Identical twins Mary and Alice Lieberman have been zygotically close all their 55 years, even as adults living hundreds of miles apart. Two years ago, they were especially excited about seeing each other: Mary, a social worker, had moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from Austin, Texas, and she hadn't seen Alice, a social-work professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, for more than a year.
As the sisters approached each other on a street in Lawrence, Mary stopped dead in her tracks. Seven months earlier, she had stopped coloring her hair, but only now, seeing Alice, did she fully register what she had done: "I saw my brunet twin coming toward me and had the uneasy feeling that she looked like me, only five or 10 years younger. After I saw her, I hated my hair."
Mary had neglected to tell her sister that she had given up artificial color. So as the twins drew near each other, Alice recalls, "I got to watch my undyed older self walking toward me. I was sort of fascinated. My roots told me I was as gray or grayer than she, but here she was with it all hanging out. And no offense to my sister, but I thought it was a sort of haggard look." After the reunion, Mary decided her experiment in gray was over, and she redyed her hair the same shade of brown as her sister's.
In 2005, at the age of 48 and practically on a whim, I decided after nearly a quarter-century of every-three-weeks hair-salon coloring to buck convention and stop dyeing my hair. And I found to my surprise that by visually challenging my peers (if I was really gray, so must they be!), I unwittingly landed myself on the front lines of a public struggle literally superficial but at the same time almost existentially meaningful to American women with the vicissitudes of age.
Friends and strangers responded to my newly revealed natural hair color in one of two ways: a sort of proud, sometimes sanctimonious right-on-sister enthusiasm from fellow gray-haired women or an equally proud, sometimes resentful don't-judge-my-choices-I-do-this-to-feel-good-about-me defensiveness in the comments of the committed-to-dyeing cohort. Hardly anyone was lukewarm in their reactions, which suggests to me we may have a contentious new baby-boomer argument over gray hair that is as mutually judgmental as the mommy wars between working and stay-at-home mothers was in the 1980s and '90s.
There are differences between the gray wars and the mommy wars, of course. For starters, the stakes in the debate between stay-at-home mothers vs. working mothers are plainly, unequivocally serious, since that's a zero-sum game between maximum professional fulfillment and maximum parental availability. But there are serious and similar social crosscurrents underlying the apparently trivial issue of hair color as well, and the divide is of roughly the same scale. Three-quarters of women from 25 to 54 are in the labor force these days, twice as many as worked a half-century ago which is why the decision to be a stay-at-home mother became a difficult and fraught minority choice. And according to a 2005 Procter & Gamble survey, 65% of women had colored their hair in the previous year, several times as many as in the 1950s, which is why going gray has become a difficult and an equally fraught choice for modern women to make.
Both are about endlessly self-obsessed boomers dealing with self-worth about work and children in the late 1980s and '90s when the median boomer was in her 30s and about authenticity and aging now that the median boomer is 52. And both conflicts are about the right ways to interpret the legacies of feminism. If the personal is the political, as the women on the barricades made us believe, then even choices about how to face old age are going to be loaded. Barbara Kass, a New York City psychotherapist and definitely a citizen of Woodstock Nation in the '60s, feels twinges of guilt about dyeing her long hair at 53. She says, "At 22, getting older absolutely did not cross my mind. The young me would find it shocking that I dye my hair."
Today, four decades after the youthquake's transformation of the culture, most baby-boomer women have held on to the hedonistic forever-young part of their Woodstock dreams a lot more tenaciously than to the open-and-honest part. And in doing so, they have presided over a narrowing of the range of acceptable looks for women. Women may be CEOs, Cabinet officers and TV-news anchors and may openly indulge their sexual appetites but only if they appear eternally youthful. And a main requirement is a hair color other than gray or white.
But wait! Is it not feminism that allowed these women to become CEOs, Cabinet officers and TV-news anchors in the first place? Before women entered business and the professions in large numbers, they didn't feel as compelled to fib about their age by means of hair dye. So what is the right way, when it comes to hair, to honor women's progress? Conversations with women from Camden, Maine, to Decatur, Ga., and from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Portland, Ore., expose a raw nerve. "If a woman is really old and the dye job is extreme," Cathy Hamilton, 51, a recently gray-haired managing editor of Boomergirl.com from Lawrence, says, "I do think, 'Who is she trying to kid?' I'm a bitch, I'll admit it." And on the other side of the fence is Catherine Clinton, 55, a dyed-red college professor in Greenwich, Conn., who says, "I have seen friends who have stopped dyeing their hair, and although one or two look really good, others mainly look less like themselves, more drab and less vibrant." Almost without exception, the women with gray hair say well-intentioned friends have urged that they go back to dyeing their hair.