Hi-yo, Silver! At 26, Gray Matters

Recently in midtown, I ran into someone I despise, and because it was warm and sunny, we stopped to talk. I soon regretted it.

“Is that- gray hair ?” she marveled, peering closely at me, extending her curious paw.

It was. Not just a couple of strands, but entire chunks of it, suddenly laid bare in the glaring sun, which had felt so great moments earlier. A shadow fell. I wanted to die.

Or dye? At 26, I’m receiving my first free peek at middle age. An autumn leaf out of season.

The gray could be the aftermath of a particularly stressful winter, but heredity seems the likelier culprit (though somehow my older brother has escaped it: maybe because fate dealt him the baldness card instead; maybe because he lives in Los Angeles).

Plucking the offenders is out of the question-to do so would violate my ironclad rule against self-mutilation. And besides, my case is too far gone for that. To do so would leave entire decimated patches. The gray is capricious, but stubborn. It seems coarser, stronger than my old hair (or, should I say, “young” hair); the gray is determined to take over. It fascinates me, striking me as ugly, charming, or simply weird in turns.

Do I color, or what? The question is not without its politics.

For as long as I can remember, my father’s head of thick, silver hair has brought him compliments and comparisons to Cary Grant. When my mother began to “turn,” on the other hand, I-a snippish child who read far too many women’s magazines-was succinct and thoughtless. Dye it, I advised. She, a tolerant parent, declined and went on her blithe, soap-and-Chapstick way.

I used to scorn that approach to personal appearance, but have come to admire it more and more, as the expenses of being a well-groomed young professional woman in New York pile up. If you decide to care-and deciding not to care brings its own troubles-the warm weather, especially, commands ever more vigorous rounds of waxings, prunings, gym visits, dry cleanings, and nylons-buying (which deserves a column of its own, so idiotic and oppressive is it). Some of these rituals are fun, of course, in an escapist, guilty, girlishly bonding way. There is sisterhood in sandal shopping.

But not in hair dye. Not anymore.

It wasn’t always that way. Growing up in Manhattan, I spritzed Sun-In with gleeful abandon alongside my JAPpy cohorts in junior high; went dull, funereal black during a brief Wuthering Heights phase a few years later; made a futile bid for Independent Susan Sarandon Red one heartbroken summer in Tucson, Ariz.

My best friend tried whimsy. “It’s no big whoop!” she said, slipping me the number of her Bumble & Bumble colorist. “There are a million things you can do. You could get highlights that totally hide it. I would look at it as fun . I don’t see hair dyeing as anything different from hair cutting. It’s nothing . It’s like getting your nails painted.”

Exactly.

And yet, not. It can’t be avoided: Dyeing your gray hair is like lying about your age. I always swore I’d never do the latter. Why would I do the former?

Ambivalence begat thrift, and I hit Duane Reade, where I stood for a full 10 minutes, paralyzed by choice. Men who reject the dignified look get Grecian Formula. I, on the other hand, have to decide if I’m a Shimmering Tortoise, or more a Gleaming Topaz kind of creature. Is dignity even an option?

I was being marketed to so hard, sweat began to form on my brow. But after a while, I realized that it didn’t matter whether the box said Revitalique (which seemed kind of French techno), or Casting (what is casting, anyway? A painting term? Drama?), or Natural Instincts (for the hippie who happens to be looks-conscious). It was all the same horrible-smelling, complicated, vaguely toxic-seeming stuff. Plastic gloves. Leaflets. Little bottles of poison . Lifelong commitment. I fled.

“I kind of like women that don’t dye their hair,” offered Friend No. 2 reassuringly. “Like, I think it has character. I actually wish that I had some gray hair. It’s, like, wisdom . There’s something formidable about a woman like that. No stupid person leaves their hair gray.”

O.K., so maybe gray isn’t unkempt and blowsy. It’s smart! I could join an elite, small, Susan Sontag-headed cadre of New Yorker women who not only ignore their gray, but celebrate it. I could affect a weary, defiant intellectual chic. I foresaw a lifetime of black turtlenecks, ditching my contact lenses for glasses, eschewing lipstick. Who can compete with all the blown-out, manicured blondes in this town, anyhow? Who wants to? Hi-yo, silver!

But could it be sexy ? Somehow I couldn’t imagine frolicking on the beach this summer, zipping around the tennis court, slowly shaking the water off my luxuriant … gray hair.

Against my better judgment, the boyfriend was consulted. He was tactful, but equivocal. One afternoon, out of the blue, he suggested I just go ahead and dye it. Admiration for his chutzpah quickly dissolved into outrage. How dare he? Sexist! For my peace of mind, he reassured me quickly. He could care less. He just wanted me to shut up already about it.

Fine for him to say. He’s hit 30 with no gray whatsoever. Meanwhile I, who have always prided myself on doing things at the right time-first shot of tequila at 18, graduating from college promptly at 21, etc.-have fallen off schedule. Well, I like round numbers as much as the next neurotic New Yorker. I could work the shock factor of it for awhile; wait four more years to hit the bottle, not own up to it until I’m 30.

But the tribal pull is strong. I go to lunch with a publicist 10 years my senior; she has a ravishing, if suspiciously smooth, auburn coif. I’m taken to a boutique opening at Henri Bendel and don’t see a single speckled head. I’m summoned to a cousin’s 40th-birthday party in her new rent-controlled apartment. Her mother-my aunt-is there; both are beautifully groomed and preserved, their hair clearly colored but entirely natural-looking.

And then the photographs come out. One is a rare shot of my father’s mother, who died before I was born but whom I supposedly resemble. The culprit! I grab it, narcissistically searching for signs of myself.

My grandmother is standing defiantly in front of a sink, clad in shirtwaist and skirt, her arms in front of her, her chin up-this was the 50′s, when everyone looked the same. But she looked different.

The photo is black-and-white, but you can tell: Her hair is beautiful, glistening, glorious gray. I clutch my mother’s arm. Everybody oohs and ahs.