Hair Color: Pros and Cons, or "Why I Stopped Coloring My Hair"
Those Silver Highlights are Natural
I decided nearly three months before writing this article to stop coloring my hair. There were several reasons for my momentous decision. Before I list them, let me give you some background about my hair and the problems I've encountered in my quest to improve it.
I was born bald and was still nearly so in a studio photograph of me at age 10 months. An unsmiling child with chubby cheeks wearing a “comb-forward” (toddler version of the infamous comb-over) hairstyle stares glumly at the camera. My mother obviously wet my hair before combing the very few, very finely-textured strands forward from my crown to my forehead where they ended in extremely short, cut-straight-across bangs. That was 1944, after all!
A year later, I had enough hair to pull back and catch with a barrette, and the color was a very dark brown. It had grown enough in length to be cut just shy of my ears in a very straight cut. My hair was still fine and straight as a ruler. No curl, no body. I would be getting home perms by the time I started to school at age five. Until then, I spent Saturday nights sleeping on pin-curled hair as Mom tried to force my stubborn locks to at least curve, if not curl, for Sunday morning church attendance.
Sleeping on bobby pins wasn’t comfortable, but that was a breeze compared to choking on the noxious fumes of chemicals contained in a home perm kit. My mom, like many mothers of that period, longed for her daughter to look like child actress Shirley Temple, a moppet whose ringlets were popular when said mothers were young. However, mine gave birth to a truculent child with limp hair that hung from its roots in perfectly straight lines. Mom tried to change my hair—oh, how she tried! But the curls wrought by bobby-pinned circles slid out within an hour or so, and perms in those days just made my hair frizzy and fried.
I recall having a “heat wave” (not to be confused with the weather or body temperature) when I was about twelve years old. The curling apparatus hung from above the beauty salon chair with tentacles that attached to partings of the customer's hair. Stinky chemicals were also involved in this new method. In addition, the treatment entailed the use of heat. It was tricky for the beautician to time it just right and unfasten the tentacles before the smell of singed hair overpowered the chemicals. Oops! I got that frizzy-and-fried look again, but at least my hair wasn’t straight. This was a temporary fix that lasted for about three months.
My hair has always grown quickly, especially while permed or short, when I’d prefer it to grow much more slowly. My mother believed fervently in girls wearing their hair cut short, so it was never any longer than just below my rather large ears (which she did like to cover, and I don’t blame her—I still do). I would be married before I had long hair. I grew it long in the ‘60s—long, ruler-straight (when it was fashionable) and parted in the middle. During that period, I shampooed it every morning and let it dry naturally for several hours. But, wait . . . I’m getting ahead of my story. Let me backtrack a bit.
When did I first begin ”assisting” my hair color? I decided to become a blonde in 1964, before I let my tresses grow long. Instead of entrusting my hair to a professional hair colorist, I opted for DIY at home. After all, one of my friends lightened her own hair, and she always looked stylish.
I bought my first package of hair color at the pharmacy, wavering between choices of temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent color formula. Suffice it to say I was completely ignorant about all of them, but timid about going all out with permanent color the first time. I settled for the temporary color kit.
Since my hair was so dark and contained a lot of red pigment, temporary color did not get close to making my hair as light as the photograph on the cover of the package. The end result was more of a muddy red. Oops! Well, that wouldn’t do, and I couldn’t leave it like that. So, back to the pharmacy, and this time I bought the semi-permanent formula.
I followed instructions and waited the requisite twenty-four hours between treatments, but the minute that twenty-fourth hour passed, I used the new formula. Which, by the way, required a different approach, with a too-brief learning curve. It didn't make the process easier that I tried to see the back of my head by holding a hand mirror behind it while daubing drippy hair coloring mixture with the other hand encased in a rubber glove.
It still didn’t turn out right! My hair was supposed to be a flaxen blond (according to the picture on the box). Instead, it was a brassy dark blond or brassy light brown, depending on the lighting, and still hinting of red. Arrrgh! Back to the pharmacy.
I have no idea why my hair didn’t all break off even with my scalp after soaking up all those chemicals, but my luck held. Partially. While my hair didn’t break off, and not too much of it fell out, there was a decidedly green tinge to the lighter color I achieved, particularly right around my hairline.
That’s how I learned (belatedly) that the various types of hair-coloring treatments available in those days weren't supposed to be used interchangeably. Semi-permanent formula was not meant to be used on hair already treated with a temporary color, because the ingredients weren’t compatible.
Another twenty-four hours went by, after which I employed a potion known as a “drabber” to rid my locks of the green hue and some of the brassiness. At last! I was a BLONDE.
It only took a couple of weeks before my very dark roots grew out enough to see the decidedly noticeable line of demarcation between the blond me and the brunette me. The process of coloring just the roots was even more difficult than the initial whole-head treatment, so it wasn’t long before I used a dark permanent dye to reverse my hair back to its natural shade. I left it alone and its color “unassisted” for the next 20 or so years.
In my forties, I began coloring my hair again. Let me tell you right here, the reason was not to cover up gray like the commercial claims. I didn’t yet have any gray, which surprised me since one of my grandmothers went completely silver-haired by her fifties. I was simply bored with my appearance and wanted a change. For a while, I kept my hair frosted (not to be confused with tipped or foiled, both of which I did later). Frosting dark hair made it streaked, the dark brown alternating with streaks of medium blond.
By this time, I didn’t have the time or inclination to “do it myself," so I entrusted my hair to various hair colorists. They each used different products and different methods, so my hair's “look” changed accordingly.
