Author Susan Choi on Her Life-Changing Decision to Let Herself Go Gray

Hours in the salon chair. All that money for monthly dye jobs. What would happen, Susan Choi wondered, if she just let herself go gray? Nothing short of her whole life changing.

Susan Choi Gray Hair
Photo: Illustration by Agata Wierzbicka

My journey to natural gray began with the most unnatural hair choice of my life—and I've made many.

It was sometime in the late 1990s, and I was somewhere in my late 20s, visiting my best friend in Toronto. When her friend Guy (not his real name) arrived to meet us at a bar, every head turned his way. His lustrous, platinum blond hair resembled a dazzling gem from a spectacular planet we had not yet discovered. You couldn't help looking, and when you did, little dark spots filled your vision, like you'd looked at the sun.

"I've always wanted hair like that," I told him.

The next morning, not long enough after the sun came up, my friend and I were awakened by Guy banging on her door. He had two shopping bags stuffed with drugstore hair dye. "We'd better get started!" he said. "This might take all day."

If I hadn't always wanted hair like his, it was only because I didn't know what I was looking for. A lifelong brunette, I thought my hair was unremarkable, anonymous. I tortured it with serial perms, I cut it into an asymmetrical pompadour, I once even shaved it all off. But maybe it was the color, not the texture or shape, that was wrong. No sooner was the coffee brewing than my friend, Guy, and I were slathering bleach onto my head, our eyes weeping from the fumes. Then we put on a movie and waited—through the entirety of The French Connection, followed by The Godfather, followed by The Godfather: Part II. God help us, I think we even watched The Godfather: Part III.

When I so much as mentioned going gray, both old friends and longtime stylists objected with horror.

When, an entire day later, we finally panicked and went to a salon, the stylist said, "I think I can get you to yellow," looking with mingled pity and disgust at my bleach-trashed, pumpkin-orange tresses. She did get me to yellow—a lurid canary yellow that, for all its neon qualities, wasn't luminous but just loud. The original goal, to attain Guy's otherworldly, eye-catching platinum, was best forgotten. Remember James Iha's hair in the '90s? Mine never looked that good. But I returned to New York half proud, half embarrassed, and decided to live with it for a while. On a day that, unlike the day in Toronto, I don't remember at all, I went to a salon and had my hair dyed "back" to its "natural" color.

As anyone who's ever dyed their hair knows, there's no such thing as bringing back your natural color with dye. Your natural hair color, whether you like it or not, is variable, unique, imperfect. It can be skillfully approximated, but never so closely that strong light won't unmask the deception. As my hair continued to grow, my roots continued to not quite match the dark brown with which I'd covered the canary. So even after the canary was gone, I kept dyeing—for so long that a new color came to the party. The years had passed, dyeing had turned into a habit, and now my roots held the odd strand of white. Slowly, as slowly as hair grows, dyeing my hair became a necessity.

There were other things going on too. I'd published a book, gotten married, had a baby. Then I published another book, had another baby. In a life now full of obligations, appointments, and expenses, the imperative to dye my hair was so woven in with the rest that, despite the chore of constantly scheduling it and the alarm of constantly paying for it, I gave it little real thought—even as my hair seemed to demand my attention ever more frequently.

Susan Choi Gray Hair

"Mommy, you're getting old-person hair again," my younger son once warned me when he was about 2 years old, solemnly touching his wee fingertip to my scalp. He was right—I was always getting "old-person hair." My roots seemed to pop out before I even got home from the salon. In contrast to my dark, "natural" color, my roots were blindingly bright, a scattering of anomalous diamonds. "Hey—there's something interesting happening here!" my hair might have been trying to signal to me. But every time those winking diamonds appeared, like my hair was cracking open a window, I slammed that window shut.

I wish I could say I experienced a single moment of revelation. Instead there was a long accumulation of moments: My innocent toddler repeating our culture's ageism, that silver means old, and that old means undesirable in every possible way. My recollection of Guy's lustrous platinum and my thwarted attempt to attain it. But more than anything, there was the incredible resistance I encountered when I so much as mentioned going gray. "God no, it will age you," both old friends and longtime stylists objected with horror. I had such nice skin, I was told; why would I give up appearing younger than I was, by failing to pair that nice skin with dark hair? Why would I ever admit my age? Clearly my age was a liability, and I ought to act like it. At my salon, the stylists proposed increasingly complex alternatives to "growing it out." The final idea was elaborate highlights, which I somehow agreed to—and so, a few weeks after what turned out to be my last dye job, my hair was three incompatible colors instead of two. I set out in search of a different salon, and I knew I'd found it when the stylist there said, "This obsession with hiding gray hair is a cultural sickness." Just like that, dyeing grays took its place in my mind alongside wearing corsets. Why had I done it for all these years?

If deciding to go gray was a gradual process, doing it was more gradual still. Despite my new stylist's ingenious haircuts, I was as patchy as a calico cat for well over a year. Hats were worn. Explanations were made. Unlike those occasions when I stripped out my color and added a fake version back, this new change took root (sorry—couldn't resist) at the barely perceptible speed of all natural things. I looked and felt weird for what seemed like a very long time. And then one day, without knowing quite when it happened, I looked and felt different.

My new hair was plainly and recognizably mine, yet I never could have imagined it. It was shiny and smooth, when for years it had been as rough as burlap. And it was variegated in the most unpredictable fashion. In some places it was pure white, in others a mix of grays. At my temples and nape were brushstrokes of long-ago black, that color I'd wiped out in my 20s and thought I'd never see again. My whole life appeared in my hair—my aging parents, my childhood self, myself in the future.

If this seems like a little too much wisdom to have gained from a mere change of hair color, I'll admit there were other factors. In a process as long as my hair color change but truly unrelated, my marriage came to an end. My children became adolescents. The family life that had consumed me for years disappeared. Given the scope of these changes, my change of appearance seemed more than apt.

Strange to say, my titanium hair often makes me feel younger than I felt in my 30s and 40s. I feel more connected to the girl I was in my teens—the girl who did weird things with her hair, wore weird clothes, thought weird thoughts. At the same time, my titanium hair also makes me feel a little wiser, more aware of past pitfalls, possibly able to make better choices if given a chance.

But the thing I like best about my new hair has less to do with me than with others: It adds a layer of interest to all my encounters. If I ever start dating again, I imagine my hair will serve as a filter. For now, it's a pleasure to learn which random stranger feels moved to call out, "Is your hair natural?" and, on hearing my answer, emphatically voice approval. It's a pleasure to see who sees me. Sometimes I even imagine—who knows?—that one of these people feels more seen, just because I stopped dyeing my hair.

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