Monday, October 31, 2011

On Hair, Age, and Professional Image

This past weekend, while visiting grad school town, I popped in to my old hair salon to say hi. Then, because I was long overdue for a cut, and I happened to be there, I asked if there was an appointment available. I didn't expect it, but there had been a fortuitous cancellation at precisely the right time, so I called it fate, plunked myself down in the chair, said "It's shaggy and messy and driving me nuts, and I don't want to go short-short, but other than that, I'll leave it up to your judgement." She took six inches off, and I walked out with shoulder-length hair that's much more manageable.

I also walked out with hair that, for the first time since about age 15, is my natural color -- a much darker shade than the one I've been sporting and maintaining (at great expense!) all my adult life.

Now, here is where it gets interesting (at least to me): I've been mulling the dye-it-natural transition for several years now, and for a reason that I find even more compelling than the expense: I've been starting to see some gray hairs (I am in my forties, after all). Not a lot, but not just the stray one every four months or so that marked my late thirties. And I dreaded the monthly maintenance that it would eventually require to keep myself from having a gray stripe down the middle of my head, come five or ten years down the road. So the plan has always been to dye it back to natural at some point, and just let the aging process happen.

But at least once when I shared this plan, I was met by something that could only be described as an intervention. Deep concern. Let me emphasize: This is a decision for me. I in no way disdain anyone else's choices to the contrary. I'm just tired of keeping up with it, and I'm thinking that this might be a nice way to ease myself into the second half of life. But I'm wondering how widespread the idea is that we, as women, should strive to not show our age, even in academia? Or is this just the product of the image-conscious place I live?

And do you think that going gray (which I anticipate will take plenty of time before anyone but me notices) has professional consequences for academic women in general?


UPDATE/CLARIFICATION (from one of my own comments, but I thought it bore repeating here): there are aging-related changes -- a new one every year, it seems -- that I'm emphatically NOT excited about. But at the rate of one a year, I've found I can adjust to each one before the next one hits. If/when they start coming more quickly, I may change my mind about this whole "aging" thing.

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

None of the female professors at my university show any gray hair, though some of them must at least be in their fifties. Quite a few male professors have gray hair though.

Back home in India, I didn't see the same clearcut distinction in hair coloring practices between the men and the women.

If I were you, and a lot of people advised me to not show gray, I wouldn't. This is not an issue I'd want to make a stand on.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Honestly, I thought I would go gray gracefully. But then, I had kids and the grays started coming in at lightening speed. So I started dying my hair (just my natural color) this year. It's very expensive to keep up if you go to a salon (even here in the heartland! How disappointing that it's not much cheaper than the west coast!) I suppose I could start doing it at home, but I'm not sure I trust myself. The worst to me is that I (still!) have bad skin, so I'm going gray, getting wrinkles, and sporting sporadic acne all at once. My body apparently doesn't know what's going on, and it all shows on my head. Bah.

I really think that dying your hair is a personal choice, though. Plus, the good thing is you can always change your mind. It's just hair. It keeps growing, so you can change it any time. It's nice to have one thing on your body that can be a constant do-over, isn't it?

Other women in my department don't dye their hair. I might join their ranks eventually. I just became a lot more vain than I ever thought I would, all of a sudden. Maybe it's also due to the fact that I've got small children. I'd rather look like their mom than their grandma. :-/

New Kid on the Hallway said...

First, I think you should do whatever you like. But I had to laugh, reading this, because I don't think it's even a QUESTION that women aren't supposed to show their age. Of course we're not supposed to show our age! And whenever gray hair has come up in lawyer land, 95% of people have told me I should DEFINITELY dye the gray.

Which isn't to say that gray hair will necessarily have professional consequences. I do think it depends on the profession and what you're trying to do. Personally, I care about gray hair only because I feel like there's a mismatch between my chronological age and my professional status - because I feel like I'm being compared with people in their mid-20s, and I don't like to look completely different from them. But I know of other women lawyers who have welcomed gray hair to look more authoritative in the courtroom, so go figure.

(Also, you can get subtle highlights to blend the gray into your natural color, and it all grows out quite unobtrusively. I doubt it would work with 50%+ gray hair, but it works for the interim. If you decide you do want to color your hair again!)

theotherprof said...

