By Anne Kreamer, American Sexuality Magazine
Posted on January 29, 2008, Printed on January 30, 2008
Last month at a lunch in a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I had an unusual experience. I, and the three other women with whom I was eating, became the focus of attention from strangers. As we were ushered to our table, every head in the place turned. There was nothing particularly unique about us -- we ranged in age from thirty-eight to fifty-three and all of us were wearing versions of the standard New York City uniform, dark and understated. But we all did share one highly unusual trait -- each of us had gray hair. And four gray-haired women under the age of sixty together in New York City is a remarkable sight. Something far more rare and interesting, as it turned out, than the fact that two stars of a hit TV show -- Melina Kanakaredes and Anna Belknap of CSI New York -- were eating at the table directly opposite ours. Those gorgeous celebrities were rendered invisible in the crowded restaurant by our table of gray-haired nobodies.
In 2007 when I was fifty-one, I published Going Gray, a memoir-cum-amateur-social-science exploration of what it felt like to be gray-haired in America. I wrote honestly about my own fears and experiences as I abandoned hair dye after twenty-four years of coloring, and I became my own guinea pig in various experiments where I probed two of women's biggest fears about aging: that they will be limited professionally by looking "old" and that they will lose their sexual attractiveness if they have gray hair. My experiments produced stunningly counterintuitive results.
In one, I posted my profile and picture on Match.com, putatively looking for dates in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles -- first with my hair photoshopped back to the brown color I had once dyed it, and then, months later, with my current gray hair. To my surprise, three times as many men in each of those cities expressed interest in going out with me with my hair gray than they had with my dyed hair. Good Morning America's producers, somewhat incredulous of my results, replicated the stunt in advance of my appearance on the program, with a sixty-one-year-old widow from Florida, and had exactly the same results. Needless to say, the finding that men seem actually to prefer a woman with gray hair (among many other surprising findings in my book) generated a tremendous amount of media interest.
The unanticipated and serendipitous connections that were generated through the press coverage ultimately led to my lunch date last month. One of the women, *Audrey, had been featured on a local news segment in New York that presented gray as the new "hot" color for hair. After the segment she wrote to me and we struck up a conversation. *Jane had been inspired by my book to launch a website, Graygirls.com, that celebrates gray hair. We, too, had become Internet friends. And the third woman at the luncheon, *Aki, was my close friend who had initially inspired me to stop dyeing my hair. I had the notion that it might be fun for all of us to meet and share our stories. But I certainly had no premeditated sense that four gray-haired women eating lunch together in Manhattan would register as some kind of freakish phenomenon.
On reflection, the hubbub we created makes a bit of sense. In 1950 only 7% of American women artificially colored their hair while today Clairol estimates that at least 65% of women in America dye. That's pretty much at the saturation level, and a survey that I conducted for a piece I wrote for Time suggested that the overwhelming majority pretty much obtains whether a woman lives in a small community in New England or urban areas like St. Louis or Dallas, based on the gray-hair versus color-hair divide. If a gray-haired young-middle-aged woman is now something of a rarity in our culture, then seeing four gray-haired young-middle-aged women together was the equivalent of seeing a group of Amish women in New York City.
Since the book was published I've corresponded with hundreds of women like Audrey and Jane, but I think letters from men, corroborating the results of my Match.com experiment, are particularly refreshing in casting a different light on the ability of women to remain sexually attractive and authentically themselves as they age.
As one fifty-one-year-old husband wrote: "My wife currently dyes her hair, and after reading what you said and imagining what she would look like gray I hope to convince her to let her natural hair color grow out. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. I hope that you help women to feel better about the aesthetics of aging naturally and, in turn, free them from the incredible cost in dollars, time and self-esteem that hair dying imposes."
"Good for you," wrote a fifty-three-year-old Canadian man. "What I like about the tone of your book is the emphasis on honesty and authenticity. No doubt some people, male or female, do the dye thing simply for the fun of it: and I can see that, to a degree. If it is 'whimsy,' know what I mean? But our popular culture is so over the edge in the cosmetic surgery, not only facial but bodily: and right down to genital reshaping. That, to me, is monstrous. And though public men do now and again dye their hair, or get cosmetic surgery, again it terminates most specifically on women. And if the older women set the tone by doing all the self-modification in order to stay younger-looking, the younger women pick up the trend even earlier."
A friend of my husband's wrote to him: "Tell Anne, perfect timing. I've been telling my wife to stop the 'touch ups' for years."
*Suzan, a fifty-four-year-old chef, shared a woman's point of view about positive male feedback: "I have had more compliments on my hair since it's gone gray than when I colored it! I have even had severe compliments from a young man I know socially, who enlightened me with the compliment, 'You have no idea how good looking you are and how sexy your hair is.' I made sure I had him write it down so I could relate that story at another time. Well, I guess this is that 'another time' I was looking for."
That women are the more critical of other women when it comes to hair color, age, and beauty was remarked upon by *Chris, an Oregonian: "... as a forty-one-year old male whose wife continually dyes her hair, I can tell you I am much more attracted to the natural women who wear very little, if any, makeup, don't dye their hair, and use perfume sparingly. The first impressions of women that dye their hair, use a lot of makeup/perfume is that they are high-maintenance with low self-esteem. I often see these type of women spending more time comparing themselves to other women and how they compare to them."
*Karen, a woman in the middle of growing out her dyed hair, echoed Chris' thinking: "Sometimes I wonder if it's just women's perception that we will be looked at or treated differently with gray hair. And that it is more our societal view of 'keeping up appearances' because we have been brought up always comparing ourselves to the women around us."
Unrealistic media imagery of visually perfect, artificially enhanced women reinforces a climate in which women inevitably will evaluate each other and themselves critically, and according to a fantasy standard. Research conducted by Dove as part of their "Campaign for Real Beauty" revealed alarming self-esteem issues -- for instance, that girls as young as thirteen were voicing concern that they were looking unattractively old.
I hope my modest one-woman expedition can inspire others to come to understand that alternatives exist. And maybe one day, before my teenaged daughters' hair turns gray, four gray-haired women having lunch together won't be a sensation.
*Last names have been omitted to protect confidentiality.
Anne Kreamer is the former executive vice president and worldwide creative director of Nickelodeon / Nick at Nite and part of the founding team of Spy magazine. She graduated from Harvard College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Kurt Andersen, and their two daughters.