A touch of grey
Women Decide to Ditch the Dye After Lockdown
WHEELING — When Kimberly Brown decided to join the “ditch the dye” trend last spring, she thought she was making a personal decision. Having maintained her original dark brown locks for more than 20 years, she was tired of the maintenance and the expense. COVID-19’s shutdown of hair salons in spring 2020 was the last straw.
Little did she realize, however, that she was smack in the middle of what has become a small, quiet revolution.
“My mother just always did, and I thought that’s just what you do,” the Wheeling Hospital nurse said of starting to dye her hair as soon as white strands showed up when she was 29.
Brown stopped to laugh at this point in the interview. “Well, that and I didn’t want to look old and I’m vain. This (going natural) is one step of acceptance of that (aging), one small step.”
The timing of the early COVID lockdown was also a factor. Salons shuttered in March, not long after Brown turned a milestone 50. They remained closed long enough that the white roots she had been coloring every four weeks and covering with tinted hairspray in between trips to the stylist were undeniable.
“I saw a friend on Facebook that had started the process a year before me.” The friend’s look was more glam than gram — full gray, shoulder length and falling into neat points around her shoulders in anime character fashion.
And, that friend wasn’t the only one rocking silver. A classmate from high school was also going natural and posting about it. “If they can do it, I can do it,” Brown decided. She posted a selfie that included a coy peek at her newly visible whites with an explanation of what she was doing.
That was about the time she realized her personal decision had a societal, possibly political ramification. Other people had strong opinions about her changing look.
“Most people didn’t say anything. Then I knew that they didn’t like it,” Brown said. “But I had women — only women — say they liked it.”
A couple of male acquaintances were alarmed, in contrast. One suggested she rethink her decision and said, “I don’t like gray,” which she took to mean “I don’t want to look at you with gray hair.”
One young doctor, a co-worker at Wheeling Hospital, was worried that she wasn’t bearing up well under the pressure of COVID. “Kim, you look really stressed out,” Brown recalled the doctor saying. “You’re going gray.”
Brown laughed again, saying moments like these have been why she has enjoyed the fellowship of other women making the change to natural hair via one of many support groups on social media. She is part of Facebook’s #silversisters group.
The other women — from the U.S., Europe, India and beyond — were experiencing the same reactions from the men in their lives.
While Brown’s husband, attorney Scott Brown, is supportive, some of the other women’s husbands were not, she said. Some women in the group worried about appearing at job interviews either gray or in a two-tone stage. Some have come to feel that showing their true color has become a literally natural response to the #metoo movement.
“I don’t think men know women have gray hair,” Brown said of living in a culture in which men can age into a “silver fox” but many women feel it’s necessary to look young to stay relevant. “But, it’s the women who are to blame. (By changing our appearance, we’re saying,) I’ll be this for you.”
Brown said adding graying to a deadly pandemic is also a bit of mortality mirror not everyone in her acquaintance wanted to face.
“Accepting that one day, I will be old and wrinkled: It takes a lot of courage,” said Brown, who has also opted to grow her hair longer while she’s at it. “I feel more secure in who I am. I couldn’t have done this at an earlier stage.”
But, she’s not immune to how her new look is perceived by some. “People start to not see you. I had to feel confident enough in my own skin that I don’t care.”
Going white hasn’t been all existential pondering, however. Brown said it has been fun to look in the mirror and see what is happening with her hair on any given day.
“You never know what you’re going to get.”
In Brown’s case, “gray” turned out to be a silvery white streak that follows the line of her bangs and some white threads in back. Much of her hair really is dark brown.
Sandi Bernosky, a Wheeling hair stylist who went to a natural white five years ago, agreed there is an adventure in the journey. She started graying at age 17 and opted to be a redhead for decades.
“I loved my reds. I had all of the different reds,” said Bernosky, who colored her hair every two weeks at the time. “But, I really wanted to see what I looked like underneath all that and when I did, it was very freeing.”
Tousling long bangs accented with a brighter shade of white than the rest of her hair, Bernosky said, “I have my mother to thank for that. I was blessed with a nice shade of whitish silver. Not everybody has that.”
Knowing this to be true, Bernosky said she is helping multiple clients as they move from full color to who knows what might be there. “It can be a painful process.”
When Bernosky went natural — during a time when it was trendy for young women to dye their hair silvery gray — she chose to closely crop all but the top of her head and bleach what remained as far as she could take it.
“As hard as it was to keep the red, it didn’t want to come out. I wound up with a yellowish-orange for a while. It wasn’t pretty in the beginning and it took about six months to grow out.”
Color blending didn’t work well for Brown, either. After attempting to tone down her color to an ashier shade of brown didn’t do much, Brown chose to grow out cold turkey.
There was also a comfort element to how she did it. “There are some women who bleach out the colored part and try to color it to gray. I don’t think I could have handled I’m all dark hair and the next day I’m gray.”
In her case, the white has been concentrated in front, but Brown said she has seen other women around Wheeling with a full two-tone stripe _ a COVID year’s growth of white or gray on top and whatever color they had been on the bottom.
Bernosky has some clients that have gone that way. Others are trying to blend the colors as well as they can. She just encourages women to take a realistic look at what they’ve got.
“It all depends on the color that you have,” she said of maintaining an attractive appearance while making the change. She noted that toners or purple shampoo can improve the color of gray or white hair. “The styling and cutting matters, too … You have to style it.”
Seeing Into the Future
Brown is experimenting with clips and even pony tails as she continues to explore her silver lining. She and Bernosky are both considering adding a pop of non-traditional color to their hair as an accent.
Some of the COVID silver liners have already gone that route.
“The small percentage who have grown their hair out, especially during the pandemic, found that sporting their natural wasn’t as bad as they had thought,” Bernosky said. “I’m not sure if they will all stay with their natural, but I’ve only had two that have wanted color added _ and they chose purple and blue!
Brown said she will never say never on returning to dark brown, but she suspects her change is permanent.
“When I dream, I think I still have dark hair,” Brown said. “But, one night I dreamed I colored it back and I was really upset with myself.”