In one of the last scenes of Gustave Flaubert’s great coming of age novel Sentimental Education, the hero, Frédéric, is reunited after sixteen years with Madame Arnoux, the older, married woman he has loved since his twenties. She has come to visit him and they’ve gone for a walk, but “when they came in, Madame Arnoux removed her hat. The lamp, placed on a dresser, lit up her white hair. It felt like a blow to his chest… something inexpressible, a repulsion and like the dread of incest… and the fear, later, to be disgusted… to be embarrassed to have such a mistress.”
He steps away from her, rolls a cigarette. It’s over.
I had no recollection of that scene when I decided, in March 2020, to stop dyeing my hair. But the horror of that “white hair” must have still festered deep in my psyche when I stared at the white roots, glowing like larva in the light, just as repulsive to me as to Frédéric. I had covered these roots with henna every two and a half weeks for more than twenty years.
I only realized my hair was turning when a stylist who was cutting my hair told me about one third of it was white. Her verdict was chilling. I wasn’t ready for that. I was fifty. I had a new book out. I was getting divorced. A new life was awaiting me!
You can still cover with henna, she continued soothingly, but you may need to do a double application for full coverage. One third of white hair! That was a shock. How did it happen? My first thought was that I was already staying three hours with the henna on my head, every two and a half weeks, and a double application would take me half the day. But I ate all organic and I wasn’t about to put chemicals on my head.
In Paris, in the 1970s, we—the counter-cultural girls devoted to natural food and products—discovered henna. It wasn’t our moms’ dye. It was the henna that women in the Maghreb—the North African countries that had been French colonies—and most Arab countries use to color their hair and make lovely, intricate designs on their hands and arms: ephemeral tattoos. Henna, made from the Lawsonia inermis plant, is a powder that, when mixed with water, forms a paste that adds copper highlights to the hair while strengthening the follicle.
I liked the earthy look, the herbal smell, how it would color your fingers orange-brown if you didn’t wear gloves or rinse your hands right away. It mixed with the patchouli I dabbed on myself. Henna was a mood, not a dye. It felt cool and hip. It was ancestral! It was good for the hair! I took my little sack of henna with me when I traveled and mixed it with hot water and applied it to my hair and let it dry in the sun. When I went to Paris, I searched for henna in the eighteenth arrondissement, or in the Grand Mosque near the Jardin des Plantes, where it was sold in little packets alongside vials of kohl powder that I used to trace the inside of my eyelids with a tiny wooden stick to make a smoky eye.
Over time, I couldn’t help but notice how brassy my hair began to look—no more subtle copper highlights but an orange tone particularly vibrant in pictures, and not in a good way. More like radioactive red. I had visions of older ladies with flamboyant hair, permed and cropped, nuclear rays of white roots glowing at the partition, that obscene “tell” that didn’t fool anyone except, perhaps, for them.
I had managed to stay in good enough shape: exercise, healthy living, good energy, youthful looks. So on some level, I could continue to deny the years were passing. I wanted to pretend that I was forever 38 or 40—but that bush of blazing orange was betraying me.
I switched to other plant-based dyes that came off a little more subtle. But they were still fiery because they couldn’t completely cover the white. It felt like a costume, not the way I wanted to present myself. Yet, I persisted. Facing my white hair head-on would have felt like facing death.
A few years ago, my daughter, then in her early twenties, stopped by and looked at my skull with concern, pointing to the roots. What’s this? I can see your skull! Are you losing your hair? Are you going bald?
I felt sheepish, ashamed, caught in flagrante for not having tended to my feminine garden.
No, I said. It’s my white hair. I have a lot of white hair.
I felt I had deceived her, covering my tracks (my roots) so well she hadn’t even noticed, paid attention, and now the horrible truth was finally revealed.
Or, as she put it another time, in another circumstance: you’re not so young anymore.
And here was the proof. Maybe I was lithe enough to climb my four flights of stairs but nature had spoken. The white was sprouting on my skull and had been for years. Enough of pretending to be young—including making a fool of myself or making bad decisions and having affairs with men twenty years younger.
