How Overcoming Fear of Judgment Gave Me a Lot More Free Time

D.R. McElroy

I quit coloring my grey hair, and it was awesome! · 6 min read by Jens Lindner on Unsplash

I started going grey in my early twenties, a genetic predilection of my Irish ancestors. I pulled out these errant strands when they first appeared; what began as a monthly afterthought soon became a weekly obsession. Before long, the greys were too numerous to keep up with.

Grey did not have the cache in those days that it does now. When I see some women actually choosing to have their hair colored grey I’m completely awestruck. And not a little envious.

I began coloring my hair at twenty-two. My first color job (sorry, I just can’t bring myself to say “dye”) took my natural dark ash brown to a stunning auburn — and I was hooked.

My hair was always my best asset, my true crowning glory. I decried my small, deep-set eyes, my short legs, and my overly-fleshy hips. But I LOVED my hair: thick, curly, heavy, and abundant. I felt like a goddess when it came to my hair.

But grey wasn’t cool. As a woman, it automatically signified old, fading…useless. People judged your competence then based on how you looked, even more than they do today. While women were struggling for recognition in the work world, we still had to be attractive, polished, well made-up, and perfectly coiffed to be taken seriously.

Since it was relatively easy to cover your grey, you were expected, as a professional woman, to do so. Grey was perfectly acceptable for men, but not for women. We were seen as dispensable — at work and at home — and so most of us scrambled to do everything possible to remain looking young, and therefore relevant.

I colored my hair for 30 years.

At first, I had it done in salons. The results were spectacular, but the cost wasn’t. I was a poor college student and I couldn’t afford the $25 a month that it cost back then for salon upkeep. Of course, now it’s much more than that.

Before long, I was doing it myself in my dorm room (I mean hair coloring, not something else). After the first couple of attempts, I got the hang of it and from then on always did my own color. The results were mediocre, certainly not as beautiful as a salon job, but it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was hiding that hideous grey.

My mother didn’t like me coloring my hair, but she couldn’t argue with the need for it. As a teacher, she also colored her hair. Even in a role as traditional as that, she felt pressure to stay younger looking.

I became so used to coloring my hair that it never occurred to me there might be a different choice.

It took two boxes of home color to cover my abundant hair. What was advertised as a 25-minute process took me well over an hour between spreading the goop and combing it through my hair, waiting for the processing time, then washing and conditioning the hair afterward. Nevermind the smell of ammonia fumes and the often inconsistent results.

My shower afterward looked like a murder scene, the red color dripping down the walls.

My attitude about covering my grey didn’t start to change until my mid-fifties. By then, I was having a lot of neck and shoulder pain, and it was getting very difficult for me to hold my arms above my shoulders for the time it took to do my hair. I went to a salon for a while but was appalled at how much the prices had increased in 30 years. But, I was still in the workforce, and I couldn’t bear the thought of my coworkers and customers seeing how grey I was. How old

Eventually, I had to make a choice: keep paying for salon coloring, or let my hair go grey. My husband actually advocated for letting it go grey. He didn’t care about the salon fees, rather he thought it would “look cool” grey. I rejected this idea for a long time. While I had gradually begun to come around to the notion that some women really rocked the grey, I felt that my particular salt-and-pepper combo was not as beautiful as their platinum or silver fox.

I finally realized that my hangups about my grey hair were simply ego. Not only had society’s ideas of what constitutes beautiful broadened, but I was still hooked into a belief system that had been forced upon me 30 years prior.

So, I quit coloring my hair. Cold turkey.

Those first few months were agony for me. My lingering doubts about showing my age were compounded by the excruciating growing-out process (skunk stripe, anyone?) and by how dowdy I felt.

Unable to tolerate feeling this way any longer, I eventually took scissors to my 17-inch long hair and chopped it to 4-inches. I felt better because I short-circuited the grow-out time by cutting off nearly all of the hair that had previously been colored. My skills as a stylist, however, left a lot to be desired, so I went to a salon for a good short cut.

What an incredible experience! Not only did my grey suddenly look much better, but I was freed from a burden I hadn’t realized I was carrying. While I loved my hair, caring for it was extremely time-consuming.

I didn’t realize just how time-consuming it was until I no longer had to do it.

Suddenly, 10-minute showers were a reality! I used a whole lot less product washing and conditioning, and practically none styling. No more working tangles out gingerly with a comb; instead, my hair didn’t tangle in the first place and a quick comb-through was all it needed. I could even jump out of bed, get dressed, and run out the door if necessary without even combing it at all — and it still looked presentable.

I work from home now, writing full-time. And I certainly appreciate that pressure still exists on women to “look your best” and all that crap. I’m not trying to dictate the choices any of us make for ourselves.

What I can tell you is that, for the most part, people don’t really pay that much attention to what other people look like. No, I’m serious. It may seem like that’s all that matters based on media focus and their ability to prey on our insecurities.

But from the viewpoint of someone who’s (perhaps) lived a bit longer than you? What is portrayed in the media isn’t real life. In real life, everyone is just trying to get by and do their own thing. They’re not even looking at you, much less bothering to judge you.

We need to get over ourselves. I am envious when I see young women embracing who they are and doing what makes them happy instead of what society pushes them to do. I wish I’d been able to do that YEARS ago, but I wasn’t. That’s on me.

If you decide that you don’t want to embrace your grey (or some other aspect of your natural appearance) that’s totally up to you. But consider whether you are making that decision based on your own desires — or what someone else is telling you is right.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.


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