Anna Swaim, a communications and trade association consultant from Little Rock, waited hours in Jackson Square to see French President Emmanuel Macron when he visited New Orleans in early December 2022. When he finally arrived, she was so close to the front of the crowd that she got to shake his hand and meet his wife.
But the biggest thrill was yet to come.
"The next day I'm Googling for news stories about it and I see my hair. That was the thumbnail picture in the Google news search."
In the photo, which also appeared in the New York Times, Swaim's glorious silver hair is as striking as Macron himself, and it validated her decision to stop coloring her hair. The decision to "go gray" — either to forgo hair color entirely or to give it up after years of maintenance — is an intensely personal one, especially for women who start seeing the white strands earlier than is typical.
Now 53, Swaim had been coloring her hair for at least a quarter-century, having detected her first gray hairs at 18. Swaim's mother had long encouraged her to embrace her natural hair. "You would have beautiful silver hair like your daddy if you stopped coloring it," was her mother's refrain.
Originally a brunette, she had gradually gone lighter and was almost blond when her mother died two years ago this week. Swaim decided to stop coloring her hair in her mother's memory and honor.
"I hate that she never got to see my silver hair, because she was right," she says.
The fact that her sons are now in college helped Swaim make the decision, and having lighter hair made the transition easier. But even women for whom gray is age appropriate can find the prospect daunting, as evidenced by the scores of channels on YouTube dedicated to supporting women through the treacherous journey.
To maintain chemically colored hair is a long-term commitment of time and money, but to stop coloring is also a long-term commitment because a complete transition can take years and can change the way a woman is perceived.
Last summer one of Canada's best-known news anchors was suddenly fired after 35 years on the air, despite having two years left on her contract. While the official reason for terminating Lisa LaFlamme was vague — just moving "in a different direction," was Bell Media's official statement — Toronto newspaper The Globe & Mail reported that the company's new CEO had complained about 58-year-old LaFlamme's high-profile decision to stop coloring her hair.
That report led to an outpouring of support for LaFlamme and for gray (which Canadians spell "grey") hair in general. Even the famously red-haired Wendy's logo went gray in solidarity.
Because a âï¸ is a âï¸ regardless of hair colour. #LisaLaFlamme #NewProfilePic pic.twitter.com/g7i7kqwYrw— Wendy's ð¨ð¦ (@WendysCanada) August 25, 2022
LaFlamme's decision to stop coloring her hair coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted hair care services for months.
"Honestly, if I had known the lockdown could be so liberating on that front I would have done it a lot sooner," LaFlamme said.
Emily Kearns of Little Rock, coordinator of Restore Hope's 100 Families Initiative in Pulaski County, gave up hair color pre-pandemic after a comment from a man in a professional setting left her speechless.
"I was at a committee meeting, and this guy came up to me and I thought he was flirting with me at first. But I will never forget this: He said, 'You have starlight in your hair.'"
As he continued talking about her hair, Kearns finally caught on. "Oh my God. He's talking about my gray hair." She was spending "$200 a pop" and having it colored every four weeks, and the gray that had started in her mid-30s was still noticeable.
That incident helped Kearns, now 48, make the decision to stop coloring, and it wasn't easy. Encouragement from her daughters and her admiration for gray-haired political strategist Donna Brazille helped her over the hump, and "about a year in, I started liking my gray."
While she suspects her new look may keep her from being offered public-facing jobs in the political arena — "Do I get passed over, or have I been passed over, because I'm seen as too old-looking to be part of the entourage as part of a support staff?" — she says it was probably time for her to pivot to roles in which her age and experience are seen as assets.
"I feel so much more confident with my gray hair than I ever did with my colored hair. Or even before then," Kearns says. "Before then, I just felt young, and my uniform-colored black hair just said, 'I don't know anything.' Silver hair says, 'I have lived.'"
And flirting is not a thing of the past, even for the "very married" Kearns.
"I'm a darked-skinned Black woman, and my silver hair on this dark skin is sexy. I've been told that by many men. It's nice to be appreciated in that way."
Dr. Jerri Hoskyn, a Little Rock dermatologist, gave up hair color shortly before the pandemic. Now 57, she had been using highlights to disguise the gray that had become noticeable in her medium-brown hair in her 30s — camouflage that seemed more important when her daughter was young.
"I was a little late to the having-kids party, so when my daughter was little, some of her friends would ask me if I was her grandmother."
When highlights were no longer doing the trick, she made her decision.
"I just got kinda tired of it, the time and expense. I wasn't willing to do all-over color, and I thought acceptance was the more economical route."
(There's good news for women who do use all-over hair color. Hoskyn says she doesn't worry about long-term effects of hair color provided you aren't experiencing any allergic reaction. Allergies can develop, though, and she has had "hard conversations" with patients who need to give up hair color for medical reasons.)
Like Swaim, Hoskyn recognizes that having lighter hair made the transition easier, as did not having to consider whether the change would affect her professional standing.
"I could see how that could be [a consideration] in a high-profile position or other public-facing job," she says. "We're all bombarded with messages from the beauty industrial complex that we aren't OK the way we are — makeup, deodorant — and this is just one of those things."
Women with natural hair color are not well-represented in pop culture, she adds. That may be why the affirmation that Swaim, Kearns and Hoskyn all report from admirers is gratifying.
"I've been surprised at how many compliments I've gotten, honestly, from my patients," Hoskyn says. "They say, 'I would go gray if I knew it would look nice like that.'"
Fear of the Unknown
Not knowing what's under the hair color is a common predicament, according to Laura Beth Wilson, a colorist and hair stylist with Salon L in the Pleasant Ridge Shopping Center in west Little Rock. She says customers who decide to go natural after many years of coloring often have no idea what their hair will look like. It can be a shock for them and for others.
Women who decide to stop coloring their hair don't do it because they don't like the results, Wilson says. They stop because they are tired of the time and expense required to keep the roots at bay.
"Maintenance is exasperating. I get it," she says.
And making the decision to stop coloring means giving up something that they have considered worth the investment, often for years or decades. While some women love their gray, there's no guarantee. Women who stop coloring need to be prepared for a look they don't like as well as the look they paid for.
"Wanting to stop coloring your hair and wanting your hair to look as good as it did, I don't think those two thought processes are friends," she says. "Marilyn's not going to be Marilyn without that blond hair."
And forgoing hair pigment may also require rethinking other parts of your personal color palette in makeup and clothing. Swaim, for instance, says she has added more bright colors and jewel tones to her wardrobe since going silver.
If you've decided to get off the hamster wheel of hair color, Wilson says there are techniques to ease the transition. Rather than root color every four to six weeks, brighter highlights and darker lowlights can soften the transition for months at a time. Glossing or toners can add a little bit of color and shine and are "not super high-maintenance," she says.
Whether you go cold turkey or incorporate other techniques, one ingredient is inescapable: patience. It takes a long time for hair color to be a thing of the past, although choosing a shorter style can speed up the process.
Lisa Fuller, a mental health therapist at Families Inc. in Searcy, represents another approach to going gray: She never colored her hair at all.
Fuller grew up "super blond," and the only time she was tempted to color her hair was when it gradually grew darker in her 20s and 30s. When she started seeing some gray in her late 30s, "that seemed good because it wasn't dark."
At 54, she now enjoys the gray streaks in the hair she wears short.
"I literally have people stop me and ask who colors my hair," Fuller says.
And she is philosophical about gray as an indicator of age.
"There's no way we can keep looking young. That's just not going to happen. That doesn't mean we have to give up. Getting old is not for the faint of heart, but it's a privilege to do it."