Or living as if there was no tomorrow.
The power of that image—the sudden appearance of white hair, instantly turning a woman into a maternal, untouchable figure—is such that even now, 150 years after the publication of Flaubert’s novel, it still sounds the death knell of a woman’s seduction and fuckability.
I follow women who’ve gone gray on Instagram. Some are models who made their mark in the 1960s and 1970s and have never used color; they went natural from the very first white hair. Others are women who decided to #ditchthedye and document the process, week after week. They embrace their white hair with pride, even claiming it as an instrument of seduction, in the same spirit that LGBTQIA+ people have claimed the term queer, turning a slur into a positive self-label. Natural hair has taken off in the fashion world, where the silver models rack up contracts with big fashion and cosmetics houses.
I was watching them online, these women, and I was trying to project myself into their lives, standing at the precipice.
Every two and a half weeks, I picked up the metal container I’d brought back from France, containing the plant powder I would have to mix with water and rub on my hair like some concoction dating back to Roman times. And every two and a half weeks, I hesitated. I spread my hair apart to stare at the white roots that kept pushing like weeds, inexorably, patiently, invisibly, mindlessly, day after day, the roots that had to be battled, the roots, that, if I turned my back for one second, if I missed the third week without dyeing, viciously asserted themselves, and I had to decide: color? or let it go? Invariably I would color.
In August 2019, at Orly on my way to Berlin, I saw a woman with a young girl I assumed was her granddaughter. She was French, she had pure white hair cut in a cool bob, and she was wearing wide gray chino trousers, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up just so, and bright red sneakers. She was stunning. When I complimented her hair, she said she’d never dyed it.
And then it was March 2020 and the whole world shut down. New York City was in lockdown and at the two and a half week mark after my last dye job, which had been in February, I didn’t even look at the metal container. I wasn’t going to see anyone for weeks, except furtively, behind a mask, and only to take a walk along the East River to get some fresh air. It was still cold. I’d be wearing a beanie anyway.
I wore the beanie a long time.
I didn’t know that hundreds of women, maybe thousands, had the same idea all over the world. Taking the plunge cold turkey. Some because they couldn’t go to the hairstylist; others, like me, who needed that push.
Hair doesn’t actually turn gray or white. As you get older, hydrogen peroxide (the same as your stylist uses to bleach your hair) naturally builds up in your follicles, blocking the production of melanin. Juxtaposed against the strands with melanin, the colorless hair appears gray or silver—or totally white when the whole head has lost its pigments.
My grandmother was born in 1893, and like most women of her generation, she didn’t color her hair when it started going gray. That was for the floozies and tarts who were trying to artificially prolong their shelf-life. As a proper bourgeoise, she had it permed, set, and rinsed blue at the salon to avoid the dreaded “yellowing” that was said to discolor white hair exposed to air and sun. The passage to gray, which, for her, probably happened in her fifties (I grew up with my grandparents and only remember her with gray hair) must have been an accepted, perhaps even welcome, new phase of life, that of a grandmother. It was a natural part of aging.
I flew to France after she died. She was on her deathbed, prepared for the funeral, wrapped in the traditional shroud of Vendée, the province she came from, hair straight and white, plastered on her skull; it was a shock, as though her previously permed, gray hair had been yanked out of her skull like a wig. The plastered white hair was never meant to be seen in public. Her gray-blue hair hadn’t been a wig, but how different is the constant dying of the roots, except that it’s a wig made of your own hair?
The white hair—that glaring faux-pas, a regrettable capitulation to the ravages of time—is anathema to all the efforts to groom, to civilize nature, to mimic youth. A giving up: like these roots I saw once in Brighton Beach, in South Brooklyn, pushing through the sidewalk in front of a house, roots reaching out like tentacles under the cement slabs and lifting them, breaking them. Nature asserting its powers.
