For some, discovering that first gray hair is a moment of disappointment; others embrace it. Here, eight women open up about their personal journeys to finding the silver lining in going gray.

By Heather Muir Maffei
September 16, 2020
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Tennille Murphy

42, Los Angeles; influencer at TheTennilleLife.com

First gray: 23 years old

Gray-hair journey: I found my first gray right after I had my second daughter. I had mixed emotions. I was embarrassed, frustrated, and I wasn’t ready to embrace it. I’m also naturally curly and had just gotten to a happy place with my curls. When I got one white hair, I cut it out. After two and three, the graying became an official thing. I dyed my hair, but then I noticed that my curls were not happy, so I just let it go.

Transitioning tips: I just let time take care of it. In the beginning, I had some white hair in front. After a couple of years, the white spread to my temples; then the new hairs were white. It was a gradual progression over time—it took me 20 years to get to this point.

Why I love it: I definitely have a hair crush on my curls. It’s a lot to be a naturally curly girl and full-on love your hair, and it’s another level to have white curls that don’t correlate with your age. But it feels so liberating—it’s one thing I don’t have to think twice about. It almost feels like a superpower! My hair’s not in control of me. I like seeing myself in the mirror that way; I like celebrating a simpler, more natural me.

Advice: The number one thing I always tell women is that going gray is very individual and personal. Only you can decide when it’s right, and it takes soul-searching. Once you make the commitment, it’s OK to back out. You’ll see people’s eyes go big. Or someone will say something unkind. Or their eyes are on your hair, not your face. If you aren’t ready for that type of attention, it’s very emotional. Get right with yourself on it. You have to put this little armor on and know that in the end, it’s not going to be perfect right off the bat. Be patient with yourself, love yourself through it, and remember that only you can define your beauty.

Beauty tip: I don’t let my hair dictate my makeup or clothes. For example, people have told me that they can’t believe I wear gold jewelry because they think silver goes better with white hair. I just wear what I like—the moment you do is when you have confidence.

Juliana Sohn

51, Manhattan; photographer

First gray: early 20s

Gray-hair journey: I let my hair go natural when I was 45 years old. I’d been dyeing it for years, and I hated the time and expense of maintaining the color. It constantly felt like I was losing the battle against nature because I always had roots showing. Now I never have to think about color and the chemicals I’m adding to my hair, which suits my low-maintenance lifestyle perfectly.

Transitioning tips: It’s an incredibly humbling experience. The stark contrast made me feel like I was airing all of my dirty laundry. I would put it up in a bun or ponytail to hide the line where the color changed. If I were to transition today, I’d dye my hair a fun color first, like pink, so when it grew out, it’d be a look.

Why I love it: The comfort of knowing I am being true to my natural self is a huge bonus. I am the youngest I am ever going to be in my life right now, so why not count my blessings, do what I want, and not be afraid to tackle challenges?

Advice: One thing that did surprise me once I went natural is how many compliments I receive, especially from women. They all say pretty much the same thing: how much they love my gray—on me. They’d love to go gray too, but they work in such an ageist field that it’d hurt their career if they stopped coloring their hair. I know that we live in an ageist society, but instead of going along with it, I always encourage people to challenge norms and let their natural color come through.

Beauty tip: Defined eyebrows are really important. I like using Glossier Boy Brow ($16; glossier.com) and a little gold eyeshadow. Wearing heather gray clothes makes me feel washed-out, so I wear pink/mauvey colors—it adds a nice glow.

Ali Thrailkill

40, Brooklyn; hairstylist

First gray: 19 years old

Gray-hair journey: I was in college, and I shaved my head. When it grew back in, I was like, “Here we go.” I wasn’t upset about it. My mom went gray young, so I figured I would as well. Eventually, I became a hairdresser and colored my hair just to play around. But even as a hairstylist, it was hard to find the time to get it done. My coworkers would have to stay after work; it was becoming such a hassle. I had always kept my hair short, so when my roots were long enough, I cut off all of the color. I really liked it. It’s pretty white, with a lot of pepper in there, so the contrast is pretty cool.

Transitioning tips: At first, because my hair was short, I colored the top and let the sides be white for contrast. I’ve helped some clients transition into their gray. I’m honest with them that it’s a long process. I do heavy lowlights to help break up the roots; then I do less and less until they can transition.

