Go gray or keep dyeing? It’s just hair; why do I care so much? | GUEST COMMENTARY

Gray roots seep down my hairline. I look like I’m wearing an ill-fitting, off-white yarmulke.

I scan the heads of other older women at my neighborhood Starbucks while waiting for a cappuccino. I compare the ones who’ve gone gray with those who color, wondering which group looks elderly. But I already know the answer.


Several months ago, I began to think of going gray. Over a lunch with an almost-80-year-old friend, Laura, I mentioned I might stop coloring my hair. Her face froze like a car in neutral. I saw her struggle for a polite response. During her pause, I admired her well-coiffed cocoa-colored hair, likely from a similar Clairol mix that my stylist uses.

She concentrated on scraping up the last puddle of gazpacho onto her spoon and said, “Well, at least you’ll save on that cost.” Not the comment I’d hoped for.


“What’s the big deal?” I asked myself. “It’s only hair. I wondered why this decision had taken on such significance. Vanity about my looks had not been overarching in my life. When I needed glasses at 40, I rejected contact lenses — too much bother. When mascara made my eyelids dry, I gave it up. Forgoing makeup application and removal was a relief. With the pandemic, lipstick fell away. Another blessing.

But looking old mattered. Hair mattered.

In time, my interior grew weary of focusing on my exterior. So I decided to give up the bottle, the one filled with brown dye.

Several weeks later, at lunch with another 70-plus friend, Pam, the conversation turned to body issues. Typically easygoing with a fuss-free personality, Pam was ruing her 20 extra pandemic pounds. “I feel like a fireplug dressed in black,” she said. She then volunteered her determination to maintain her hair dyeing no matter what. “I made my kids promise that even if I can no longer think straight, they will keep my hair colored ash blond.”

I shared that I’d decided to go gray. Like my other lunchmate, Pam paused. Her dyed blond eyebrows turned down as if I’d confided a dire diagnosis. She said, “You’re doing this as an experiment, right? Are you committed to going all the way?” I nodded. She added with resignation, “Well, you can always go back to coloring your hair.”

Before committing to gray, I’d halted my “should I, or shouldn’t I?” seesaw to reflect on why I’d ruminated over this decision, quickly recognizing that aging was at the heart of my struggle.

I feel marginalized when I pass preteens in my neighborhood, animatedly chatting, oblivious of me. I step aside to avoid flying elbows bumping me into the road. I feel hurt when people talk at me in baby voices like I’m a tiny tot or an “old dearie.” I especially hate that.

Earlier this week, a dear friend, Cathy, and I caught up by Zoom. She pushed her face against her computer screen and asked about the half-and-half hair. While I filled her in, she picked up on my uneasiness. “Gray will look good on you,” she said. We then caught up on her recovery from shoulder surgery and her son and his fancy fiancee’s wedding plans.


Suddenly, she raised her hand like a stop sign and said, “I want to confess something.” I could not imagine what she meant. I’ve known her long and well. Her battles with extended family are entirely familiar to me.

Averting her gaze, this normally direct-speaking friend described the day her beloved mother died. The news came early in the morning. Between floods of tears, she’d girded herself to plan the funeral, inform her husband and kids, and make travel arrangements.

Then she remembered her 8 a.m. hair appointment. Glancing in the mirror at gray roots poking through her brown hair, she pivoted, deciding, “I can squeeze it in.”

At the salon, Cathy cried as the dye went on. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she waited for the color to set and when she drove home. But her sorrow slowed with a peek into the rearview mirror. She thought, “At least I won’t look old.”

Cathy’s anecdote clinched my determination. On the very day her mom died, Cathy’s compulsion to look youthful overrode her need to grieve quietly, in private.

Her story told me that I want to shed my tears of sorrow when they flow. Not after I color my hair. Not for vanity, but freely when and how I wish.


Patricia Steckler ( is a psychologist and writer.