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The risks of going gray

Women friends going gray
More older women may be overcoming their reservations about letting their hair go gray, according to a recent small study. (Source: Adobe Stock)

During recent lockdowns, some older women who were unable to visit their hairdressers – and who weren’t leaving home much anyway – decided to let their hair go “natural,” which meant going gray. 

This trend appears to have accelerated a change that was already happening among many women over 50, according to British researchers. Using input from members of two Facebook groups focused on women making the transition from coloring their hair to embracing their natural silver tones, University of Exeter scientists explored some of society’s common attitudes toward women’s natural aging processes … and how some older women are pushing back against these attitudes. 

Many women participating in the groups said they perceived a risk in allowing their natural gray hair to show, the researchers found. That risk stemmed from negative consequences they said they had commonly experienced after going gray, such as being ignored, talked down to, or viewed as less competent. 

Unfortunately, some group participants also reported being chastised – including by some of their own family members and friends – for “letting themselves go.” 

Many said making the transition to gray hair helped them to feel more natural and more authentic, however. This was especially true if they felt supported by friends and loved ones in their decision.

“We are all constrained by society’s norms and expectations when it comes to appearance, but expectations are more rigorous for women – especially older women,” explained lead author Vanessa Cecil, of the University of Exeter. “The ‘old woman’ is an undesirable character in Western societies, being seen as incompetent or unpleasant – if she is seen at all.” 

“We also found that women (in the study) chose to compensate for going gray by using other beauty practices, so embracing gray (was not) the same as embracing looking old,” she added.

“In the face of impossible standards to be natural and remain youthful forever, these women are doing what they can to retain status,” Cecil said. “Gray-haired and youthfully glamorous is one thing … but in Western societies it’s still not OK to look old.”

The study was recently published in the Journal of Women & Aging.

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