Embracing gray: A deep desire for authenticity, despite society's norms and expectations

·3-min read
Many women "risk" allowing natural gray hair to show in order to feel authentic, a new study from the University of Exeter shows.

How did you react when you found your first gray hairs? While some people head straight to the hair salon, others decide to embrace this natural change in their appearance. But the decision to live with gray often has pros and cons, especially for women. Gray hair can reflect a desire to feel authentic, but it can also be a target for judgements rooted in age-based discrimination, notably about women's perceived competence.

While gray hair may be a much discussed subject -- and not necessarily for the right reasons -- the covid-19 pandemic could be set to change the game. Remember the panic back in March 2020 when the first wave of lockdowns forced hair salons to close? Social media bore witness to the fact that, even more than hair cuts, it was the fear of seeing white or gray regrowth that really stood out among concerns -- sometimes even more than being short of flour, water or toilet paper.

It's hard to imagine that, in such circumstances, something as seemingly trivial as hair color could lead to so much apprehension. However, this could be a revelatory symptom of a society that constantly vaunts the merits of youth. Being "old" -- especially for women -- is perceived as unfavorable in Western societies, as highlights a new study from researchers at the UK's University of Exeter.

"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," explains lead author Vanessa Cecil, of the University of Exeter.

Gray hair, a sign of incompetence?

The scientists set out to investigate why certain women choose not to dye their naturally gray hair. They surveyed and analyzed responses from a small panel of 80 participants -- members of two Facebook groups, mostly from English-speaking countries -- who opted not to dye their hair. Their findings suggest that women "risk" allowing natural gray hair to show in order to feel authentic, which brings them positive feelings, but that women also felt that they may be seen as less competent by others due to the age associations their hair color gives off.

"In the face of impossible standards to be natural and remain youthful forever, these women are doing what they can to retain status," explains the lead author.

The study revealed that while participants reported many negative consequences linked to their gray hair -- like being ignored or treated as less competent, or being shamed by friends and relations for "letting themselves go" -- they also felt happier when showing their true, natural authenticity. Plus, the study's lead author states that women who were supported by partners, family and friends had an "easier time" of the transition to gray.

Now, it remains to be seen whether the covid-19 pandemic -- which highlighted fears, but also allowed women to embrace gray hair -- aided by lockdowns and widespread remote working, can help change mentalities and break down society's diktats.

Christelle Pellissier