I started going gray in grad school in my early 30s and, of course, dyed my hair for all the reasons mentioned. Suddenly in my late 30s i became scary (like emergency room scary) allergic to the dye. I was devastated. and very gray. So few people actually let it go gray that you really stick out, I found. Ten years later I'm pretty much over it, but I have to admit I'd dye it if I could.

clio's disciple said...

I have seen you many times, and... I don't think I know what your natural hair color is. :) I may be naive, but it had not occurred to me that going gray would be a problem in academia; I know I have seen senior medievalist women sporting gray.

I have a mostly-hidden shock of gray, myself, at 36. I don't plan to color it; in fact, I kind of look forward to going completely silver.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Gee, I've been enjoying the shocks of grey I've been getting because it means I look older than the students.

Susan said...

I have never colored my hair, though I have increasingly realized how unusual that is for a woman in her late 50s. Partly I'm lazy, and partly I'm cheap. I have a reasonable amount of gray showing, but I think it looks pretty elegant, and anyway I am old enough to want to look as if I wasn't born yesterday.

As for the professional consequences, I don't know. I think I'm at the stage of my career where it's OK to be gray, but how can I tell?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Interesting conversation here, and I'm looking forward to reading more. Just a few comments:

@ Anonymous: just to clarify, the people in question didn't advise me on my hair; they just gave each other significantly worried looks, then started speaking to me very slowly and deliberately. It seemed like the reaction I'd get if I'd announced that I was half-decided to get a giant Maori face tattoo. (And I have contemplated getting "Notorious Ph.D." tattooed on my bod, in small graceful script, but I've changed my mind for the moment.)

@ Fie, I've found that the midwest town/coast city price differential (assuming the same caliber of salon) is about 10%, and I was also disappointed.

@ NK: Point of interest: do you think that female judges favor gray more than female lawyers? I'm not sure what it'd mean either way, but it would be interesting to run the numbers.

@ OtherProf: I've only got a bit of gray at this point, and I think that's part of the plan: if I waited until I was more completely gray, the change would be too huge of a shock to ever go through with. So I thought I'd do it now while I still stood a chance of doing it gradually.

@ CD: I'm not surprised that your gray doesn't show; you have a hair color that it blends with in a flattering way. My own natural hair color is about the same as our mutual friend T.B.

@ Nicole and Maggie: Exactly!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Susan: Yeah, the expense is a major bummer, especially when you have a LOT of hair. And what "consequences" could there be, I wonder, since I'm tenured and not trying to compete with women ten to twenty years my junior? I guess that's precisely what I find so puzzling about the near-uniformity of a non-gray academic culture for women.

highlyeccentric said...

Interesting! I would have expected academia to be a place where grey hair on a woman was acceptable, even distinguished. Although perhaps the going-grey phase might command less respect than the finished product? At any rate, it my intention to play about with dye in my twenties and then go back to natural and let it grey as I age. I'm looking forward to being a stern grey-haired old lady (although, given my family's hair, it will probably be short and look like a wire brush...).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hmmm. Actually, I know very few women judges with gray hair. I don't believe any of the women federal judges out here have gray hair. One of the supreme court justices (age 61) does have gray hair; she's very no-nonsense and non-glamorous (she also looks like she may have been blonde to begin with). None of the women judges on my court (ages 66, 55, 49, ~54, and 44) are gray. And after looking through bios for about 20 county courts, I find one woman judge with gray hair. Heck, none of the women justices of the Supreme Court wear their hair gray (though of course O'Connor did by the time she retired, I'm pretty sure).

Granted, I would say that on average the women judges in my state are younger than the men (it's like the whole professor thing: men have been favored in the pipeline longer). And we have a mandatory retirement age of 72. So that may make a difference.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

That's interesting, NK. I would have thought you'd see more gray on the bench, as an aid to gravitas (as opposed to the presumed female levitas).