Coloring human hair, like adorning bodies with piercings and tattoos, dates as far back as images have been recorded, far into antiquity. I like to believe it’s part of the desire to embellish ourselves and our surroundings, to tweak, improve, subvert, play with what nature has given us. It wasn’t just about hiding gray hair. And it wasn’t just women, either. The Vikings worshipped blond hair and often bleached their beards to a saffron yellow. The color of your hair marked your place in a certain social class, or tribe. Roman prostitutes were required to have blond hair. They could either bleach it or wear a wig. The Egyptians blackened theirs with a mix of lead oxide and slaked lime. The Romans mixed fermented leeches with vinegar. To cover the grays, they would mix ash, boiled walnuts shells, and earthworms. The Greeks favored light colors and used a mix of wood ash and vinegar or lye. When the Romans conquered Northern Europe, blond became the rage among the upper class, who would make expensive, intricate wigs from the hair of their blond prisoners of war and captured slaves: a symbol of Rome’s subjugation of the barbarians. If they couldn’t afford the wigs, both men and women applied bleaching agents, or sprinkled actual gold dust on their head. Or yellow flower pollen, for a cheaper, more bucolic, fix.
In medieval and Renaissance Italy, the ideal woman had golden hair and white skin, as we see in classic paintings of Venetian artists in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as depicted in this poem by Petrarch (ca. 1327–1368):
le bionde treccie sopra ‘l collo sciolte,
ov’ogni lacte perderia sua prova,
e le guancie ch’adorna un dolce foco.
Blond waves loose upon her neck,
where any milk would lose in competition,
and her cheeks adorned by a sweet fire.
But since many Venetian women didn’t have naturally blond hair, they, too, used elaborate concoctions to lighten their tresses.
Amazingly, hair dye recipes remained practically unchanged through the end of the nineteenth century. In a Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book, published in 1868, the list of products included cream of tartar, lard, silver nitrate, ammoniac, proto-nitrate of mercury, spirits of turpentine, sulfur, and lead.
All that was missing were the leeches.
But then everything changed at the turn of the twentieth century. A French chemist from Alsace, Eugène Schueller, discovered a new formula. The son of Parisian pastry shop owners, he was a brilliant chemistry student who graduated first in his class in 1904 from the Institute of Chemistry. He had taken a job as a lab assistant at the Sorbonne when he was befriended by a Parisian hairdresser who asked him to create a safer dye.
This is the story of L’Oréal, and it starts in 1907 in a Paris kitchen, rue d’Alger. Schueller put together the first synthetic hair dye “guaranteed without risk,” mixed it at night, and sold it to hairdressers, who were still using the traditional and toxic combinations of henna, lead, and hydrogen peroxide. The secret to Schueller’s dye was paraphenylenediamine (or PPD), a dye until then used to color fabrics. The base PPD is colorless and requires oxygen to become a dye; thus, PPD dyes are usually packaged in two bottles, one containing the dye and the other a developer or oxidizer.
By 1909, when he was 26, Schueller founded the Société Française de Teintures Inoffensives pour Cheveux (the French Company of Inoffensive Hair Dyes). An early believer in the power of advertising, he launched one of the first major campaigns in the world, and quickly became famous for his gold hair tints.
He changed the name of his company to L’Oréal, after the hair style à l’auréole, which formed a kind of halo around the face and was the cool hairstyle in 1900. Within a few decades, L’Oréal had taken over the world.
A 1907 black and white advertising poster for L’Oréal features side by side drawings of a woman with a garçonne haircut. On the left, her hair is completely white and she looks sad, eyes downcast; on the right, her hair is dark and she has a bright smile and happy eyes. The copy underneath reads: Plus un cheveu blanc, toujours trente ans (no more white hair, thirty forever).
Schueller had single-handedly created a market that tapped into the deepest feminine desire: dyeing your hair was now safe, fast, easy, cool.
And you never had to look old again.
With L’Oréal’s help, a mere forty years into the future, Madame Arnoux might have had a chance with Frédéric, and their lives might have taken a different turn.
My mother was of the L’Oréal generation. Born in Paris in 1915, she became a young woman in the 1930s, a decade after the flappers and the garçonnes, and dove head first into the chaotic new world de l’entre-deux-guerres. Rebelling against all bourgeois conventions, she was a free spirit, sexually adventurous, provocatively outspoken, proudly going door to door to sell an encyclopedia of left-wing poets to raise money for the French Communist party. She embraced the new hair colors with gusto.
