Black, gray and proud: Women of color embrace their silver hair

theGRIO REPORT - A small but increasingly vocal group of 'gray-and-proud' African-American women are tired of pricey visits to the salon. Instead of hiding their roots they opt to maintain their head full of gray hair...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Darlene Evans vividly remembers the day she noticed her first gray hair. She was in her 20s, juggling life as a single mom while trying to hold down a job, when she looked in the mirror and there it was: a shiny white hair.

Initially she decided to mask this new coming of age with regular visits to the salon. Then one day, six years ago, she ditched the dye and embraced her authentic salt-and-pepper locks.

“Women have been misled to believe that to be youthful looking they need to have a solid hair color, which doesn’t include gray,” says the 58-year-old, who lives in Houston. “Since I’ve gone gray I get many compliments from guys who love my hair.”

Evans is one of a small, but increasingly vocal, group of “gray-and-proud” African-American women who are tired of pricey visits to the salon. Instead of hiding their roots they opt to maintain their head full of gray hair.

Diana Lewis Jewell, author of Going Gray, Looking Great, runs a website which allows women to share their fears and successes about the issue. Women are increasingly choosing to transition from hair dye to natural hair because of two reasons: “authenticity and freedom,” she says.

Jo-Ani Johnson started going gray in her 20s, while working in the fashion industry. An unsettling comment from her then employer was the impetus to try to “fix her hair.”

For years the stylish New Yorker bleached her hair blond because her mane didn’t take to dye. “My hair was breaking and in terrible condition” says Johnson. “It looked more like a field of wheat than a head of hair.”

In 1996, Johnson made the decision to go natural and has never looked back. “So many times we try to change our appearance because of social pressure. Wearing my hair natural allows me to be who I am.”

Anne Kreamer, author of Going Gray: How to Embrace Your Authentic Self with Grace and Style says the two of the biggest fears mature women face are: Can I be sexually attractive as a gray-haired middle-aged woman? and Will I be discriminated against in the work world?

Of the 93 women in Congress, for instance, only five have grey hair and of 15 female executives of Fortune 500 CEO’s not one of them is showing their gray hair. The onset of gray is said to start at age 30 for males, 35 for females, so it is likely that at least some of these women cover up with dye.

Harvard-educated Kreamer says despite the perception that gray as the dividing line between young and old, the issue is more complex.

In the process of researching her book she conducted numerous surveys to find out if gray hair makes people look older. The results, she says, were surprising, and the data indicated that when gray hair is age-appropriate (from our 40s onward), we don’t actually fool people about our age when we dye it.

“We have been fooled by the beauty industry who market[s] gray hair, especially for women, as being unattractive,” says Kreamer, who estimates she spent $65,000 dyeing her hair over a 25-year-period before she had the confidence to join the “gray movement.”

In fact, there is a huge global market for hair colorants. According to a 2005 Procter & Gamble survey, 65 percent of women had colored their hair in the previous year, compared with 1950, when only seven percent of women admitted to dyeing their hair.

It was in the late 50s that advertisers, such as Clairol, launched catchy advertising campaigns to market their hair color products to the masses.

There are women, however, who have always had the confidence to go against the grain.

Marva Allen, owner of the African-American Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, N.Y., noticed her first streaks of gray in her 30s. Unlike the majority of women, not once has she felt the need to use dye. “I have never been an external person,” she says, “I am far more interested in the internal.”

The 58-year-old says she never felt having gray hair hindered her career prospects, though “my dealings with corporate America have always been sideways,” says Allen, who was past president and co-owner of USI, a multi-million dollar Michigan-based tech firm.

She admits, nevertheless, “I was a supplier and not on the payroll” and “perhaps, if I had a more traditional role it might have been different.”

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