And just a point, to be clear: there are aging-related changes -- a new one every year, it seems -- that I'm emphatically NOT excited about. But at the rate of one a year, I've found I can adjust to each one before the next one hits. If/when they start coming more quickly, I may change my mind about this whole "aging" thing.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

It's academia. You have tenure. Do whatever the hell you want. My guesstimate is that about 50% of female professors dye, and it seems to be a much easier place to go gray than a lot of other professions. I'm contrarian enough that if someone suggested it would be a good career move to dye my hair, I would either definitely go natural, or dye it bright pink.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Oh, I'm committed, Dame Eleanor; no worries there. I'm just puzzled, and wondering how universal this is. I think New Kid has the right of it: no reason to think that academic women would somehow be immune to broader cultural presumptions.

And I like the alternative color idea. What would you say to a lovely indigo?

QueSera said...

I've never paid to have my hair cut, styled, or dyed. I never thought about dying it when it went grey. Perhaps when I get my first grey hair is when I will finally fork over the money? Hm, I doubt it.

Jan said...

I am 50, a mature (Post grad) student. I started going grey at about 18, around 30-35 I started covering the grey for the reason that at 30+ I didn't want to look 50+. (Between 18 & 30 I experimented with various trendy shades) Now, I know that grey hair would not suit me. I would look 'witchy'. My hair does not grow through snowy white but a steely grey - not flattering. I hadn't even considered that 'hair colour' would be an issue in academia. I suspect it's more a case of the ageism that women throughout the working world, at every level, face. Men who go grey are said to be distinguished, women are not accorded the same compliment.

PS. I enjoy reading your blog.

ntbw said...

I started getting grey hair in my early 20s, and until my early 30s, I left it natural, because I wanted to look older. I was teaching as a grad student when I was 21 years old, and I had my first tenure-track job before I was 30. Then, like Fie, I had kids, and I didn't want to be mistaken for their grandmother, so I started coloring my hair. I'm now in my early 40s, and I continue to color it, mostly just because I like the way it looks. However, especially when I was on the job market, I was conscious of the fact that I almost never saw successful senior female profs with grey hair (there are some notable exceptions, but they do seem to be exceptions). That all said, I strongly think people should do whatever they want to do with their hair!

Sharon said...

I am repulsed by my naturally boring brown hair and therefore have been highlighting it with a lovely blonde hue since my early twenties. Now 46, my hairdresser recently informed me that highlights are actually the best way to cover and transition into gray. Apparently I have quite a few greys but had never noticed, being so mesmerized by the glimmering blonde streaks. I've tried to go back to my natural hair color a few times, in periods of my life where I was apparently suffering some mental break, only to run screaming back to the salon begging for bleach. But that's just me. Your point "to each his own gray" is well taken.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

See, I just don't believe that grey hair is so aging, except that we have been conditioned to jump to that conclusion by the cosmetics industry's advertising. Most of us start getting a few grey hairs, here and there, in our twenties, a few more in the thirties, and so on. I suggest channeling Gloria Steinem, as I have done when told that my hair is "misleading" because it doesn't (to some viewer) "match" my face: this is what 40 (or 40-whatever) looks like! I judge age by wrinkles, not hair.

And I do think academic women are more resistant to these pressures than those elsewhere. It looks to me as if women in the Northwest are also more resistant, by and large.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Sorry, one other thought: men sometimes appear not to go grey so fast because their beards go grey before the top of their head does. That is, if there's any hair left on top. Anyway, point being that if they shave, it's as good as a dye job.

Janice said...

Except for some temporary dyes in my twenties, I've avoided hair dye. My mother went crazy allergic to a hair dye about twenty years ago. That scared the bejeesus out of me.

I've been slowly going grey for the last ten years and don't do a thing about it. I've been tenured all that time but, even so, it wasn't a big worry in my department or U. I'm the senior woman in our department, mind you, so I set my own trend. On the other hand, I am pretty sure some of the other women hired since conform to the "academic women dye their hair" scheme pretty closely.

Whatever works for you (and them), eh? All this reminds me that it's time to get a haircut which is a lot cheaper than a cut and colour!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Sorry, really must finish thinking before posting. Successful academic women with grey (or white) hair: Kathryn Kerby-Fulton. Linne Mooney. Alice Colby-Hall. Susanna Fein. Philippa Hardman. Danuta Shanzer. Elizabeth A. R. Brown. Joan Ferrante. Medievalists all, and heavy on the literature, because that's who I know, but I don't think anyone could argue with their success.

squadratomagico said...