I don’t think I ever saw her natural hair. In black and white photos of her in her teens and twenties, it is dark. To my eyes, she was a diva. Like Picasso, she had her periods: her platinum blond period; her flamboyant red period; her brunette period. In the bathroom of my grandparents, whose house we lived in until I went to college, the smell of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia wafted up and down the stairs when she did her monthly bleach and dye. She probably never knew when her white hair started appearing. None of the women in her generation sported gray hair. By the time she was in her sixties and seventies, she settled on an ash blond that would blend in better with her white roots. That was the rule: after a “certain age,” a woman would gradually lighten her hair to avoid the clash of white roots and darker hair. To avoid inadvertently striking a man to the chest.
The existential fear at the heart of the beauty industry is the fear of aging. L’Oréal and Clairol (its American counterpart) were genius at exploiting it—as ruthlessly as the tobacco industry later advertised the Marlboro Man. A 1943 Clairol ad claims: “Gray hair, the heartless dictator. Without justice or kindness, gray hair can rule your life. It can choose your clothes—confine you to a few subdued colors. It can pick your friends—from the older set.”
By the 1940s and 1950s, the hair dye industry had won the battle: Gray hair was out. Gray hair was taboo. Gray hair made you look old. If you wanted to remain cool, attractive, relevant, you couldn’t have gray hair. Letting your hair go natural meant you were giving up on seduction; worse, it meant that you were letting yourself go all around. To pot. To seed. To hell. To a social grave.
“There’s a reason,” Nora Ephron wrote in I Feel Bad About My Neck, “why forty, fifty, and sixty don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye. In the 1950s, only seven percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all.”
Sure, women have braved the taboo. Patti Smith with her mane of steel-colored hair; Christine Lagarde, president of European Central Bank, with her halo; Jane Campion, director of The Piano and The Power of the Dog, with her white locks. But they looked a little eccentric, a little witchy. Over the last ten years, I’ve seen quite a few women in New York go gray. Beautiful, artsy women. A sculptor who lives across the street from me, hopping on her bicycle, her long curly mane floating behind her in gray tendrils, like an Amazon. Still, it was the furthest thing from my mind to consider starting on that journey. If you had asked me, I would have said, it’s great, it’s radical, but not for me. I’ll stay a redhead for a while, thank you. The curly redhead of my fantasy.
It took a complete lockdown caused by a global pandemic, with all hair salons and stores closed and no end in sight, to lift the taboo en masse.
By September 2021, there were enough women—at least in the United States—who had decided to #ditchthedye, for The New York Times to publish a photo portfolio. For women who were tempted, but didn’t have it in them to go cold turkey, Vogue published “A Guide for Transitioning to Gray Hair, According to Pro Colorists” in October of that year. Something I would have thought to be simple and natural—just quit the dye, sit back, and basta!—revealed itself to be a journey full of obstacles, for clients and colorists alike.
“The lockdown definitely helped encourage women,” Jack Martin told Vogue. (His silver-haired clients include Jane Fonda and Andie MacDowell.) The go-to colorist for seamless gray transitions is a champion of silver strands. “Usually once a woman sees a little gray,” he said, “they head straight to the salon. But while quarantining at home, they grew it.”
Some of the techniques are worthy of the Romans or Egyptians, involving foiling in various places to mimic the salt/pepper pattern, color extractors, bleach, lowlights, or adding glamour streaks à la Susan Sontag. Even if you let your hair go natural over time, visits might be necessary to avoid the dreaded line between artificial color and new growth. Not to mention a complicated regimen of products, adding blue/purple tint to tone down the yellowing, cooling it off or warming it up to match your color. Also, a plethora of serums, creams, and sprays for moisture and texture.
If you thought going natural was a liberation, Vogue doesn’t quite see it that way.
But I think this is not—or not entirely—about services and products. I think there’s a real dread of letting go.
Seeing my white hair for the first time, a friend, who has let her hair go natural without ever dyeing it and now sports long salt and pepper locks, told me: It must have taken guts.