Advice: I like having an intentional haircut to show people that I’m maintaining my physical appearance. I totally understand the apprehension. People are worried about looking too old, and sexism in the workplace is real, so some women want to come across as younger. I’ve found with clients—and even my mom—when they’re natural, they actually look cooler and more confident.

Beauty tip: To avoid looking too monochromatic, I pump up my makeup with a little contouring, mascara, blush, and a pinky red lipstick.

Hitha Palepu

36, Manhattan; entrepreneur

First gray: 16 years old

Gray-hair journey: I found my first gray hair when I was 16 years old and spent the next seven years plucking the silver strands from my hair whenever they popped up. I gave in to coloring at 22 and continued for the next 13 years. By the time I turned 30, I was in the salon every four weeks. At the beginning, those visits felt luxuriously indulgent, and I would happily sip my tea and read a book as my grays were washed away with dark dye. That didn’t last long, and when I was pregnant with my second son at 34, I got into the headband trend to cover the growing gray. During those sleepless early nights with my son Rhaki, I went down Instagram and Pinterest rabbit holes of gray-hair inspiration. Seeing it look powerful and fresh gave me the nudge to embrace my grays once and for all.

Transitioning tips: I wore a knotted headband to cover the growing gray streaks at my hairline. I saw a magazine article on a woman who had silver sparkles in her hair, so I tracked down her colorist and asked for something similar. I had about nine months of gray roots. We did a color test; she put charcoal on my longer strands and some temporary dye at my roots so they blended and grew out really nicely.

Why I love it: Despite the initial pressure from the older Indian women in my family to dye it, the gray makes me feel like the woman I want to be versus holding on to the younger woman that I was. I run a pharmaceutical company, and the silver hair actually works to my advantage; it distinguishes me. It’s more about feeling strong and powerful and less about feeling old or young.

Advice: You’ll know the right moment. Six weeks after my second son was born, the silvers grew out and I thought, “I like this.” The little sparkles made me happy, and it kept making me happy. Having a husband who is focused on my happiness and how I would like to spend my time helps.

Beauty tip: Going gray gave me the confidence to ditch a lot of makeup, even pre-COVID, and now I also embrace jewel-toned clothes. I just bought a bunch of yellow, which would have been too stark with my dark hair.

Denise Harris

51, Brooklyn; personal trainer and Pilates instructor

First gray: late 20s

Gray-hair journey: It started with little gray patches by my temples. It wasn’t a thing that bothered me—I never considered dyeing it. I’m pretty low-maintenance when it comes to my hair, and I didn’t want to pay to get it done. It happened gradually—I had natural brown, red, gray, a lot of colors; then it turned salt-and-pepper. Now I love my gray hair. I actually can’t wait for it to be all gray. I get it cut, wash and wrap it at night, and I’m good to go. I’ve had people ask me, “Why don’t you dye it?” I even went on an audition to teach at a friend’s Pilates studio, and at the end, the hiring manager asked how old I was and told me that it was kind of confusing—my hair, my age, and the fact that I looked young. Let’s just say that I didn’t end up teaching there…my decision.

Transitioning tips: Find a good haircut that accentuates your gray hair. I had a bob and I felt, like, a little dated, but when I cut a pixie, I felt cool.

Why I love it: It just seems like a part of me—I feel comfortable. It’s like an accessory. I’ve made connections on the train because of it. Another Black woman who has gray hair once said, “Welcome to the gang,” and now we’re friends.

Advice: Try not to care what other people think or when people look at the top of your hair.

Beauty tip: I like wearing white and gray clothing and red lipstick—it makes my gray pop.

Kate Dinota

33, Queens; senior director of social impact at NationSwell

First gray: 7 years old

Gray-hair journey: My mom would French-braid my dark brown hair and pluck out my grays at a very young age. In 5th and 6th grade, I remember my best friends picking grays out of my hair; by freshman year in high school, I was dyeing my roots every few weeks. I never questioned it—both my grandmothers had gray hair when they were 18, so I just considered it the circle of life. Then, when I was 28, I went on a trip to Turkey with my husband and some friends. In all of my photos, I had a white stripe. I thought, “Why am I doing this?” I was spending three and a half hours in the salon every three to four weeks, and it didn’t even look good for very long. I was wasting precious weekends trying to maintain myself. I realized over 15 years, I spent about $27,000 and 300-plus hours dyeing my hair. I thought, “It’s not serving me in any way; it’s not bringing me joy.” Now I try to be “body-neutral” about my hair. I don’t dislike it, but I also don’t put pressure on myself to love it. It just happens to be the hair on my head as I move through the world.

