always did, to politely smack down the well-wisher and then confidently walk away (something that actually feels as good as it sounds;). Her testimony to her grey hair touches on a point that I think I may have been overlooking as I’ve let my hair travel along its natural course: my grey hair is an acknowledgment of my mortality, an acceptance of the inevitability of my death. Oddly enough, like the young woman in this video, I, too, have auto-immune issues and have recently been told that my lifetime will more than likely not be as long as the average American female. And, while I opted to embrace my grey and signs of maturity ages ago, this health diagnosis is recent for me and is one that, quite frankly, I am in denial about. But, like this young woman in the video and the woman I rudely accosted on the track, I too, love my grey hair. If I’m honest, I take pride in it. That pride previously was in sending a personal f___ you to the mainstream media that has been sending women messages since the beginning of print and painting that we are NOT enough as we are, ever, my hair proving that I am strong enough to figure out what I love about myself on my own, that I am immune to the suggestions they send out about my worth, my body, my appearance (Aaand, this is not entirely true as I am totally pulled in by lipstick and lip gloss advertising, browsing the grocery store isles for new shades, new flavors…I’m only human, and chapped lips are the worst!). But, I think that pride that I have felt all these years may be morphing into something different, something that may in fact be bravery.

Maybe it is brave to let your hair follow its natural course as you age because it really is the first sign a healthy human being receives that the end is inevitable. My grey started ridiculously early, and who knows, it may even be connected to the fact that my immune system just isn’t what it is supposed to be. And, as morose as that sounds, I love my hair more now than I ever did when I was young: I love that the whites sparkle, that the strands that were once soft brown are now so dark they look purple in the sunlight, I love that depending upon which side I part my hair, my head looks streak white, black, silver, brown OR like I have a snowfall of pure white surrounding the left side of my face, I love that I can choose which of these collections of colors will look best with whatever I’m wearing (I love color choices!), and I love that my partner in this life thinks that my hair only continues to be more beautiful (his is ever the only opinion I really respond to:). There is much that I am critical about with my appearance (Hey, I was raised in the dance world – our bodies are never perfect enough!), but my hair makes me feel gorgeous and alive.

So, if greying hair is a sign of the inevitability of all things, maybe it is brave to embrace your grey for in doing so you embrace your mortality. And if a woman finds beauty and strength in this color that represents death, even to the point of actually appearing beautiful and strong to others, maybe, just maybe, there is some beauty in accepting our lives as finite, and that the signs of a lengthening lifespan are a marvel and something to look forward to rather than to cover and alter, to turn away from and deny.

And, maybe I am thinking too much about my hair color, about compliments and about a whole slew of ideas, but isn’t that sort of the purpose of a blog?
By the way, reader, what do you think? Do you think it is brave to go grey or is it just what it is, a color choice chosen from a whole spectrum of shades?
At the last minute it occurred to me
that perhaps I should add a pic of my
crazy hair as evidence or something,
so here ya go!


  1. You know, many women pay good money to "go gray" these days - women much younger than either of us! Maybe courage is a more appropriate word than bravery, as I do think it takes a fair amount of courage for a woman to stop coloring her hair in our society. It's a departure from cultural and social norms, and that always meets with some resistance. I do believe when my hair starts to turn significantly gray I may just let it loose to do its thing!

    1. Perhaps you're right, courage. Although, I didn't struggle with that in the slightest with my hair. The comments were more of an irritation than anything else. Now, braving NOT to paint my toenails during sandals season...THAT took guts for me (I hate pedicures whether I do them or someone else does; makes me very uncomfortable.) because I did feel like I was breaking some unspoken rule of being female. Add onto that that I was a Yoga instructor so my feet were visible often...I was very self conscience. I did it though, and I have never looked back. My feet, just like my hair are mine:) Why there are so many "rules" we believe in, I will never know. I do know that some of my choices make others uncomfortable, that somehow they perceive the choices I make for myself as a comment on the choices they choose for themselves...but I have no control over their perception of who they are.

  2. I love reading your mind and heart (fate again....haha). Well, I love coloring my hair fun and crazy colors. At one point it was to cover the patch of gray but now it's to express my inner child! I've always loved funky hair abs colors and I moved away from that to "conform" to society's expectations of a professional woman. Within the last few years, I've said f@#! It. It's my hair. My expectation. My way to express myself. When I see other kindred spirits, my heart smiles. I love seeing women (well anyone really but mostly women) find a way to be themselves unabashedly! That's what I strive for and what I wish to teach my boys. I believe this is what you are doing by loving your hair and accepting the compliments. Rock on punk momma!

    1. Ditto! The "crazy" color phenomenon is so joyful! I've often thought I would love having fuchsia hair...if it didn't mean having to bleach ALL my existing color to get the color I see in my mind's eye. When I have all truly silver strands, I will probably do it, especially if they are no longer making cool colored Converse and Docs;)
      I, too, love seeing people let themselves be free to be themselves, but I have come to realize that I have a bit of a prejudice against folks who tend to conform, to think that there's no way we could be friends or that they have nothing to teach me; I'm judging them as much as they might have judged me. Since that realization 8 or 9 years ago I have learned to ignore fashion, style, outward expression of another person as much as possible, and wait to hear what they say or do before I make up my mind about them:)
      And, thank you for being such a devoted reader; makes my heart sing! Cheers to your fabulous hair:)


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