The brighter side of gray hair

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Washing that gray right out of your hair (to borrow from the famous song) is no longer a mandatory part of getting older. So asserts a growing cadre of American women who are embracing their naturally silver hair tones.

Letting tresses go gray (or white or salt-and-pepper) may not be the Hollywood way, but it’s become a hot topic for real women all over the country. Seeds of a colossal shift in thinking — away from the arcane preconception that going gray means “letting yourself go” — have already taken root.

Going gray is the most commented-on theme on More magazine’s website, which caters to women over 40. The “Today” show recently featured a seven-minute clip about whether it’s “OK to go gray,” and how to do so gracefully. And recently published books about ditching dye-jobs for good, including Diana Lewis Jewell’s “Going Gray, Looking Great!” and Anne Kreamer’s “Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters,” continue to sell briskly, and (in the case of Jewell’s book) have inspired the formation of online mini-communities based on a shared belief that going gray is more than OK.

Jewell’s tome, a how-to guide to transitioning to silvery shades, inspired a website of the same name that launched in 2008 and now boasts more than 2,000 registered members. The site — which covers topics including various ways to grow out the gray (the brave embrace a pixie haircut, while others suffer through a period of calico color) and how to find complementary makeup for the new hair hue — also includes a slew of first-person stories and photos from its members.

Jewell was a bottle-blond with highlights when she started the project but boasted 6 inches of gray roots by the time she finished it. “That first focus group I held inspired me to go gray,” she said. “I interviewed all these women, and I thought there was really something really special going on with this community.”

The site’s spirit of camaraderie (regular users jauntily refer to themselves as “Silver Sisters”) has even inspired some members to organize “mini-meets,” social get-togethers held in different cities.

“They feel they know each other through the site,” said Jewell, “and they organize these events by themselves.” The last two mini-meets were in Cape Town, South Africa — evidence that the movement has, on a small or large scale, gone global.

Website member Suzanne Fleishman, a 42-year-old stay-at-home-mother who lives in Long Beach and boasts a pretty pewter-toned bob, started going gray in her mid-20s and was soon regularly dying her hair its pre-gray shade of chocolate brown. Years later, she was still a slave to the salon— suffering fast-fading color treatments and botched dye jobs.

“I would leave the hairdresser and parts of my hair were shiny and glossy, but looking at it up close, I could see that other parts weren’t even getting covered,” she said. “And after a couple of weeks, it would fade to this orange-y dull color.”

When she turned 40, “I thought, I feel good about who I am. Why am I doing this to myself? I’m the mother of three children and I have a nice life.”

Feedback from friends and family has been overwhelmingly positive, said Fleishman. “People have said, ‘I think it’s really gutsy.’” She’s also noticed more women letting themselves go gray at a younger age recently — but admits that she might be more attuned to it since doing so herself. “I’ll be at Trader Joe’s shopping, and I’ll see several women with gray,” she said. “Sometimes I think there’s a little wink and a nod between us, like a ‘You go, girl’ sort of thing.”

Considering how deeply ingrained the message of “gray equals grandma” is in American culture, not covering gray could be considered downright rebellious — a turning away from the 1950s Clairol generation, when women started home coloring en masse. “From that point on, women were brainwashed into thinking that to look young they have to color their hair,” said Jewell. “Clairol did a fabulous job of it. We grew up seeing our mothers and grandmothers religiously dying their hair. We got that message.”

Of course, the no-dye trend has yet to infiltrate the Hollywood sphere, which almost single-handedly sets the national tone on beauty issues. Meryl Streep went white for her role in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but she’s always baby blond on the red carpet. And although we’ve glimpsed gray root on celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and Nicole Kidman, it’s unlikely they will be forgoing their coloring appointments any time soon.

A clutch of slightly older celebrities — including Jamie Lee Curtis, Helen Mirren and Diane Keaton — carries the torch for chic silver styles.

But, oddly enough, gray has become a hot color among the young-and-trendy set recently. Kelly Osbourne, Pixie Geldof, Lady Gaga and 13-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson are among the fresh-faced notables who have dabbled in shades of silver as of late. It’s an oddball trend — and one that’s likely to burn out quickly — but could potentially lend support to a larger whiteout in popular culture.

Lynn Hyndman, co-owner of the Purple Circle salon in Los Feliz, which specializes in envelope-pushing cuts and color, said she’s had younger clients request “gunmetal gray and sometimes lavender” locks recently.

And Jennifer Metzger, regional director of Fantastic Sams in California, said that while the salon chain hasn’t been seeing an uptick in women embracing their silver roots, it has seen a surge in the popularity of gray highlights among the company’s younger, more fashion-forward clientele. “They put in a blond color that’s so blond that it’s actually gray — it’s very contrast-y,” she said. “I was pretty shocked when I first saw it, but then the kids do a lot of different things.”

As for more mature Angelenos going gray, Los Angeles-based hairdresser Neil George (whose eponymous salon has tended to the manes of Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank and Cameron Diaz), said he hasn’t seen an uptick in women embracing their true roots. “I have a few older women clients with gray hair, and they always get a lot of compliments — especially if they have a slightly olive-y skin tone,” he said. “Women always come up to them, saying, ‘I wish I could do that.’”