By Deborah Gale
“There’s a reason 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…” Nora Ephron (1941-2012)
Even if COVID-19 is not normalizing much of anything, it has served as a stunning reminder that gray hair is normal. For a brief space in time, the natural woman appeared to be on the rise, and “Does she or doesn’t she?” was no longer a question. During the first half of 2020 as women took a pandemic break from hair dye, it became obvious: “Yes, she does.”
Clairol dropped that tagline in 1956. Before then–unless you were Marilyn Monroe–women who dyed their hair weren’t likely to be confused with the girl next door. Building on that success, Clairol went one step further and told women that “blondes have more fun!” Suddenly dyed hair was no longer viewed as a character deficit and dyeing started looking more like better living.
Some 40 percent of us still buy into the Clairol inspired “If I’ve one life to live…let me live it as a blonde” fantasy. And fantasy it remains because rising levels of eumelanin mean that by the age of ten, most natural blondes start to go dark. In addition, going gray is largely genetic and human hair starts graying around age 35. Chances are high that 50% of us will have 50% gray hair by the time we reach 50, but who would have even considered accepting that, for women, until COVID-19 hit? The collective decision by women to make something normal, abnormal upended a biological certainty with a de rigeur fashion choice. And it’s big, globally, the hair coloring market is forecast to hit $40.8B by 2023.
Extensive research over the decades does support the perception that women with fair hair are perceived as younger and more attractive. While the aspirational innocence of this messaging may have originally appeared benign, it made gray hair synonymous with old. The advent of teenagerhood plus the Beach Boys-inspired sea, surf and endless summer message became the perfect launchpad for youth culture to take off. While it wasn’t until 1969 that ageism was even given a name, it was already lurking and gray hair became the very visible signal that you must have decided to let yourself go.
As dyeing went mainstream, so went the ageism advance. No longer was it sufficient to question whether a woman chose to dye her hair. Next, Clairol’s “Loving Care” audaciously asked “What would your husband do if suddenly you looked ten years younger?” and then, with even more obsequiousness, women were told that if they dyed their hair, “The closer he gets, the better you look”. In shorthand, want a man, lose the gray. For most, that became worth dyeing for. Today 89% of Americans dye their hair “to enhance their appearance”.
Was this the starting gun to the gender equity race or has this trend only succeeded in locking women in a new female-only race and the only way to win is by looking good for your age?.
With hair salons open again, we’re testing the arc of acceptability. Older women have lived through times when dyeing was bad, to when dyeing was preferred, to when it became a requirement. COVID-19 has presented a unique opportunity to wake up and accept our authentic selves. We’ve had months to pare back to the essential. We’ve paid time and attention to the things that truly matter and are willing and ready to improve our situation and position in society. This is our best shot at turning the negative narrative about older women being less attractive on its pretty little head.
In 2020 silver-haired women are emerging as snow-capped mountains. Majestic, imposing, scalable, risk-takers.
No dyeing required.
Did the pandemic give you the excuse you needed to leave the hair dye alone? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!