Alone in confinement, I watched my roots come in, a fraction of an inch, then half an inch. It was April 2020, still chilly in New York. If I had to go out, I would stick a beanie on my head. The groceries were being delivered, no contact. All work—teaching, meetings—was done from home, on Zoom. But when I looked at myself in full daylight, I saw an older woman overdue for a dye job, a woman whose roots not only betray her age but also her self-neglect. So these were the famous “roots” that had to be hidden at all costs! Looking at them closely, separating the strands of hair with my fingers, I let the shame wash over me in waves. I felt vulnerable au naturel, naked. Without a trace of makeup, roots showing. Then I thought of Helen Mirren. My age. Proudly white-haired. So what? It’s only hair. I was curious. Who’s underneath the carefully maintained armor? White hair. No makeup. In sweatpants and sweaters or a hoodie.
At first, the white was barely noticeable, a ray of light, a sprinkle of silver dust on top of my head, and if I brushed my hair to the side, I could pretend.
Or so I thought. I was part of a Zoom film meet every month, where someone would introduce the film and we would watch on our computers, then convene and discuss. After a couple of months, the host, a friend, suddenly caught the silver reflection on my head: Are you dyeing your hair platinum blonde?
By summer, I stopped thinking of the roots as shameful. I started seeing them as tender seedlings pushing towards the light. I wouldn’t hide them, I wouldn’t abort them; I would nurture them with good shampoos and oils. They took on a new meaning: a source of delight and pride. Once enough white surrounded my face, I saw myself as Debbie Harry, a rock n’ roll girl. Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow in Platinum Blonde, Hollywood’s first bombshell! Or even Kim Kardashian in a silver wig, Lady Gaga in her white updo, Kristen Stewart or Gwen Stefani: suddenly I got it, why women bleached their hair to that pale, tender silver or buttery yellow: the color of the bombshell, “blondes have more fun.” The color of Titian’s Madonnas. The luminosity it brings to the skin is unparalleled, practically neon-white, the otherworldly youthfulness of the hue. This angelic halo, pearly, almost iridescent.
Suddenly white hair didn’t look like the color of aging women who had given up, the color of my grandmother’s hair upon her death at 97, combed flat on her skull, the color of death or near-death, the color drained of all colors, the color of the skin drained of blood. The white became the color of seduction itself. It became the color of the angels, the color of baby blond hair, silky and silvery, glowing in the light. The color of purity, almost translucent in the sun.
It didn’t feel like a try-out. It felt like it was it. A long-stifled desire bubbling to the surface. To let go of what had become an obligation. It felt like—dare I say—a coming out: what a relief not to have to hide anymore. Hide my roots, hide the visible signs of age. So yes, in a way, giving up: on a fake appearance of youth. Dyeing is akin to not revealing your age. Coquettishly keeping the mystery. Like the L’Oréal ad from the 1950s: “Is she or isn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”
It’s as though femininity is all about hiding, creating, adding, decorating. As though an unadorned woman is not a true woman but an unfinished first draft. Perhaps even not really a woman, but a simple female version of a male.
Unvarnished. Just a female animal.
I had all these thoughts in my head: I was toppling into old age. The message was imprinted so hard into my unconscious that when a beautiful and youthful French friend told me a few years back, if you let your hair go white, you will look ten years older, I couldn’t do it.
But it was exactly that this was about: stop clutching at what I used to look like … when, twenty, thirty years ago? Stop trying to freeze time. Stop controlling the outcome. Stop the obsessive grooming, like a formal garden à la française, not a branch out of place, cordon-pruned.
I realized what my notion of femininity had meant: a lifetime of controlling; compulsively hiding the blood that risks “showing” through white jeans or a pastel-colored skirt; compulsively checking to make sure my underwear wasn’t “showing” under a short dress. All that checking and hiding to avoid appearing “sloppy” or “trash.” The roots fall into that category: a lack of grooming, a horror of letting nature run its course—while men can let it all hang out. A woman always has to be in control, of herself, her man, her children, her sexuality. In French, we talk about a woman “qui se laisse aller,” who lets herself go. A woman who isn’t trying to control herself any longer, isn’t trying to please men, to tend to her femininity. The white roots are all of that rolled into one scandalous “appearance” of what should never been seen, or acknowledged—as though femininity isn’t part of natural life.
