Gray, white hair is a crowning glory for some, a workplace conundrum for others

Monday, May 7, 2012
Gail Lowrance at Annie Laurie's Antiques in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Jeanne Thompson began going gray at 23. She colored her hair for years as she worked her way into management at a large Boston-area financial services company, then gave up the dye for good about a year ago.

The earth didn't shake, and the 44-year-old Thompson was promoted to top management the following year.

She is among a new type of gray panther, a woman who aspires to do well and get ahead on the job while happily maintaining a full head of gray.

"Women put pressure on themselves to color," the Exeter, N.H., woman said. "It's a bold statement to be gray because it's saying, `You know what? I did let my hair go, but I'm not letting myself go.' People take me more seriously now. I never apologize for the gray hair."

Gail Lowrance, a special-education teacher in Cape Girardeau who works part time at Annie Laurie's Antiques, started getting gray hairs in her late teens. After an unfortunate incident with a reverse frost and a swimming pool, she decided to let her hair go au naturale -- and for her, that means long, curly and white. It's a conversation starter at the antique shop, and the kids at school always want to touch her hair to see if it's real, says Lowrance. Occasionally, women ask why she doesn't dye her hair.

"I absolutely love the wildness and uniqueness of it, and I'm lucky that it's pure white," says Lowrance. "Women reach a certain age and they think they have to cut off their hair... It takes a certain personality and level of confidence to pull it off -- plus a fabulous hairdresser."

But not everyone finds the transition to gray or white so easy.

"Most of my female clients are quite concerned with gray hair and the appearance of gray hair. Probably at least 70 percent are trying to cover it in some fashion, while about 15 percent embrace it," says Bethany Peters, salon manager at SmartStyle inside the Cape Girardeau Walmart. "I think gray in the workplace depends a lot upon industry. In entertainment and the beauty industry, you are strongly expected to display a spectacular color. In many business or 'power' fields, I think supervisors often view it as keeping yourself competitive. However, there are many jobs where gray could be viewed as making one look more distinguished or lend credence to a person's stance."

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was created to protect employees age 40 and up, but ageism is still a concern for some men and women approaching their silver years.

"The long-standing perception that men with gray hair are experienced and women with gray hair are simply old may still be an issue that affects employees in workplaces across the U.S.," says Stephanie Martinez Kluga, a manager for Insperity, a Houston-based company that provides human resources services to small and medium-size businesses.

Sandra Rawline, 52, of Houston, experienced ageism firsthand. A trial is scheduled for June in her federal lawsuit accusing her boss of ordering her to dye her gray hair in 2009, when her office moved to a swankier part of town. The suit accuses him of instructing her to wear "younger, fancier suits" and lots of jewelry, according to the Houston Chronicle. The newspaper said her superior called her lawsuit "preposterous."

On the other hand, there are legions of men and women with no interest in letting their gray fly. Not now, when the struggling economy has produced a stampede of hungry young job-seekers.

"I will fight the gray battle until the end," declares Kim Voelker. "They are unruly and annoying, in my opinion."

Brooke Clubbs of Jackson says her grandmother and mother both colored/color their hair, so it seemed only natural that she would color her own hair when she started spotting grays.

"Some women look beautiful with gray hair, but I don't think I would be one of them," she says.

In 1950, 7 percent of women dyed their hair. Today, it's closer to 95 percent or more, depending on geographic location. In the 1960s, easy, affordable hair dye in a box hit store shelves, changing the follicle landscape for good.

Whether Peters' clients are retired or employed, she says, hair is one thing they take pride in -- and they want it to look good, gray or colored. While colored hair can make people feel youthful, the maintenance can be expensive.

"Coloring gray hair is a challenge," Peters adds. "Not all gray hair is created equal. It tends to be fine and cornsilk, or thick and coarse." Peters uses permanent or demi-permanent color on her gray clients, depending on the percentage of gray present in the hair. The tricky thing about drugstore products, she says, is that the timing is generic and you may end up with spotty coverage, especially if you have resistant spots.

"One major trend that I see with those who are working later in life is that rather than doing full color, they opt for gray-blending or a partial highlight, says Peters. It is a way to remain youthful with less maintenance. Most have said that they feel better doing that because it's not too dramatic."

Still, if you choose to stay gray, you're in good company. Gray heads have been popping up on runways and red carpets, on models and young celebrities for months. There's Lady Gaga and Kelly Osbourne -- via dye -- and Hollywood royalty like Helen Mirren and Jamie Lee Curtis. Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund chief, is one of the most powerful women in the world, and she keeps her hair gray. So does Essie Weingarten, founder and now creative director of the nail polish company Essie Cosmetics.

When Lowrance visits her children in California and North Carolina, she says it's quite common to meet other women with hair like hers.

"It's kind of like cupcakes, vintage weddings, dog parks and all-day farmers markets -- all of that became popular on both coasts years ago, but we're a bit slower here. That's the way it is with hair," says Lowrance. "I think going gray will become more popular in the Midwest in the years to come, when women get more courageous and realize how easy, far less time-consuming and inexpensive it is."

In the meantime, says Lowrance, she has no problem being remembered as "the teacher with the white hair."

"It's who I am, and I'm completely happy with it," she says. "After all, each gray hair on your head is a sign of the good times you've had."

Adds Donna Shaner, "My mother is a beautiful gray-haired woman who says she earned every strand in her head, so why color it? It is her 'strands of glory' for raising four kids."

To keep your gray hair soft and healthy, always use a conditioner to keep hair from becoming brittle, says Peters. Next, look for a shampoo intended for gray hair, and use it about three times a week to keep your hair bright, shiny and free of brassiness that can come from hard water, pollutants and smoking.

"I think gray is all about how comfortable you feel with yourself. Whatever makes you feel good is right." says Peters.

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