The last time I went to a salon to dye my gray hair was Feb. 29, 2020. It was my regular every-10-weeks session with my hairstylist, and we chatted a little about people canceling travel because of the novel coronavirus. We didn’t know what was coming, though I had already begun to accumulate canned tomatoes and hand sanitizer just in case. That night, with hair medium-blonde and sleekly blow-dried, I went to what would be my final party of the Before Times. Once my office closed, 11 days later, I could tell it would be a while before my next hair appointment.
Everything seemed temporary at first. The signs on store windows telling us to keep six feet apart were slapdash and scrawled by hand. I made masks in early April from old bedsheets, stitched together with janky, 7th-grade home-EC sewing skills. The gray, too, began as a temporary condition. Staying home meant that no one could see the silver stripe that expanded every week where I parted my hair.
“I guess I’ll just grow it out,” I told my husband, last April. “Do you think I’ll look old?”
He had, at 40, already cultivated a full head of salt-and-pepper gray. The kind that earns men compliments like “silver fox,” but only gets women comments about how they look “tired.”
I was 34. I wouldn’t look old, he reassured me. My face was young. I still got carded regularly, though I knew the gray would put an end to that flattery. Maybe the young face/old hair combination would be dissonant enough to pull off in a way that made it seem like a capital-C Choice, like mom jeans. Maybe I would like it. Maybe I wouldn’t rush back to the salon as soon as it reopened.
Other women, it turns out, were having similar thoughts. Two months into the pandemic, I discovered the Silver Sisters.
I had started browsing an Instagram hashtag, #youngandgray, to see how gray looked on other women in their 20s and 30s, and to see if their coloring matched mine. Many of them were taking progress photos of their growouts every week. Instead of calling their hair gray, they preferred the sparklier term: silver. In this sorority of strangers, I met Teresa Gardner and Brianna Fox.
Before the salon near her Allen, Tex., home, closed temporarily, Gardner, who is 39, saw a stylist there every three weeks to touch up her copper-colored hair before the gray roots, which first appeared when she was 15, started to show. With everything shutting down, her friends were beginning to worry about their hair, too.
“I do remember just feeling like that was a silly thing to be concerned about right now,” she says. She asked herself: “Do I care about the color of my hair that much to care about my roots in the middle of a pandemic, or am I going to let it grow and just see what happens?”
She chose to let it grow. “The curiosity took over,” says Gardner, who now sports several inches of beautiful, steely gray. “I think one of the things that has surprised me is that I actually like it.”
At the same time, in Aberdeen, N.J., Fox decided to finally quit her every-six-weeks dye job – usually a box dye in a shade called “Black Tea.” “Once the pandemic rolled around,” she says, “I was like, you know what? Let’s just see what it looks like.”
It looks like a snowy white salt-and-pepper blend, and she loves it. If it weren’t for the chance to work from home – and a year without business travel or weddings or other social obligations – she wouldn’t have even tried. “The pandemic was the biggest factor, as far as feeling comfortable enough to let it go that long,” says Fox, 37. “Just being outside the public view.”
I had black hair for my entire childhood. My first gray hairs appeared when I was 19. I plucked them out for a few years, but I couldn’t keep up. At 22, I began to dye my hair.
Saying “not so fast” to the progress of nature was the natural move. My mother went gray young, too; she dyed her hair back to its original black for the first half of my childhood. It was my mother’s hairdresser who started me out with a few reddish-brown highlights. For the first few years, I used to visit him whenever I visited home, because I didn’t make very much money and salons were cheaper there. One time he accidentally burned my scalp with bleach, but I sat there, gritting my teeth through it, examining my reflection in the mirror with foils crowning my head. A little chemical burn was better than a scalp full of gray.
Eventually I wasn’t so much choosing a hair color as much as choosing not-gray. I would go in for a sort of omakase salon experience, telling my stylist to make it whatever color best hid the gray and grew in without too much of a sharp contrast. The answer, as it often is for many women who are trying pull off this particular subterfuge, was an ashy honey blonde. That’s where my mother ended up, too. It’s the final stop on the hair-coloring journey before one accepts the inevitable.