In a 2017 article in Allure, a thirty-nine-year-old editor said that leaving her gray hair alone was too much to face. “I guess letting them grow out feels like a risk,” she explained. “I don’t want to be an invisible, middle-aged woman! I want to still be a little bit young and vital.” And she’s not wrong. A recent survey commissioned by Gransnet (an over-fifty Internet community) reveals seven out of ten women feel “invisible” as they get older. 43% complained of being passed over when waiting to be served at a bar or pub; 31% of being ignored in shops; 25% of being ignored when entering a restaurant, garage, or other service business; and 24% of being passed over by staff when in a shop or service business.
I run into an acquaintance in the street, a lovely woman, maybe ten years younger than I am. Her hair is light brown. But in the sunlight, now that I have become observant, I see a graying shadow on the top of her head. She says it’s not for her, that going gray. Her skin is pink, gray is blue-toned, it wouldn’t match.
The first women I followed online were those who never colored their hair. They let the gray come gently, with curiosity; some, very early, in their thirties or forties, like the model Linda Rodin, known for the line of skin care and face oil Olio Lusso, which she created in her kitchen and sold to Estée Lauder—which recently shut it down. On Rodin, now in her early seventies, white hair is a glamorous signature. “I never dyed my hair,” she has explained. “People have been telling me since I was 35 that it’s aging, that I’d look younger if I colored it! It just works for me.”
So, too, Marian Moneymaker: a Ford model in her late sixties, with long gray hair that she has never dyed. She became a model only about ten years ago. “My responsibility right now,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2021, “is to show women that they don’t have to be pigeon-holed into an old granny look with a ‘poodle-do.’ They don’t have to cut their hair short and go hide. I’m truly owning myself at this point, and I want all women to know they’re beautiful at every age.”
Some of the Instagram #silversisters do complicated things worthy of top colorists to “ease” the process—“hide” the transition—with a mix of “lowlights” and bleach to hide the dividing line between color and gray. But mostly they chart the journey, posting every week, measuring the time that has elapsed, six months, eighteen months, since the last dye. It’s like the time since the last cigarette or the last glass of bourbon. Like a sobriety journey. I follow them and read the comments.
It’s a virtual AA sisterhood.
Is dyeing an addiction? A dark commitment to affirm your youthfulness and femininity? Is going white the latest frontier? The ultimate liberation? Even edgier, more radical, than getting a tattoo?
It asserts that gray is just another color, and just as beautiful.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, that feminine construct. Even to ourselves. After decades on this earth, we believe the adult we finally created, after many trials and errors, with whom we finally made peace, loved, and identified is the one. This is me, we say, approving our look in the mirror at forty, fifty, even sixty. A good haircut, good color, toned body. As though we were a sculpture to which the artist has put their final touch. And then, almost imperceptibly, the wrinkles start to crease the skin, the white hairs multiply, and just like that, we find ourselves in a new ballgame. The carefully constructed feminine persona is crumbling; it takes more and more work to prop it up. At the risk of not recognizing ourselves.
It seems strange to me that, among the outwardly visible signs of aging—wrinkles, sagging neck, soft belly, jiggling triceps—the flash point is hair color. Perhaps because it’s easiest to see and easiest to fix.
January 2022. It is now almost twenty-four months since I started on this journey—cold turkey, alone, without the help of any stylist or product. I happily lived with bicolor hair for a year and a half, including when the university went back to in-person. I have had my hair cut three times since. Once before the summer, and another time before Thanksgiving, and another in spring 2022, when all the faded red got cut away. My students noticed immediately that I’d had my hair cut and that the colored ends were gone. They said they’d liked the ombré, bicolor look, although they thought the white was cool, too. I only had support, and even enthusiasm, from young women and from men of all ages, or from fellow “white hair travelers.” The only reservations I heard were from some women my age who still dye.