Let me just say that I find this discussion thread fascinating. I've always thought that hair is the most important changeable element of women's appearance, so it's really interesting to read everyone's take on it.

I never dyed my hair -- not even fun colors or streaks -- until I was in my 40s. Of course, I was a total granola chick for most of my life: minimal-to-no makeup, long, unstyled hair, no shaving, etc. But suddenly, in my 40s, I started experimenting with many of the grooming habits of traditional femininity, and a few of them stuck. Among them is highlighted hair.

I suspect the reason this happened when it did has less to do with aging, and more to do with acquiring non-academic female friends. While I would never, ever discuss appearance issues or plan a spa date with a woman colleague, these are things that my non-academic friends take for granted as common forms of female bonding or conversation.

Anonymous said...

I come from a family that has always disdained physical vanity (no makeup, etc) so it would never occur to me to dye my hair. (And I don't judge others, except when I do, which -- who am I kidding? -- is all the time.) I'm in my early 40s and have just one or two gray hairs so far, but I've been looking forward to more gray in the hopes that I get taken more seriously and people stop asking me what my major is.

Good Enough Woman said...

Since I teach at a CC, and since I have often looked younger than I am or been rather young for my professional role, my thoughts are akin to those of nicoleandmaggie. I am glad to look and feel older than (most of) my students. I feel as if the gray hairs establish authority to some degree.

But I live in an area that is very "natural." I think I might feel differently and the social implications might be different at a more urban campus.

And also I have light brown hair so the gray doesn't show that much.

Good Enough Woman said...

Actually, in thinking more about this as I was walking across campus, I realized that I was just considering hair color this morning. Last night, my daughter wanted some streaks of color in her hair for her Halloween costume. They were meant to be red but came out hot pink. Today, she went to school with the hot pink streaks still in place. I started thinking about how I would love to have eggplant-colored low lights in my hair. But then I thought, "No, it would be weird for me because of my job." I think my reaction comes not just from my teaching position and the persona involved in that role but also from my service roles on campus which are many and include some leadership roles. This all goes back to my notion of hair as a signifier of authority or, perhaps, gravitas.

Last week, I received a b-day card from department chair that said this: "Happy birthday. It's hard to believe you are a mom and almost a doctor--you still look like a college student." This was a compliment, I'm sure, and I took it as such (I just turned 43), and it came along with other comments about "admiration," etc. But I think it clarifies why I embrace gray hair and hesitate to get dark purple streaks even though said streaks would be neat.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I am looking at likely being largely grey before I get a permanent post, unless events shift rapidly here, and am thinking that going up for these with grey hair may not be a good presentation strategy. If my father's genes hold good I will eventually go a very distinguished white, but I'm kind of hoping that that will be after retirement.

And I have contemplated getting "Notorious Ph.D." tattooed on my bod, in small graceful script, but I've changed my mind for the moment.

That's one way of picking the people who can identify you, for sure!

Belle said...

I'm one of those who has colored my own hair for decades. Some years I do and some I don't. For the past ten (probably) i've done it pretty consistently, although I've changed the colors often. It used to be my fast therapy - some buy shoes, I'd cut/color my hair. I've never had a salon do it, and the color has always been a good one.

I'm now tenured full, and have wondered how I'd feel about being gray. I've always done the cut and color for self, not for others - so this is (selfishly?) all about my own perceptions of self. For me, season is important - if I'm all pasty, gray hair is going to look like hell on toast. So even going all gray is going to be seasonal!

heu mihi said...

I'm 35 and have been graying since my early 20s--and, like many others here, I appreciate that it helps me look older than most of my students! I haven't dyed my hair since a red-headed phase in my mid-20s because a) it's too expensive, b) it's too much trouble, c) I don't really care that it's now a mix of browns and grays.

I haven't surveyed the field or anything, but it seems to *me* that academic women's gray/not-gray hair has very little to do with their professional stature or how seriously they're taken. In fact, I'd say that most of the successful people in my field (both male and female) are pretty funny-looking and not especially sharp dressers. Hurrah to that, I say!