Transitioning tips: The first six months are the hardest. I got a head of blond highlights to help the transition and repeated it six months later. I slicked my hair back into a low bun with a side part and put on a red lip. Find a style that works for you, and don’t overthink it.

Why I love it: I love the conversations that it starts. We’re like unicorns in the wild. People can’t believe 20- and 30-year-olds have gray hair. It’s not actually that uncommon; it’s just that now we’ve stopped coloring it. I love the connection with strangers that it’s offered me. People say: “It’s rare. It’s beautiful. I love your hair.”

Advice: Ask yourself, “Why are you coloring your hair?” Are you doing it because of societal pressure, or does it serve you? We only have so much energy, especially nowadays—is that what you want to use yours on? Prepare yourself mentally, be patient, and give yourself some grace.

Beauty tip: I elevate my skin-care routine.

Deborah Maltby

68, Brooklyn; adjunct associate teaching professor of English, University of Missouri–St. Louis

First gray: 20-something

Gray-hair journey: I was in college, and I would see a silver strand here and there—I just plucked them out. My mother told me that my grandmother had white hair in her late 20s, so I wasn’t surprised. Then, when I was in my 30s and more gray, it never occurred to me to not dye it—I went to the salon and got it colored. In my mid-50s, I got light brown highlights to brighten up my black hair. On one occasion, another stylist interfered and it got really blond. It wasn’t me, but it was interesting. It turned brassy, so I put toner on it. And when it dried, it was silvery and it looked really nice. When my go-to stylist left the salon, I just decided to stop coloring.

Transition tips: The color-depositing conditioner Overtone Pastel Silver Coloring Conditioner ($29; overtone.co) helped me blend the new growth with my dyed hair, and my curls disguised the line of demarcation. I grew it longer so I could pull it up—around my face would be silvery. It took about two years to complete the transition.

Why I love it: I have very thick, curly, difficult-to-manage hair, but in spite of that, now that it’s silver, I love my hair more than I ever have in my life. It looks like I paid a lot of money for highlights. It’s so much softer and in better shape.

Advice: Just do it! You can always tweak it later. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what it looks like. And for those who say it’ll make you look older…older than what? I am older. But I’ve learned it’s not just about your hair: If you have a positive attitude, good posture, and a good smile, and are an interesting person who is enjoying life, you’ll look young and vibrant.

Beauty tip: I joined the Curly Silvers Facebook group, which helped me learn about techniques and products to complement gray hair.

Suzan Colòn

57, Jersey City; author and meditation teacher

First gray: 23 years old

Gray-hair journey: After experimenting with every color in my 20s and early 30s, I started coloring my hair close to my natural dark brown. Back then, to go gray was like letting yourself go—it was viewed as giving up. I met my husband-to-be on a yoga retreat 15 years ago. He has a very sensitive nose, and when we were dating, one night he said, “Whoa! Why does your hair smell like chemicals?” I confessed that I’d just colored my hair. He asked me what was under the hair color, and I told him I had no idea at this point. He said, “Why don’t we find out?” In love and always adventurous with my hair, I said OK. I let the grays come in. I even walked down the aisle with a couple of inches of gray strands intertwined with still-dyed hair. I actually went full-on gray but then colored it back because of how I was perceived at my job. People could not take their eyes off of it, so I thought maybe this wasn’t a good idea, and went to a salon. I had it colored a chestnut brown and thought, “Who am I fooling?” I didn’t look younger; I looked boring. So I grew it out again. I got a really bad haircut, which forced me into a pixie and sped up the process.

Transitioning tips: I put on a little brown hair mascara to help camouflage the cutoff line and blend my white hair with my brown. I focused on my style instead of my color. I went extra glam so that people knew I was doing this on purpose. I had a long bob with waves and a sexy swoop over my eye.

Why I love it: I now have no dye on my hair at all—the strategic streaks are a gift of nature. For me, embracing my silver was easy—it’s a statement about loving the way I am. Going gray is one of women’s biggest fears; they wonder if it’s attractive. But if you feel good, it doesn’t matter what your hair looks like; people will gravitate toward that.

Advice Being gray is like a punk-rock move for middle-aged ladies; it goes against the grain of conventional beauty and shows I’m not ashamed of my age. I’m not trying to pass for younger. I want to look my best, not look other than what I am.

Beauty tip: Blush is your friend—you don’t want to be a blank page. I even put a little blush along my brow bones.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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