The Silver Sisters don’t just accept the inevitable, they embrace it. “Silver is just another color,” is one of their mantras. The group is an assemblage of hundreds of gray-haired women from around the world who follow each other and post photos with the hashtag #silversisters. They coach each other through the awkward process of growing out their gray hair. This kind of mentorship-by-example is heartening in the early months, when new initiates to the sisterhood – especially those who had been dying their hair black or some other dark shade – have to endure the harsh contrast between their dyed and natural hair. Some who had been relying on cheaper grocery-store brands found that their hair turned brassy at the ends. The Silver Sisters were there to say: Yeah, that happens. Just keep growing. Try this purple shampoo. (Purple-tinted shampoo brightens silver and negates brassy tones, I soon learned.)
Many had found that pandemic restrictions had given them the space to go through the early, most awkward phases in relative privacy. “It’s just been a good time to see how I feel about it without looks from people or questions or feeling like I needed to explain anything to anyone besides myself,” Gardner says.
Herself, and her nearly 3,500 followers. Like most of the Silver Sisters, Gardner chronicles the progress of her hair growth each week on an Instagram account created for that purpose. It’s a way to show off her look that gives her some control over how she is seen, and by whom. The Silver Sisters post glamorous pictures of themselves tousling their shiny locks, defiantly rebranding granny hair as hot.
After a few months, two white streaks began sprouting from my temples. Despite all the jokes I made about turning into Cruella de Vil or the Bride of Frankenstein, seeing other women’s skunk stripes made mine feel a little less weird. I realized that by staying out of salons I could save approximately $1,000 a year. I put temporary pink dye on my ends, something I had always been afraid to try before lest I mess up my immaculate salon dye job. And I started to look forward to one day re-emerging into society with a completely new look.
Growing out your gray hair, I realized, is a makeover you can give yourself by doing nothing at all. It’s kind of like a quarantine: You just wait.
Being a Silver Sister doesn’t just mean having gray hair. It also means grappling with what people expect from a woman who ages. Like growing older, embracing gray comes with trade-offs.
“My entire life, everyone has always thought I’m younger than I am,” Gardner says. “And while I thought I wasn’t attached to that, this is teaching me that I was more attached to that identity than I thought I was, that there was some sense of pride in looking younger than I am.” She has been asking herself: “What kind of power might there be in looking older?”
On the one hand, silver hair can make you feel more like yourself, and that can make you more confident. On the other hand, people might assume your children are your grandchildren. An actress in the Silver Sisters group said she worried that she was being passed over for roles.
Fox, who has to interact with the older men in her company’s upper management, foresees some awkward interactions about her new look once it moves out of the Silver Sisters’ solidarity cocoon and into actual life. She has spent time in her head rehearsing how those conversations with colleagues might go. “I would probably just joke it off,” she says, “to show them I’m confident about it.”
Confidence with gray hair and comfort with aging are not necessarily the same thing. In addition to affirming each other’s capital-C Choice to embrace their natural color, members of the group also share skin care and makeup tips. The subtext is legible, even when it’s not intentional: If your hair looks old, you had better keep your face looking young.
The pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on what we’re really afraid of underneath the hair dye and anti-aging cream, which is mortality. Last March, I found out that a college friend, with whom I was no longer close, had died of covid-19. She was 35. For all the vain anxieties and superficial losses that come with aging, getting older is something to be grateful for.
“You know, not everybody has the privilege to age,” Fox says. It was something she had been thinking about lately. “I’m lucky to be able to age.”
Those of us fortunate enough to have made it through the pandemic have come out the other side changed. I’m more introverted, more thankful for what I have, and more aware of how fragile the world can be.What I like about having gray hair is that it made these internal changes external. When I look at photos someday, I’ll be able to place myself exactly on my life’s timeline: If I’m a dark blonde, it was Before, and if I have gray hair, it was After. I can count the time by the inches of wiry, silver hair coming from my scalp.
An average person’s hair grows half an inch each month. The pandemic has lasted 6 and a half inches.
Time passes similarly when you’re growing your hair and quarantining:For months, I would look in the mirror and it appeared as if nothing had happened – until one day, when I realized it was gray all the way to my ears, and I had been hunched over a makeshift desk in my one-bedroom apartment for an entire year. The hand-scrawled signs in the store windows had been replaced with more sophisticated designs. The masks were professionally made and fashionable. The silver reached a length that signaled it was deliberate.
It grew. I grew.