I stayed with blondish shades until my early fifties, when a professional colorist suggested I go red. Hey! That’s a good idea. I’ve always liked red hair. I told her okay and gave her carte blanche with the tone.
The shade of red I got was a deep red, but not auburn. Actually, it was really, really RED. Not quite a primary color, but close. I liked it. My eyes suddenly looked much more green than blue. I really liked it. I also liked wearing the colors of clothing and makeup that look good on redheads. Now I finally had the hair color to match my temperament, so I kept it red for a couple of years.
During that period, I moved and began to try DIY hair coloring again. The products had gotten better since my initial amateur hair-coloring ventures. I had such a hectic schedule that making time to go to a salon was more difficult than applying the mixture myself. That’s when consistency of color really got knocked out of the water! The shades vacillated between a deep burgundy and the bright red that’s in the smallest Crayola™ box.
I recall one time when the shade was so “off” that I desperately needed professional remedial help, and I needed it right then! I had to take a personal day away from work, covered my head with a scarf to go to the salon, and it took a three-step treatment and all day to make me look human.
After that, it was back to brown . . . auburn . . . and then, medium ash blond . . . followed by . . . I'm sure you get the picture. My hair color changed so often that small children in my extended family were apt to get confused whenever they saw me.
Fast forward to 2008, and a new phase of my hair care adventure began.
By then, I was retired and still coloring my hair once a month in front of the bathroom mirror. The shades still varied a bit from coloring to coloring, depending on what was available or on sale in the hair products section at the supermarket. My retiree budget did not extend to professional color treatments.
It grew more difficult for me to treat the growing-out roots on the back of my head. The dual problems of not being able to really see what I was doing and difficulty holding my arms aloft so long wore me down. Consequently, there were times when I had chunks of hair that got left out of the coloring treatment altogether—little streaks of dark brown with gray sprinkles that shone through the colored hair. I kept asking myself: Is it time to give in to nature and let my hair go gray?
By then, my hair was turning gray. I wore it either bleached or dyed for so long I wasn’t aware how much gray hair existed on my head until I slacked off keeping the roots tinted. I'd look in the mirror and do a double take. What is that on my head? From that point on, there was no pretending the gray wasn’t there. How did I feel about it? I still wasn't sure. Did I really want to see just how much gray hair was hiding under the hair color? So, it was 2010 before I finally made the Big Decision and went au naturel.
Here are the reasons I decided to stop coloring my hair:
(1) The process had become too unwieldy for me to perform myself because of physical challenges. I started dreading the procedure the moment I took the box of hair color from the shelf.
(2) My stretched-to-breaking budget could not afford the frequent expense of even the DIY treatment, much less the cost of salon treatment. I often cut it myself, handling the back by a combination of touch, two mirrors and plenty of guesswork. I'd recently gone shorter with my hair length than it had been in years in the quest for comfort and ease of care.
(3) I’d read that some of the chemicals in dark hair dyes may be dangerous, possibly carcinogenic. Actually, these warnings about dark hair dyes were published for at least a couple of years before I paid attention, but they seemed to be aimed at women of childbearing age (obviously inapplicable to me). There did not seem to be any conclusive evidence, and many scientific studies (sometimes depending upon how they were funded) contradicted each other. Still, with the years adding up, I tried to avoid known and potential toxins. Why take a chance?
(4) The very youngest children in the family didn't know from one visit to the next what color GiGi's hair would be. ("GiGi" is short for Great-Grandmother.)
(5) What the heck! As the official matriarch of my family, at that point getting closer to the Big 7-0, a senior citizen (and what a very young person would consider "an old lady"), why shouldn’t my gray hair shine for the world to see? It may be a sign that my vanity decreased with age, but I strongly felt, Hey! It’s okay to be gray!
The History of Jaye's Hair
Will I Change my Mind? Not Likely!
Making the decision was the easy part. Watching my hair color change inch by inch as my hair grew out, looking in the mirror and seeing the “calico cat” look as three colors fought for domination—artificial reddish brown, natural dark brown, plus more and more gray as the length grew was scissored off—took real determination. It would have been so easy to give in and cover up the gray, but I held fast to my choice.
After all, I’m human and a woman, albeit one for whom the term "elderly" has a different meaning now that it describes me. Once all the artificial color was trimmed away, and the hair on my head was a salt-and-pepper mixture (not to mention those silver wings in front and on the sides), I realized: that’s really and truly the “natural” me. Different, but okay. Yes, I'm okay, and so is my hair in its normal state.
After I began writing this account, I read Gray Hair is Sexy, by Isabella Snow. Isabella is beginning to get some grays in her early thirties, so if her hair turns silver overnight, granted, it will look sexy on her. People who are prematurely gray usually look striking, and I've seen her photo. She looks good (though I saw no grays). I did notice that the first photo she featured in that article is one of EmmyLou Harris, the singer/songwriter. EmmyLou has been on the music scene for quite a while, so she can't be very far behind me in age, and her hair is gray. She does look sexy! With those cheekbones, she undoubtedly has good genes.
I look at magazine photos of Helen Mirren (now, there's a woman who ROCKS gray hair!) and almost wish the remaining pigment in my hair would disappear. Meanwhile, I have built-in silver highlights and even a few streaks. That's enough drama for me--that is, until I finally become a lady with shining silver hair.
POSTSCRIPT: The updated photo beneath the title shows my "natural frosting" as well as my DIY haircut. What do you think? I've become comfortable with the natural me. The best part? My new "do" doesn't cost me a cent!
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© 2010 Jaye Denman