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Sherri Richards, Published November 04 2013

Silver Joy: Many women saying ‘no more’ to washing away their gray hair

Moorhead -- Linda Anderson exudes what she calls “silver joy.”

It’s a freedom she’s felt since letting her gray hair grow.

“To accept the gray is to accept yourself,” says Anderson, 55, of Moorhead. “You’ve accepted who you are at this point in your life.

“It’s so freeing,” she adds. “It’s almost like I’ve arrived.”

Anderson didn’t feel this way about the gray hairs she first noticed in her 40s. Her reaction then was terror, she says.

“I felt old,” she says. “I hadn’t seen the upside of them at that point.”

Anderson, who works in the youth-filled field of digital marketing, now says she’s as young as she feels, not her hair color.

Being silver-haired makes her feel more authentic.

“I think it gives you a confidence because you’re not hiding anything. You’re you,” she says.

More baby boomer women seem to be finding the upside of gray hair.

A group of women marched on Times Square in New York last fall to publicly show off their long silver locks.

Leah Rozen, a former People magazine movie critic, wrote an essay for the New York Times this summer about abandoning the dye.

“If my going gray is in any way a political statement, it’s a passive but shimmeringly visible protest against the cult of youth,” Rozen, 57, wrote. “Blondes may have more fun, but we gray gals have it made in our shade.”

Even young trendsetters have been streaking their hair gray for the last few years. Think Kelly Osbourne and Rihanna.

But that doesn’t mean societal attitudes about gray hair have changed.

Allure magazine conducted its first-ever survey on aging this year. When respondents were asked what words they associate with gray hair on a woman, the top response was “old.” When it’s on men, the top answer was “distinguished.”

Matthew and Audra Mehl of Fargo represent this dichotomous attitude about gray.

Matthew, now 42, started graying in his mid-30s. At first, he wondered if the gray was showing up because of stress, a medical condition, or if it was hereditary.

“I may have had it colored one time,” he admits.

The end result was too dark, and he hated it. “I looked like Elvis,” he says.

After that, he embraced his silver strands.

“With age comes wisdom, life experience,” he says. “They don’t come free. You have to earn these gray hairs.”

Audra says she loves her husband’s hair, noting he’s “very George Clooney looking.”

But Audra doesn’t feel the same way about the few gray strands she’s found among her blonde locks.

For her, gray hair is affirmation that she’s aging, and a reminder of mortality.

“I was mortified as a woman,” says the 41-year-old. “I’m just going to keep dyeing. I don’t know if I could embrace it.”

She’s not alone.

Katie Hegfeth, a stylist at Chelsea Alene Salons in Fargo and a color educator for Wella products, says she hasn’t noticed more women embracing the gray. Most of her clients, typically age 40 to 70, still cover up the gray, and most of them come in every four to eight weeks.

“I think there’s a stigma about gray hair making women feel older,” Hegfeth says.

Plus, she says women today have more options for products and techniques that produce natural-looking color that’s easier to keep touched up, she says.

Hegfeth says she did have one client who wanted to grow her gray hair out. At each appointment, she cut off more and more of her original color.

“She loved it and it looked so good on her,” Hegfeth says.

Individual stories like that one are why Anderson and friend Susie Ekberg Risher happily talk about their empowering switch to silver.

Ekberg Risher, a fashion consultant, says she’s counseled women about embracing their gray. The conversation usually starts with the woman saying she “would love to go gray, but …”

She encourages the woman to commit to the transition, and hopes she can be an example of “aging awesomely.”

Ekberg Risher started going gray when she was about 30. At the time, she thought she was too young. She’d been dyeing her hair since her teenage years, so she just kept coloring.

By her mid-40s, she was getting tired of it. It was expensive, she says, “plus I just don’t think it’s healthy.”

An attempt to go gray in her 40s failed, she says. “I looked like a skunk, it was awful,” she says, noting the difference in tone between her warm brown hair and the cool gray.

But when she turned 50, she was ready. She didn’t want to be vain about it anymore.

She started cutting her hair a little bit shorter and highlighting to blend the gray. Hats and headbands helped hide the grow-out.

“The trick was just having to get past that super ugly stage,” says Risher, now 53. “You have to commit for about a year to a year and a half to going gray.”

Risher’s mom, who was always proud of her age and salt-and-pepper hair, was a role model. So was her older sister.

“She went totally gray. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” she says of her sister.

Anderson says she was inspired by women who didn’t look old but had silver hair. She was tired of the upkeep needed to color her hair, the constant line down the middle of her head that she thought looked unkempt.

“They all looked so powerful, confident, really together,” she says. “Rather than looking like I’m two weeks away from a hair appointment, I’m going to go for that.”

She colored the rest of her hair lighter. Her hairdresser advised her to spend what she would have on coloring to get her hair cut regularly.

Anderson says it was great to cut off the old brown hair and see new, shiny silver hair coming in.

She says she now receives regular compliments. Some people tell her what courage she has to sport the silver.

“I kind of take that with a grain of salt. If it looks good, then it should look good without having to be brave about it,” she says.

Ekberg Risher thinks there’s nothing more unattractive than an older woman who dyes her hair too dark. She believes women eschew gray hair to avoid becoming invisible.

Ekberg Risher ascribes to what she calls the 17-percent theory. While women make up half the population, they are only represented at 17 percent in politics, business and even children’s programming. Women do what they can to be acknowledged and seen, and that typically does not involve having gray hair, she says.

But, Ekberg Risher hopes that’s changing.

“I think women are really waking up and saying, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with a few wrinkles? What’s wrong with gray hair? What’s wrong with having the body of a 50 year old?’ ” Ekberg Risher says. “I hope that’s a permanent trend, that there’s not the worship of the 20-year-old.”

It’s a shift that may come from more and more women growing out the gray.

“We’ve had how many years of TV advertising telling us you have to wash away the gray,” Anderson says. “Maybe we have to grow out of that phase and come to a different truth.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556