And gray can be really beautiful. My mother finally let her hair go gray a few years ago, and it's SO much nicer than the blond that she'd been sporting--lots of lovely highlights and lowlights, and much less costly. Two of the other three women in my department have similarly attractive gray heads (and wear no make-up, and are taken perfectly seriously, by students and colleagues alike).

So I'd say this: DON'T dye your hair simply because you feel like you "have to" to be taken seriously. DO dye your hair if you want to and you like the way that it looks.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I've never consciously noticed one way or another whether women faculty at my institution color their hair, but I am aware that there is one insufferably pompous d00dchebagge fucker in my dept who totally buys Grecian Formula by the motherfucken case!

Dr. Crazy said...

FWIW, I'd say that at my institution, it's about 50/50 for women of a "gray" age who dye vs. those who leave it natural. And what I'd say in thinking about that, and also in thinking about the women across the profession I know who dye or don't, is this:

1) IMHO, if you're going to go gray, you've got to spend the bucks on a *good* haircut. Not that the hair needs to be short necessarily, but the haircut needs to be one that makes you look stylish and "put together" and then people don't read the gray hair as anything other than fabulous. I know women who've gone super-short and it's great, or women with a very precise bob, or women with longer hair but they always wear it in a "style." It's another transition period, just like the transition period out of high school/ college, when you have to make a style decision not to look like somebody who isn't age-appropriate. Age-appropriate is always more "youthful" than "I cling with a vicelike grip to the hairstyle from when I was 16," or, in this case, 36.

2) If you're going to dye, might I just caution you against any sort of "auburn" (which always seems to turn out maroon-magenta-deep purple in a really unflattering way) or black (unflattering on fading, aging skin, especially since people's eyebrows tend to get lighter as they age). People who've dyed blonde their whole lives tend to continue to dye blonde, and it continues to look "normal" on them, even if we all know it's dyed. I've seen nice brown dyed hair, or nice dyed brown hair with highlights (what my mom does, which is wicked expensive to maintain, even in Ohio), and even nice dyed red hair (my little gramma went with that, and I've always thought I might do that if I decided to dye as I gray, as red makes my eyes look super-green). Or seriously: just go pink or blue. I mean, fuck it. But the point is, you want to look attractive. Being dyed doesn't necessarily make you more attractive, if your hair looks maroon or blue/black.

Finally, I love my hair dresser, who often encourages her clients, if they have hair that would look good natural, not to dye, even though that's money out of her pocket. I also love her because she's wicked cheap, so if I decide to dye my hair for the duration that I'm with her, it wouldn't break my bank. (She only charges like 25-40 bucks for color, with 40 being if it's a double-process dye plus highlight sort of thing. Even on long hair. She has left salons that want her to charge more because "it's just stealing from people to charge them more; I know what the dye costs!" Needless to say, I typically give her like a 30-40 percent tip, and it still means I'm spending about 50 bucks less than I would at most salons where I live.)

Oh, and one last thing: a couple of my friends started graying in their late teens/early 20s, and they have typically done the at-home dying. It always looks fabulous. The do-it-yourself dyes these days are actually really good, and not hard to use.

undine said...
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zcat_abroad said...

Wow! This is fascinating. I wonder how the hair-dying pans out over different countries and different academic departments?

In my English department, there are a number of women happy being grey. Most of them, however, are the, um, strong feminists. In the History department, a number of the women are grey, and even in School of European Languages, and Linguistics. Hmm, perhaps this is an Arts (or Humanities) versus Business, Law and Sciences?

For instance, the women (few and far between) in Business and Law tend to dress in power suits, whereas in Arts, we're much more relaxed, and jeans and shirts is perfectly acceptable.

How much this is antipodean is something that I am curious about, as most of the jobs I'm applying for now are Stateside. How much dressing up is needed for lecturers/professors?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I just realized that I usually wear my hair in pigtail braids because of the bike ride to work, then sometimes just leave them in all day. I wonder how that will look with some gray mixed in. I'm betting on awesome.

