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First Person: Shades of Gray

Thu, 11/09/2023 - 11:28
For Susan McGraw Keber, Barbara Strong Borsack, Teresa Lawler, and Durell Godfrey, silvery-gray hair is a stylish sign of wisdom and grace.
Lisa Tamburini

When I was about 40 years old, my high-school-age daughters started mentioning the gray hairs that were rapidly multiplying on my head. They weren’t unkind about it, but I could tell they noticed the signs of age appearing in my dark brown tresses, and I worried about looking “old” to my children. So I did what 99 percent of American women do when the gray starts becoming noticeable: I dyed it.

In the beginning I did a simple rinse at home to cover the gray, but as time went on it became more difficult to manage good coverage, so I headed to the salon every five or six weeks to make sure my roots weren’t showing. As years passed — and more gray appeared — I began working with my stylist to lighten the color, better hiding the roots, and, well, most women understand the process. Eventually my once-dark hair was more like a caramel beige and even the blond highlights couldn’t really hide the truth.

My mother colored her hair until she was nearly 80. When she finally stopped, I was enchanted by her beautiful white hair. I thought she looked softer and prettier, and I became determined not to fall into the same trap of waiting too long. (Does anyone really believe your hair isn’t naturally gray after a certain age?) I set a goal of letting the true color grow in by the time I reached my mid-60s. Again with the help of my stylist, we found ways to make the transition as painless as possible. By the age of 67 I was well on my way to going gray.

The move from brunette to gray has become a topic of fascination for me and I’ve since watched others make the change with interest, embracing their natural color. One of the most unexpected things has been the reactions of other women toward my hair. Some warned me in the very beginning: “Don’t do it! It’s going to make you look older!” To which I usually responded, “Really? How much older can I look?” I mean, I honestly don’t mind looking my age — it’s certainly not something I’m ashamed of. No one is going to mistake me for a 50-year-old at this point, even with darker hair!

But I have been startled by the number of complete strangers who offer unsolicited comments about it. “I love your hair” is a frequent comment from people in passing. They’re always women, and very often the follow-up is something along the lines of “I’ve been thinking about letting mine grow out and now you’ve inspired me.” I honestly don’t think I’ve had as many compliments on my hair in my entire life as I have in these past few years.

Why, I wonder? Does all this interest have something to do with our memories from childhood? I seem to think that the only gray-haired ladies I ever saw when I was young had very short, tightly permed white hair with a blue or purple tinge, or they pulled it up into a tight little bun like Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

A few months ago, I set out to discover how other women who’ve made the change arrived at their decision. And importantly, are they happy about it now? I needed to find out if some of my instincts were correct.

When I began asking around, my first discovery was that Covid was a deciding factor for some women. Clearly the lack of access to local salons for such an extended period helped them make the change. Plus, the isolation and lack of social interaction made it so much easier to let those gray roots show. My friend Teresa Lawler is one example. She explained that she’d started to think about letting her natural color come in as soon as she retired from her teaching job (a very common theme — retirement!), but once the pandemic hit the decision was made for her. She calls her new color “Covid white” and loves not having to deal with the upkeep.

I’ve also found some “baby-boomer mentality” at work — you know, that anti-establishment stance that those of us who came of age in the mid to late ‘60s held about so many things. In Southampton a couple weeks ago, I stopped someone on the street who was proudly wearing her beautiful silver hair long and unfettered and I boldly asked how she had decided to go gray. “I think we’re just the first generation who doesn’t really want to be told by anyone how to do things. Who cares what color my hair is? I don’t think anyone else should be telling me what is age appropriate.”

It’s that exact pushback to societal norms that conjures up memories of Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, and the summer of ‘69. Bell-bottom jeans, love beads, and long gray hair — why not? And maybe the real freedom is in doing whatever makes you feel good, dyeing your hair or not. If you like it, that’s all that counts, right?

In conversations with some of the other stunningly beautiful gray gals around East Hampton, I’ve learned that some never colored theirs at all. Durell Godfrey, The Star’s photographer, didn’t even consider trying to cover her gray and her gorgeous tresses have become one of her trademarks. East Hampton Town Trustee Susan McGraw-Keber transitioned from a “traditional” professional model to a “classic” one when she turned gray, continuing to do print ads for companies such as Revlon, Marie Claire, and Redbook as well as television commercials for Macy’s and Tiffany, just to name a few. Gray-haired models are more in demand than ever now that the largest age group in the country is over the age of 60.

Even some of our most glamorous actresses have let nature take its course, and they make no apologies for their choice. Helen Mirren rocked the red carpet with her long gray hair recently, and Sally Field, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Fonda, and Andie MacDowell are now looking beautiful in silver and white.

I’ve concluded that we post-World War II children of the turbulent late ‘60s may have started a movement by accepting who we were and what we looked like back when we eschewed the heavy hair spray and sky-high beehive styles of the ‘50s in favor of the afros, natural curls, or long, straight styles of our youth. And today, despite what society or the media or Hollywood tells us, we still prefer our hair more natural, just like we did back when we were young. We’re proud of the wisdom that comes with age and our gray, or white, hair is simply a reflection of that.

But I actually think it’s our children’s generation that will really see this movement through. Neither of my daughters, both in their 40s now, covers her emerging gray at all. The women’s movement may have started in the 1960s with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but it will finally come of age in the 2020s with these strong women (and their amazing daughters!). They will follow the paths we cleared earlier and they’ll create broad roadways to self-acceptance with voices of wisdom we can only imagine. More power to them, I say! And may their many shades of gray be long and luscious.

Barbara Strong Borsack is a native of East Hampton who has served as a trustee on the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals, the East Hampton Village Board of Trustees, the East Hampton Historical Society, the East Hampton Village Ambulance, the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation, and Southampton Hospital.

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