Every three weeks, Mo Perry would retreat to her bathroom, don thin plastic gloves and apply Clairol Nice ‘N Easy in shade 4G, turning her gray roots a Dark Golden Brown to match the rest of her hair.
It was a ritual the Minneapolis actress and writer came to resent.
She didn’t like the time and money she spent (or the chemical smell of the dye), but she hated how anxious she felt when her roots were showing and she worried that the slowly widening stripe of gray would make it harder for her to land roles.
Still, two years ago in January, Perry made ditching the dye a New Year’s resolution — one that she actually kept. And made public.
As she gradually went gray, she posted a series of selfies on social media. To her delight, she was inundated with messages of support from other women.
“I’m so glad I did it,” said Perry, 38, who noticed her first gray hairs before she turned 30. “I still like to get pedicures. I wear makeup to varying degrees. And those things feel like augmenting the truth or decorating the truth. That [dye] really felt like hiding the truth.”
More women are embracing that “truth,” in part because of a rapidly growing online community that supports and celebrates going gray.
On Instagram, the @grombre account and hashtags like #silversisters, #goinggraygracefully and #grayhairmovement show flattering snapshots of silvery locks, salt-and-pepper curls, dramatic white streaks and even the often awkward growing-out period.
There are handbooks about the transition to gray (“Silver Hair, a Handbook: Say Goodbye to the Dye and Let Your Natural Light Shine”) as well as memoirs (“Gray Is the New Black” and “True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me About Health and Beauty”) that parse women’s personal experiences in making the change.
YouTube boasts how-to videos like “Going Gray and Rocking It” and T-shirts with the phrases “Openly gray,” and “Gray hair don’t care” are popping up in online shops.
“We’ve been seeing more gray hair in magazines and on Instagram,” said Ashley Wood, a color specialist at Minneapolis’ Haus Salon. “A lot of my clients follow @grombre on Instagram — there’s a ton of great inspiration on their feed,” she said.
But to Perry and plenty of others, going gray is about more than looks.
“It feels like resistance and celebration and liberation — the modern-day version of throwing our bras into a bonfire,” Perry wrote in the online literary magazine Catapult about going gray.
Perry credits the #MeToo movement and the attendant exploration of gender norms for helping her to finally stop dyeing her hair.
“I was seeing women across the culture dig deep to examine the assumptions that we’ve all internalized, about gender roles and what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate to expect of ourselves and each other,” she said.
“The way beauty standards work, it’s not something that we all go into a room by ourselves and come up with what we think is beautiful,” she said. “It’s really a collectively decided upon set of standards. So when you see a shift starting to happen, I think it’s inherently a cumulative cultural collective process. And then it starts to ripple out.”
According to a 2018 AARP survey, a majority of women continue to dye their hair, either at home or at a salon: 69% of women ages 38-53 and 65% of those 54-72. But there’s a notable change in how women think about naturally graying hair and their willingness to challenge a beauty standard that has held firm since Clairol’s at-home hair color kits hit the market in the 1950s.
Linda Rodin, a stylist and skin care entrepreneur, has long worn her silvery white hair in ads for J.Crew and H&M. Now she’s amassed more than 260,000 followers on Instagram, where she’s peppered with questions about her hair (which she admits she cuts herself and keeps looking bright with Clairol’s Shimmer Lights shampoo).
Gray hair got a cool boost several years ago when young women (including singers Ciara and Ariana Grande) first sported silver “ice queen” locks. Red carpet appearances, like the one by silver-haired artist Alexandra Grant and boyfriend Keanu Reeves, have also been garnering plenty of positive buzz.
Transitional color started becoming a popular request about two years ago, said Wood. So much so that Wood is one of a growing number of Twin Cities professional colorists now specializing in helping grays ease in gracefully.
“A lot of clients talk about how frustrated they are with the ‘white line’ that grows in and having to come into the salon so frequently,” said Wood.
When a client wants to move to a natural look, she often uses highlights and lowlights to mimic natural grays. For others, she will apply a full corrective color to get it closer to the natural gray, then add dimensional color later. (The appointments take about three hours and can range from $200 to $600.)
Stopping, never starting
Most women say they start coloring their gray hair because they equate the color with being old or unfashionable. But the reasons for going natural vary widely — from saving money to making a social statement to concerns about the risks of dyeing.
Grant posted on Instagram that she stopped dyeing her hair because she didn’t want to expose herself to potentially dangerous chemicals.
While past studies on the safety of dye were conflicting or inconclusive, new research from the National Institutes of Health released last month found an increased chance of breast cancer among women who regularly used permanent dye to color their hair.
The risks were especially high for black women. The NIH researchers called the risks both “small” and “meaningful,” suggesting that avoiding hair dye chemicals is just one of many things women may want to consider to reduce the risk of getting cancer.
Zoë François, a Minneapolis baker and a recent “Grombabe” featured on the Instagram account @grombre, never covered her gray.
“I grew up with this wackadoodle crazy curly hair, so adding some gray to it really wasn’t much of a stretch,” she said.
François said she was inspired by a silver-haired stranger she saw in her 20s in Paris, a woman she thought was the “most elegant, beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
But it wasn’t until François was singled out for her striking silver curls that she started sharing social media posts celebrating gray hair.
“People started reaching out to me and saying, ‘I’m letting my hair go gray, you know, you’re an inspiration.’ ”
Without intending to, François started her own silver tsunami.
“My mom ended up going gray. I didn’t even know what color her hair was; she had always dyed her hair. She’s now got gray hair and she looks fantastic. And my best friend is going gray,” said François.
“I think that it’s just being more comfortable in ourselves and who we are. I think it’s fun.”