Digger said...

I've been doing a little fieldwork in the department here... the tenured women (n=2) dye their hair. The adjunct women I've encountered (n=2) do not, and are naturally grey(-ing). In the category of tenured men (n=5), one grey does not dye, one greying does not dye, one may resort to Grecian Formula, and two dye.

My only contact so far in Related Dept here was a tenured women who not only does not dye her hair, but totally rocks the grey. She's of the "strong feminist" variety I'd wager, given her research and other indications.

Historiann said...

Sorry to arrive so late. It's been that kind of a week! (The kind that gives one grey hairs.)

Good for you for going natural. Hair is always read as symbolic of women's identity, so I'll be interested to hear what kind of reaction you'll get. (Think: shorn novices, Iroquois widows, etc.) When I cut my hair short, a duma$$ man in the Philosophy department at my former job asked, "What does this mean??" I wondered: did he think I went GAY, or was getting a divorce or something?

Anyway, think of all of the $$$ you will save so that we can go out next June and live it up!

Bardiac said...

I think the pressure to "look young" is part and parcel of the patriarchal pressures to objectify ourselves (as women) as sexual objects for male pleasure. But I hear the women who tell me that it's just "for them." /shrug

Fuck the patriarchy. Do what you want.

(If I cared enough to dye my hair, I'd want to go for metallic blue or something. But all I want out of my hair is for it to be out of my eyes, off the back of my neck, and reasonably clean. I have thought about shaving my head, but I don't want to get the weird "oh no you have cancer" response. See, I'm just as deeply embedded into patriarchal crap as all of us.)

Beth S. said...

One lovely lady I know kept being mistaken for her husband's mother because she was much grayer than he. When advised to dye her hair, she said, "Okay," and proceeded to dye a bright purple stripe right down the middle, keeping the rest grey. So that's always an option...

undine said...

I like it when women have their natural gray hair, but some types of hair look way better gray than other types (think Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada versus a female Einstein), so I'm in favor of whatever makes you happy and looks best. Women dye their hair all the time for all kinds of reasons (younger ones, too), so it seems to me fine either way.

Dr. S said...

I am super late to this party, so you might not even see my comment! But here it is: I have been going not grey but *white* for the past couple of years. Because I wear my hair so short, it's pretty visible because it's all in my underlayers, back behind my ears. I was fascinated by it when it first happened, and then it occurred ot me that this means that my hair will overall be lighter in color than it's been before, and that was a kind of strange realization.

But this year, while I'm traveling around with all these 20 yr olds, I have to say that I'm a little OK with being noticeably older--having the white hair scattered into my brown, and thus reminding them (and myself) that I am not 20 as well.

But then I think, wow, does having white hair make me even less attractive than I might otherwise have been to people who might be interested in me? (And *then* I think: do those people exist, anyway?)

And then I remember how much I already pay for haircuts and know that I am not likely ever to pay someone to dye my hair at great expense. I think I'm going to go all-out crazy white and just plain LIVE it.

My 2p.

Dr. S said...

Oo, reading these other posts reminds me that one advantage for me, in going grey, might be that I'll be able to get a wild color put in without having to bleach my own color out first. I would love to have cobalt streaks, I think.

profacero said...

It depends on how your hair greys and how it looks on you. My hair was ash blond and looked bad on me. I highlighted it blonder when it was lighter, then dyed it darker when blond got unrealistic. Then I got grey streaks and kept dyeing the same. But my family has ugly grey hair. Other families have good grey hair in which case I might let it go natural.

profacero said...

Also - it's worth a good professional dye job, if you do it. There are good at home colors too but you have to choose right. I chose wrong today, one of those auburns warned against upthread, thank God it's a "demi," will be gone after 28 shampoos.

Donna Trimm Calk said...
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honestyrocks said...

Hi! I am 47, am a natural mousy brown, and dyed my hair blonde under exteme pressure from my 19 year-old daughter. Now, I'm stuck in the cycle every 4 weeks to deal with the "demarcation line." I have an MSW, but am planning on applying to law school in a few years, and am wondering if anyone out there has some inside knowledge on whether or not the gray hair will impact an admissions decision.