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Silver Threads: White hair is the new black hair

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

When my husband was a youngster his mother showed him some old family pictures. “Who’s that man?” he asked, pointing to a fellow standing beside her in one of them.

“Why, it’s your father,” she said, whom he hadn’t remembered ever seeing with a full head of hair.

The Anding men lose their hair early, and the men — and women —in my family turn salt-and-pepper in their 20s. By the time I was 12, Daddy was 43, and his hair was entirely white, and I probably wouldn’t have recognized him as a brunet.

My three aunts and five uncles were in various stages of whitening by the time I was born, and back in the day you didn’t do anything about it. Dyed hair was, well, cheap and tacky and not too expertly achieved, except maybe in Hollywood.

I got to thinking about all this the other day when I read that white hair is now hot, hot, hot. People are going around with it even when their red or black or brown or blond roots are showing.

In my late 20s, I endured a process called “frosting” to keep my white roots from overtaking my head. It was often painful and so time-consuming that you wanted to scream before you broke free of the colorist’s chair.

Okay, I exaggerate. But let me describe frosting for you: First, a clear plastic, tight-fitting version of the old bathing cap was tugged over your head. It had tiny holes punched in regular rows across it. Through them the colorist pulled your hair with something resembling a crochet hook. That didn’t hurt too much until she’d taken out enough so that the hairs got crossed up under the cap and every pull smarted. If you had thick hair like mine, frosting took a long, looong time and began to feel like a series of bee stings across your head.

When she’d pulled all the hair she needed to, the colorist would slap bleach across it and cover it all up with a towel or something — and you’d sit, and sit, and sit until she pulled the cap off — more pain — and then did some other things I was always too numb at that point to remember well.

That went on until one day the salon owner told me there was no longer any point to frosting my hair. I had too much white. So I had my whole head dyed Brazil nut brown and then lightly streaked with blond, which was a much more comfortable process and sufficed for years.

But I’d always said that I’d never be an old lady with dyed hair. So when my 60th birthday arrived (and by the way, I don’t see that as old anymore), I made an appointment to go white. The dye was stripped off, what was under it was tinted a delicate blond, and my short hair grew out from there.

Having white hair has been very boring when you’ve spent years letting colorists tinker with various chemical combinations on your locks. And when in the 20 years since you opted for the natural look “old ladies with dyed hair” don’t even begin to resemble the women you remember from the 40s and 50s. They’ve come a long way, Baby, when it comes to color.

And now, it seems, the truly hip are forsaking it. White is in. Three or four of my younger friends are boasting long tendrils of gray and white, totally escaping the suffering I imposed on myself for so many years. But for the teens and 20-somethings who’ve decided to embrace the look, there may be challenging hair regimens ahead. See “white hair” on the internet and discover that theirs won’t be as care free as mine is.

Am I finally “with it,” or what?!

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]