Excerpt: "Going Gray"

Author learns surprising lessons after letting her hair go naturally gray.

ByABC News via logo
September 11, 2007, 4:07 PM

Sept. 12, 2007 — -- The vast majority of American women dread the idea of letting their hair go gray and avoid it at great cost.

Anne Kreamer was one of those women until she turned 49 years old and decided to stop dyeing her hair and let it go gray naturally. Kreamer said the experience was eye-opening and she wrote about what she learned in a new book, "Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood and Authenticity Along the Way."

Click here to take the Fountain of Youth survey, which Kreamer says will tell you if you're a skeptic, doer, follower or preserver. You can also check out before and after pictures of women who have taken the plunge and gone gray.

You can read an excerpt of the book below.

Chapter 3: Hello? Your Roots Are Really Showing -- My Bad Hair Year

I'd made my decision to let my hair go gray, but that didn'tmean I was brave enough simply to stop coloring and go coldturkey. I'd watched my good friend, the novelist Susanna Moore,do precisely that. She'd quit her dark-brown dye jobs when theysimply became more of a hassle than they were worth. Susanna,almost six feet tall and a former model and occasional actress, hasa highly individualistic, almost theatrical style. On a day whenshe feels she looks her worst, heads turn when she walks into arestaurant or down the street. She has a kind of presence that Iwould love to have but that in a million years I could never pulloff . Characteristically, rather than cut her long hair to minimizethe unsightliness of her roots growing in, Susanna instead choseto amplify her transitional phase with a flamboyant gesture, addinga dramatic reverse-Susan Sontag streak of black into herwhitening hair. She performed a magician's sleight of hand bydrawing attention to her shocking black streak and away fromher roots. It was a bravado stroke and quite successful. Imagine abeautiful, whimsical Cruella De Vil.

I like to think I have a pretty distinctive personal style, but it'snothing like Susanna's. At 5'3", I find that my look tends towardthe quietly severe -- traditional silhouettes, never a plunging necklineor flounce, minimal jewelry, little adornment. More AudreyHepburn than Audrey Tatou. More architect than artist. My onedeviation from austerity has been my creative use of hair color.Watching Susanna let her gray grow in in such a visible wayhelped me think about how I actually wanted to feel as my hairgrew out. And thinking about that forced me to acknowledgethat while I was happy to be quitting artificial color, I wanted thetransition to be as invisible as possible to others. I realized that Iwas not comfortable drawing too much attention to myself andnever had been. I have never thought of my looks as anythingother than regular, relying instead on my competence or humorfor my self-esteem. But at the same time, like most of us, I wantedother people to find me physically appealing. I knew that havinga giant white skunk streak down my scalp as my hair grew outwasn't going to make me feel good. I was more timid than that.And since I'd always been identified with long hair, I was vainenough to refuse to cut it. So I had a problem. How exactly doesa person who's timid yet concerned about her looks handle lettingdark dye grow out? Aside from Susanna, I'd not observedanyone else doing it.

I worked with my colorist, Inge Pumberger, to manage thetransition. In my wishful thinking, I'd assumed that I could juststrip the color out. Inge convinced me that stripping would be adisaster, nearly impossible -- each inch of my hair had absorbeddiff erent degrees of tint each time I'd put in the single-processcolor, so the end result of stripping would have been a ghastly,horizontally striped, porcupine-quill effect. So to minimize thethickening band of gray that was growing in near my scalp, Ingeput in blond highlights that blended with the gray roots as theygrew. And then she put a toner over the whole thing to blur theedges between the grays and blonds even more. I began to fullyappreciate just how tricky going gray was going to be.I wasn't so sure about this transitional strategy -- I felt as if Ilooked like I was trying to go blond, not white, but I trusted Ingeto know what she was doing. I had been addicted to color for aquarter-century, and if I needed the colorist's version of Nicoretteor methadone to help liberate me, so be it.

As one of my tell-as-many-people-as-you-can-so-you-won't-back-out strategies, I offered to write about my experience forMore magazine and to be photographed during the various stagesof decolorization. When I made the proposal, I imagined photographersand stylists pampering me, treating me like "talent." Iactually fantasized that I might be "discovered" through this lark;okay, I was way too old and the wrong gender to become a late-startingBeatle, maybe, but perhaps I could get a gig as a whitehairedmodel in ads touting cruise ships or fractional-ownershipjets. ... In fact, the first shoot, when my hair had no discernibleroots, was relatively fun.

The second shoot proved to be less fun. The anticipatorymodeling fantasy had evaporated. My gray roots were visiblearound my ears and beneath the top layer of hair. This posed aserious challenge to the makeup artist -- a 6'2'' twentysomethingEthiopian and actual former fashion model -- who decided thatthe best way to reveal for the camera what minimal gray I hadwas to slick back my hair with a heavy-duty goo that smelled likeshoe polish. I hated my greasy hair but felt too insecure to suggestwe should try something different. My product-infused hairmade me look like a cheesy "before" model in some late-nightinfomercial.

I've never worn much makeup. I had had makeup professionallyapplied once before, for a corporate photo in the '90s, andhadn't much liked that experience -- the heavy foundation andmascara, combined with my dyed hair, had made me look scary,like a younger Donatella Versace. With the best of intentions, myMore makeup artist replicated that experience for me. The photographer'sfemale assistant was an equally intimidating 6' formermodel -- chic, skinny, and twenty-nine. (Hmmm, memo tomagazine: when shooting "real" women, using former models atthe shoot pretty much guarantees an anxious, self-loathing experiencefor the subject.) Happily, Hazel Hammond, the Morephoto editor, was fifty-one and in the process of letting her ownhair go gray, so we felt an instant bond -- but, like all the womenin my vicinity that day, she was very tall, slim, and stylish. At5' 3'' and around 130 pounds, I felt like a troll. I was blindsidedby how uncomfortable the experience made me feel. As I beganmy dive into authenticity, I was being professionally paintedup -- and felt authentic only in my dumpiness.

Hazel dressed me in a turquoise jewel-necked sweater, andsince I was being shot only from the waist up, I wore my oldbaggy Levi's. As I sat for my first portrait, I felt the fifteen-poundtire around my waist spill over the top of my jeans, and as I triedto suck in my gut, hardly daring to breathe, my shouldershunched and the snug sweater became sausage casing aroundevery little pooch and sag in my body. Was there ever a moreuncomfortable-seeming photo subject in the magazine's history?Worse damage to my psyche was coming. I didn't need glassesuntil my forties and have never acclimated to them, wearingthem only for driving and going to the movies. Until the photoshoot, I didn't understand that the wrinkle-free face I saw whenI looked in the mirror without my glasses wasn't how I looked toeveryone else: my mildly defective vision naturally airbrushedthe blotches, bags, and wrinkles.

When Chris Fanning, the raffish young male photographer(whom I imagined spent the rest of his time photographingSports Illustrated swimsuit models in Fiji rather than middle-agedhousewives in Brooklyn), handed me test-shot Polaroids so Icould see how I looked, I nearly burst into tears. The picturesshowed a crinkly, age-spotted middle-aged face covered withnot-so-fine perimenopausal hair. My new gray hair would be justone highly visible calling card announcing my over-the-hillness!Every single thing about me was old and unsexy.