As a woman who went prematurely gray in her 30s, I have watched with interest as gray hair has become a fashion statement for both young and older, and men and women alike. Women who wear their hair gray today are not the crones of old, but are trendy, fashionable, and chic.
Take Salma Hayek, who sports gray hair in her new movie "The Hummingbird Project” opening in limited release Friday. Hayek’s character, hedge fund manager Eva Torres, plays a no-nonsense, driven woman whose gray locks are a metaphor for her wealth and toughness. Hayek wearing gray hair should not even be a story, but in the movie industry, a woman with gray hair usually used to be limited to either an unsexy villain or a grandmother.
Gray can now be added to hair as part of the “ombre” trend, and is worn everywhere, from high schools to catwalks. Kylie Jenner did her part to promote wearing gray hair by adding extensions (though she subsequently freaked out on social media when she found her first real gray hair at 18). Hollywood favorites have taken their gray hair to the masses: Helen Mirren and Jaime Lee Curtis are rocking their gray hair with sensuality and confidence, Jeff Goldblum is a “Daddy” sex symbol now that he has gray hair and swag, and Angela Bassett in "Black Panther" wowed with gray locs.
Even Santa finally embraced the sexiness of gray hair: A few years ago, a shopping mall in Toronto hired a sexy gray-haired Santa for Christmas, which attracted crowds of adults and kids alike! His athletic, lean figure went viral, causing a holiday sensation.
So with an aging population, isn’t it past time to more broadly consider women with gray hair just as sexy as men?
Part of the reason we've seen grey-haired women as has-beens rather than can-bes has to do with fiction, fertility and with history. Women with gray hair figured prominently in European folklore as witches or evildoers because it was a sign of a menopausal woman out of her sexual prime — and society had little use for women beyond their child-bearing years. The stigma softened somewhat over the centuries (and the reigns of various queens in western Europe), and women thought gray hair gave them gravitas; it was a sign of wisdom and dignity. In the 18th century, powdered hair and wigs became popular in France (and then elsewhere), with even young women powdering their hair blue gray and gray, because gray on men was so powerful.
With the advent of hair dye and the focus on the importance of women's perceived youth, the vision of gray hair on women as dowdy and grandmotherly became more pronounced. Men who had a little grey were still seen as distinguished and desirable, and able to choose younger women. Gray hair on a woman became increasingly unheard of, contributing to the perception that grey hair only comes late in life, rather than throughout one's life. Think of the commercials for “Just for Men” and Loving Care — the “I’m gonna wash that gray right out of my hair” campaign. They both suggested "washing out" the gray would make one more desirable and attractive to the opposite sex.
Cartoon characters have also played a big role in how we perceive women with gray hair — think Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" or Cruella De Ville from "101 Dalmations," both with large personalities, chips on their shoulders and gray hair, trying to keep their power in a Disney fantasy world geared towards youth. (The only cartoon character with gray hair considered sexy outside of the anime world is X-Men's Storm, a mutant descended from a line of African priestesses with white hair and blue eyes whose hair became white through tragedy.)
But time, and everyone's hair, is changing. With an aging population and fashion-forward men and women eager to try a new look, gray hair is becoming a singular statement of personal independence and a way to stand out from the crowd, whatever your age.
I’m long been gray and mostly proud of it. I stared turning gray at 25 and, by the time I was 40, had enough gray hair to lay aside the hair dye and let it all grow out. It was a choice born out of necessity, but now it is a personal trademark. (I have even grown comfortable enough with my own gray hair to take it off, literally, on national television.)
So while Salma Hayek might be lauded for going gray as a movie star, take a second look at the confident women and men around you sporting lush gray locks while you fret over yours. Gray is the new black — and it's sexy.
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of "Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World" (The University of North Carolina Press) and her forthcoming book is tentatively titled “From Palin to Trump: Evangelicals, Race, and Nationalism” (The New Press).