I really wanted to ‘embrace my greys’ with pride—and was sad when I couldn’t

how to transition to grey hair
Grey-spo: Erykah Badu; Sarah Harris; Véronique Tristram
As sci-fi-sounding technologies to reverse grey hair started becoming a reality, I realized that against my feminist conciousness, I’d probably be first in line.

My hair started greying noticeably in my teens, and I’ve been colouring it ever since. But after my last baby, the silver intruders got out of control and I needed to head to the hairdresser at least every six weeks—an expensive habit. I decided to get into the emerging, new-school approach to beauty: embracing freckles, wrinkles, stretch marks, arm hairs and whatever other supposed flaws we have. I was inspired by Sarah Harris, fashion features director of Vogue UK, who defies the ‘smart, older-lady haircut’ stereotypes around greys by wearing hers long and loose (she even managed to score a Redken campaign as a result). And ultimately, I wanted to see what was hiding under the dye.

Apparently, Ms. Harris and I are not alone: here in Canada, sales of L’Oréal Professionnel Silver Shampoo are up 15 per cent, says the brand’s integrated communications director, Marie-Pier Lessard. My own hairstylist, Shai, of Pome Hair Studio in Vancouver, attributes the rise to the millennial trend for grey locks, as touted in Allure earlier this year. “That opened the door for older women with real grey hair to feel it was acceptable to show it,” she says.

Then there are the latest inspirational books, like Silver Hair: Say Goodbye To The Dye And Let Your Natural Light Shinewritten by hair expert Lorraine Massey, who’s been quoted in The New York Times and InStyle magazine (she’s also the founder of Devachen salons in New York and co-founder of the popular curly hair care range DevaCurl.) This newish book equates dyeing with addiction, and quitting with virtue, and uses inspo-ish terms like grombre (grey/ombre) to describe that awkward stage when you’re growing it out. In similar spirit, an old colleague of mine revealed that her new hair had come through looking intentional, “like a very expensive platinum dye job.” This, I was sure, would happen to me.

grey hair
New Zealand-based interior designer Alex Fulton

This did not happen to me. The transition process, it turns out, is utterly hideous if your hair is as dark as mine. Shai says you can play around with highlights or lowlights to break up the solid dye-line, but real talk: it’s always going to be painful. “The fastest way is to cut a lot of the dye out, to chin-length or shorter,” she says. That’s the option New Zealand-based interior designer Alex Fulton took 18 months ago. “I had long hair and after six months I was getting frustrated with the regrowth,” she shares, having diarized her transition on Instagram. “We get very tied to the length of hair but I’d had short hair before, so I was okay to chop it off. It was very liberating.”

I took her advice and did the same, going from a jaw-length bob to a pixie crop. For a while, I had highlighted ends, mid-brown mid-lengths and salt-and-pepper roots, all in about four inches of hair. I tried root retouching powders, which work, but look funny around the hairline and have a whiff of late-night infomercial about them. And I used Kevin Murphy Colour Angel to minimize orangey tones on the tips. Most of the time I felt totally fed up—unkempt and unattractive.

Six months in, it was pretty much finished. I expected to be elated, like the big-reveal chair-spin moment in a makeover show. But when I looked in the mirror, to my great surprise, I had not transformed into slinky, sleek Sarah Harris. It was not ‘cool-girl grey’ either, as defined by Glamour U.K. My hair never looked shiny and glossy like it had before, but rather steely and dull. I became anxious about my career plans—what kind of judgments might future employers or clients make about my salt-and-pepper strands, and me? Yes, I saved money—but I didn’t feel pretty. When I caught sight of my reflection, my appearance didn’t match the way I felt inside. I looked old. And I felt pathetic—so vain and first world, like I should go full Pollyanna and be glad I even had hair, and legs, and functioning kidneys.

grey hair
The grey hair you choose, as seen on Kim Kardashian

I turned to makeup. According to Toronto-based makeup artist Diana Carreiro, who’s worked with models Maye Musk and Kristen Owen, there are just two musts: luminous skin, and blush. “Super matte skin is ageing and doubly so when paired with grey hair,” she says. “It’s important to add a youthful glow to the face—a brighter blush paired with a hint of luminescent highlighter to the high points is key.” As to specific looks, nothing is off the table, but she loves a neutral eye with a bold lip. “It’s dazzling and super elegant. Much less work too,” she says. I found a beet-coloured lippie I loved, and amped up the blush. I felt looked better, but to my own eyes, still not right.

Aside from dyeing it again, what was the alternative? Several years ago, L’Oréal revealed it was working on a pill that could stop hairs from going grey, though it wouldn’t reverse the process. (So far that hasn’t arrived.) Less credible sources have tried, and been the subject of lawsuits. Then in 2016, scientists discovered the gene responsible for premature greying, which they maintained was promising in terms of finding a “cure”. And very recently, a group of Italian scientists announced that a male patient’s white hair reverted to its darker and thicker state of around ten years prior after a steady intake of a psoriasis drug. Remarkable if it ever sees the light of day, years and years down the road.

There are brands working on sci-fi topical solutions as I write. First to market with a claim to halt grey hair re-growth (effectively allowing your original, natural hair colour to come through and softening hair texture in the process) is a daily serum by French hair care company Phyto. Launching next month, Phyto RE 30 is six years in the making, and costs $60 for a month’s supply. The star ingredient—a melanin-synethsizing peptide—won’t get you back to your original colour if your hair is more than 30 per cent grey and has been for years. And unlike dye, it’s not an overnight fix; it takes around three months to start seeing results. (A Canadian company called Lucas Meyer seems to be onto similar technology). So if, like me, you’ve already transitioned to grey, you’ll have to cut it boy short and start all over again to see any reduction.

Grey hair
The grey hair your born with, as seen on Instagram user-fed community @grombre

No matter what science comes up with, women will always be luckier if they can transition well into an age-induced au natural state. “I really notice now women who dye their hair dark when it’s very obvious that there is a lighter colour underneath,” says Fulton. “I also think your skin changes when you get older and your hair accommodates this perfectly.” She notes that your first grow-in is just one step in the journey. “My hair is always changing, even now when I have no colour whatsoever in it.”

I understand what she means. As my hair gets longer, new tones reveal themselves. It reminds me of the original point of all this: to let things unfold and see what happens. So I’ve decided to wait a little longer. To notice that my hair looks fuller now and my eyes look greener. To watch the way this black streak falls beside that white one, and how cool that could look. Besides, with budding Instagram communities like @grombre, where women of all ages and ethnicities are sharing their grey hair in all its glory, real inspiration lies. I can’t say I’ll not dye it another day. And I’m eventually going to try that Phyto product. But for now, I’m going to just see how it grows.

Into this story that grapples between self-acceptance and choosing to alter your appearance all at once? Check out this story about how health nuts sometimes aren’t perfect either.